By Richard Lee
The future David Byrne envisioned in the Talking Heads’ 1979 song “Life During Wartime” seems very real today amid the coronavirus pandemic.
As Jim Beviglia wrote in American Songwriter:
“The urgency and immediacy of the band’s performance suggests that we are never very far from having to navigate our way with caution through streets that were once familiar; to reconsider the motivations of even our most familiar acquaintances; to literally run for our lives.”
The lyrics contain references to guerilla warfare, gunfire and clandestine travel, but they also touch upon topics familiar to us today, such as:
- I got some groceries, some peanut butter, to last a couple of days.
- This ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco, this ain’t no fooling around.
- I sleep in the daytime, I work in the nighttime, I might not ever get home.
Songs sometimes take on new meanings after they are written and recorded. Bruce Springsteen’s “My City in Ruins” is a good example. Springsteen wrote the song in 2000 about Asbury Park, but it took on new meaning after the 9/11 attacks. Likewise, Elton John and Bernie Taupin collaborated on “Candle in the Wind” in honor of Marilyn Monroe, but it was rewritten years later as a tribute to Princess Diana.
“Life During Wartime” follows this pattern. According to Beviglia, Byrne wrote the song about the savvy and survival instincts needed to survive in urban life. Forty-plus years later, Byrne’s own words about the song, in a 1979 interview with New Music Express (as quoted on Songfacts), paint a picture of life during 2020’s wartime:
“There will be chronic food shortages and gas shortages and people will live in hovels. Paradoxically, they’ll be surrounded by computers the size of wrist watches. Calculators will be cheap. It’ll be as easy to hook up your computer with a central television bank as it is to get the week’s groceries. I think we’ll be cushioned by amazing technological development and sitting on Salvation Army furniture. Everything else will be crumbling. Government surveillance becomes inevitable because there’s this dilemma when you have an increase in information storage. A lot of it is for your convenience – but as more information gets on file it’s bound to be misused.”
Richard Lee, executive director of the Jandoli Institute, is a former music journalist who often writes about the intersection of music and current events.