Home / Single Review: Talking Heads – “Life During Wartime”

Single Review: Talking Heads – “Life During Wartime”

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Although the jury may still be out on this, I fervently believe we are in the stifling death grip of global warming. I remember a time when summers in New York City were mostly bearable, at least until August, but this year the heat wave started in June and shows no signs of dissipating. But what really struck fear in my heart was when the neighboring borough of Queens had a blackout that lasted over a week, and started, as I recall, on a day when the temp rose to over 100 degrees. Businesses lost thousands of dollars and residents were left with no lights, no elevators, no refrigeration, and no air conditioning during a period of virtually unrelenting heat and humidity.

Somehow people survived, but I am left with a feeling of fear and dread about how the rest of the summer may play out. I spend most of my time indoors in air-conditioned comfort, and going out at all makes me feel like I’m going to collapse in a heap. The A/C, the computer, and the TV are my lifelines, and without them I would be lost. Reading, writing, thinking, and sleeping would be a thing of the past for me if the power blew out, and I’d be reduced to a miserable, animal-like condition where sheer survival would be the order of the day.

If a power outage can turn normal life upside down, the specter of another terrorist attack and how radically it might affect everyday life is even more – well — terrifying. Although New York City is mostly exempt from hurricanes, tornadoes, mudslides, and devastating floods, since 9/11 it is impossible to deny the city is vulnerable to another man-made disaster. The vision of what might be is always in the back of my consciousness. It’s the kind of realization that makes it hard for me to plan too far in advance or to take for granted things will not fall apart in the future — perhaps even the near future. And then there’s the rest of the war-torn world.

If you talk to Newt Gingrich, for example, you will find that he — and undoubtedly others — maintain that we are already in the midst of World War III. And it’s not hard to fathom that we are major players — and targets — in this horrific game.

It’s at times like these the Talking Heads’ 1979 single “Life During Wartime,” from their album Fear of Music, provides the ultimate in irony-tinged musical enjoyment. If memory serves, we were not at war with anyone back then, except perhaps ourselves if one counts the war on crime and the war on drugs. But at the time, the Heads’ irresistibly danceable song, with its famous refrain of “This ain’t no party/this ain’t no disco/this ain’t no foolin’ around” provided a quintessentially hip soundtrack at countless New York City clubs and parties during an era when the last thing on anyone’s mind was the specter of a terrorist attack. But nowadays, the Heads’ rendition of the virtual collapse of life and civilization as we know it seems all too ominous.

Taken out of context of its grim lyrics, “Life During Wartime” is an exhilarating masterpiece culled from one of the chief denizens of the sophisticated, inventive, but mostly apolitical post punk era. The relentless, adrenaline fueled beat that makes it so danceable is tempered with a cheesy, off-kilter organ riff, David Byrne’s signature whooping yet oddly deadpan vocal style, and bongos and bass which provide a funky counterpoint. But the sobering lyrics, which were once doubtless interpreted as a throwaway, tongue in cheek vignette about an improbable invasion — or perhaps the ranting of a deluded paranoid — hit much closer to home 27 years after the fact.

The lyrics describe a desperate life and death scenario in which the US has been invaded by some malevolent force — either from without or within — and the battle is raging close to home (“The sound of gunfire, off in the distance, I’m getting used to it now.”) The singer is apparently a member of a clandestine resistance movement compelled to operate incognito and at perpetual risk of being discovered (“You oughta know not to stand by the window/Someone might see you up there.”)

But what resonates most strongly with me is the Heads’ vision of how the “us versus them” dictates of war can erode individuality and culture — by compromising all the material and “frivolous” things that give our lives their essential context and meaning. Byrne depicts a scenario in which his original identity has become so materially compromised that it’s vanished altogether (“We dress like students, we dress like housewives/Or in a suit and a tie/I changed my hairstyle so many times now/I don’t know what I look like”)

Moreover, the cultural touchstones that define us have withered away, becoming superfluous, even disadvantageous (“Why stay in college? Why go to night school?… Burned all my notebooks, what good are notebooks?/They won’t help me survive.”) Even the beloved clubs that defined late ’70s New York hipsterdom have been swept away in the chaos (“This ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco/This ain’t no fooling around/This ain’t no Mudd Club or CBGB/I ain’t got time for that now”) Of course, the Heads played CBGB and Bryne frequented the ultra cool Mudd Club back in the day.

In a presciently ironic twist on current concerns about privacy issues, Byrne’s desperate protagonist finds himself on the other side of the equation (“We got computer, we’re tapping phone lines/I know that that ain’t allowed.”) In this context, the song’s unrelentingly frenetic tempo conjures up the frantic flight of a refugee in his own land (“Trouble in transit, got through the roadblock/We blended in with the crowd.”)

As a coddled American, my concern about power outages may seem laughable compared to the horrors that have overtaken other parts of the world as the result of war and its resultant chaos and oppression. But the Islamic jihad against the Western way of life is a cultural and ideological war as much as anything else — a disgust with and rejection of our unfettered expression of individuality. Totalitarian and terrorist regimes cannot tolerate the free flowering of culture — as Hitler’s war on “degenerate art” made plain. To wit, tyranny can not only destroy life, but everything that makes life worth living.

Of course, it’s easy for me to sit at my computer in air conditioned splendor and mull over lyrics to a song from a more carefree time when the specter of war in our own country could only have been perceived as a playful fantasy. In that more peaceful era, Byrne’s lament that he “ain’t got no speakers, ain’t got no headphones/Ain’t got no records to play” could be viewed as nothing more than an artful turn of phrase. Indeed, on the surface, “Life During Wartime” is still eminently danceable and joyous, but the underlying message it conveys seems deadly serious decades after the Heads’ quirky, seemingly absurd vision was brought to life.

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About Elvira Black

  • Oops, sorry–that’s zingzing, I mean…

  • zingzine:

    Ah, you’re taking me way back! It’s Obvious (as in “you’re equal but different?”) Gang of Four (I Love a Man in a Uniform, right?) I can see what you mean if that song is an example. And good old Throbbing Gristle (though Hamburger Lady is about all I remember of them). Yes, you make an excellent point. What a great era for music.

  • zingzing

    that’s true, elvira, but the blues looked at sexual politics from an angle, while plenty of new wave looks at it head on. ever heard the au pairs? “it’s obvious/diet” should be your first stop. gang of four would wrap economic policy into relationship songs. throbbing gristle made songs about rape and holocaust allusions. i guess what i’m trying to say is that politics was key to new wave, just wrapped up in metaphors… in a way, it’s far more subversive than punk ever was.

  • zingzing:

    In the context of this piece, I was referring to the more common def of political. Certainly there were elements of the political in some new wave music–Elvis Costello, XTC, the Clash, Heaven 17 and others at least occasionally addressed world affairs in their songs. But I would say that sexual politics have always been a component of popular music–the blues, for example, is steeped in it.

  • zingzing

    elvira–“new wave” is punk. it’s only revisionist history that has differentiated the two. “new wave” was the original term for punk, and what we now consider to be “new wave” is just what became popular during the post-punk era, which itself was only differentiated from punk in that it expanded punk’s original horizons (which were, let’s face it, quite limited).

    the politics of new wave, if one must, were more personal or sexual, but politics they were nonetheless.

  • Baronious:

    I’d say punk was more political than new wave (in general). I can’t think of any political angle for the B-52’s, for example, unless you count their name. But one of my favorite political songs from that era was Heaven 17’s “We Don’t Need that Fascist Groove Thing.” Remember that one?

  • Baronius

    That era’s music was very political. You call it post-punk, although I never really knew where the punk and new wave movements began or ended. We used to listen to it all. In punk, you had The Clash, The Dead Kennedys, and Fear, all of whom had political messages. The more new-wave bands like The B-52’s, The Police, Talking Heads, The Tubes, I could go on listing these all day. Man, how I miss them. Lyrically, they were all political or at least social activists.

  • Thanks Connie!

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  • Christopher:

    I know full well that you are nobody’s fool!

  • Elvira, loving music = being a fool? EEK! That means I’ve been a fool for a very long time now. Sorry!

  • Richard:

    Thanks for the great comment. I’m ashamed to say that back in ’79 and well into the eighties, I was pretty much blissfully oblivious to world events. I’d just graduated college where I co-majored in sex, drugs, and rock and roll, and keeping on top of the latest music and standing on line to see my fave bands at NY clubs were my big priorities. In short, I was a young fool, but the culture of the time was my bread and butter, and I couldn’t imagine life without my record collection. Sad but true.

    I agree completely that the warning signs have been with us for some time. I hope against hope that we can turn back the hands, but it’s hard to be optimistic right now.

  • It’s funny you think about this song like that Elvira, because back in the eighties there were quite a few of us who took it to heart. The United States was in the midst of a mass covert was against the Sandinista government, trading arms to the Iranians for money to fund the Contras in flagrent disregard of their own arms embargo.

    The us and them mentality was not about forces from outside the country, but the ones inside who were looking to change the direction of the moral tone of our lives. It was the Regan Revolution in the States, Thatcher in England, and we had our junior version of the two of them in Brian Mulroney up here.

    It was the fight to stand up for the poor and the sick who were beging to be sucked under by the tax credits for the wealthy and the cutting of social programs in those three countries. The war was between the people who paid the price for the excesses of the eighties, who had Trump tower built on their backs, and thousands of B.M.W. paid for out of their pockets.

    Of course the situation is a lot worse, but to be honest back on 9/11 2001 after I had gotten over the horror and the shock, a few days later my reaction was, I wonder why it took so long, and why did nobody see it coming? We’ed lived in such isolated splendour on our island between the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans and been on the edge of terrorsim so many times – the Air India flight that took off from Vancouver and blew up – Oklahoma City – The World Trade Centre the first time – the bomb had been ticking and we just kept burying our heads deeper and deeper into the sand.

    The clock continues to tick, but we have always had the capabiltiy to turn back the hands if we only wanted to, it’s either that or wage a needless war for who knows how many lifetimes.


    Richard Marcus