“Once in a lifetime”. A self-defeating pop song

by Matteo Tiratelli

Despite its critical acclaim “Once in a Lifetime” has always seemed to me to be strangely half-hearted. Instead of revealing the anxiety and pain of our search for meaning, it rests in a limbo of anaesthetised bliss. This failing can be best revealed through thinking about our immediate relationship with art and the ways in which music can either present us with a world or try to reconfigure the world around us.

When thinking about music it is important to work out what the right questions to ask are. We often assume that we should begin by asking what it means or what it is about. But as Heidegger points out, this misses our primary encounter art: as a part of our everyday world. The most important question to ask is what art does? What work the artwork is doing and what role it plays? When we encounter music in our everyday existence we have an immediate relationship with it which is clearly not the product of long reflection on what it means. We dance to music; we use it at weddings, funerals and football matches; we are continually saturated with music from radios, tvs and stereos. These are the immediate ways we experience music and it is here that music does its most important work: each piece of music opens up a world. It presents us with and exemplifies the intricate set of ideas, symbols and values which make up our cultural world. It “gives to things their look and to men their outlook on themselves”. However, music and art can do more than simply manifest and articulate the world that the artist finds themselves in. Art can be used to reconfigure that world. We would surely expect a song which begins with an existential crisis and a critique of the superficial ways in which we define ourselves (“this is not my beautiful house/this is not my beautiful wife”) to do precisely this?

This however is the main failing of “once in a lifetime”. For all its desperate and confused cries, it never moves beyond the values and meanings which precipitated this crisis. The anxiety of the opening verse is totally undermined by the comforting cocoon of the music and the accompanying image of the water. In fact the crisis seems to be sunk beneath the prettiness of melody, cushioned by the soft water “flowing all around”. Byrne even seems to encourage us to “let the days go by, let the water hold me down” as he submerges us in the blissful blue. In fact by asserting that “once in a lifetime… You may ask yourself”, he seems to so firmly embed the crisis in a lifestyle of large automobiles and beautiful houses that any reconfiguring is impossible. This once in a lifetime reaction is not the start of a profound change in our understanding but a momentary, passing sense of vertigo. It is almost a lifestyle choice, something that does not unsettle the world which precipitates it. He never moves beyond that world and paints this crisis in such a beautifying light that it loses any sense of urgency and anxiety (themes which thrived in the paranoia of earlier Talking Heads’ albums).

It may be that Byrne never wanted to reconfigure those values he seems to be criticising. He might even have only been trying to describe the inevitable surrender of youthful ideals in the face of the need for conventional success in the “real world”. But, what he meant is not the real issue. What matters is that the work done by this song is strangely self-defeating. By not trying to reconfiguring the world the Byrne sees around him, the pain of the existential crisis is numbed, leaving the song in a sort of limbo. It is a beautiful song but it presents an existential crisis and search for life’s meaning which is totally toothless. There is no sense of desperation precisely because the values which we start from are never really confronted. It is an existential crisis which is not in any way challenging or painful, which is easy to swallow, and this makes it somewhat unconvincing. This failure to reconfigure those values lies at the heart of my problem with the song. I have always thought that it was a great pop song but I never believed that it deserved the accolades heaped on it. It might be about the secret of life, but it does not get close to revealing it.

Postscript

If anyone is interested in the aesthetic ideas of Heidegger then it might be worth expanding on a few points. Firstly, he is not advocating a “sociological” or “anthropological” approach to art where we investigate its role in life from such a scientific standpoint. He is reacting against traditional aesthetics which begins with a subject-object relationship where the artwork is the object of a reflective relationship. This might be applicable to art confronted in a gallery but it misses the practical and emotional relationship we have with art. As with most of his philosophy he is trying to move beyond this reflective, subject-object position and understand our more immediate relationship with things. This allows him to shift focus away from questions such as “what does Swan’s Way mean?”, and look at the work done by art.

Secondly, when he says that art opens up a world, this should not be interpreted in a narrow moral sense, or as advocating criticising art in terms of the political message it carries. The work done by art is ontological. It is a part of the process of clearing and unconcealment in which Heidegger sees the “happening of truth”. Unconcealment is the process through which we establish what kind of facts there are, and therefore comes before truth as correspondence between our propositions and how the world is. Each world has a different horizon of concealment, a different clearing in which we can establish facts, and art plays a crucial role in creating this clearing. That is why he talks about the Greeks seeing their world in the light of their art. For this same reason art can “stop working”, when it stops doing this ontological work. For example, the ruins of a Greek temple or a totem pole stuck in a New York museum will no longer be connected to the world it has opened up and so will no longer “work”.

(I have left most of Heidegger’s terminology intact here so as not to get too bogged down in interpretation and to allow a more sweeping overview of a complex topic).

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