Rhetorical Analysis of The Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime”
Kenneth Burke’s Five Master Terms exist to bring to light the motivation behind, theoretically, any bit of text to which we care to apply them. The beauty of this Pentad is its fundamentality in regards to the motivations humans have in creating words and meaning using the tools of language available. This doesn’t just apply to long-winded theses regarding the nature of dramatistic meaning, though perhaps something like that would be more up Burke’s alley. No, in this case I plan to utilize his methods for a more seemingly mundane example, the motivations behind something as simple as song lyrics.
I say song lyrics are simple, but in this case I am going to attempt a feat of rhetorical analysis few have considered possible by analyzing the song “Once in a Lifetime” by The Talking Heads. I emphasize the difficulty of this analysis because I fear that I am about to embark on a journey to make sense out of madness; a 1984 documentary of the band’s music is entitled Stop Making Sense, for one example. For another more drastic example, songwriter David Byrne was one of the most intentionally abstract lyricists of his time; in an early episode of apparent madness, he took to the stage of his college and shaved his hair and beard in front of the faculty to the accompaniment of piano accordion and a showgirl displaying phrases in Russian. He was promptly ejected from that school. Regardless, his song “Once in a Lifetime” is symbolic of the introspective, neurotic, and post-modern approach he often uses to create his lyrical identity. Though I at first found it to be a rough fit, I believe the Pentad can be successfully applied to describe the motivation of his lyrics, and if not then I will be found on the Union Green shaving my body hair to the accompaniment of a symphony orchestra.
Burke says that one of his five terms will often rise to the surface and become a dominant force over the others in any interpretation of a text. While this could be true with “Once in a Lifetime,” I want to begin by addressing a term that is conspicuous in its apparent absence. Of all the terms, Act has the most ambiguous role in this composition, and I believe because of this that it is the most important. The song describes a theoretical situation in which a person, only ever described as the second-person “You,” is suddenly and inexplicably found in a completely ordinary situation that is nonetheless alien to him (or her). The “You” in question – quite arguably the Agent, but more on this later – is always “finding” himself in a situation, “asking” himself what is happening, and eventually “telling” himself that the situation is somehow wrong. Each verse expands upon this theme of finding, asking, and telling to determine a situation, but these are the only Acts committed by the Agent. “And you may ask yourself/How do I work this?” Byrne sings, but his fictional persona never finds...