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“Time Isn’t Holding Up, Time Isn’t After Us”

Stop Making Sense and the Enduring Legacy of Talking Heads


Last month, at the Toronto International Film Festival, A24 premiered a restoration and remaster of Stop Making Sense, a concert film featuring American New Wave band Talking Heads. Directed by Jonathan Demme and released in 1984, the film features David Byrne as the band’s lead singer, with Tina Weymouth on bass and guitar, Chris Frantz on drums, and Jerry Harrison on guitar and keyboard. It documents four concerts at Hollywood’s Pantages Theatre where the band was promoting their album Speaking in Tongues. It would be their final tour. The re-release was wildly popular; the live premiere became Imax’s most successful live event, and nearly 60% of the audience was under 35.


Why would a concert film from 1984, featuring a band that broke up in 1991, resonate so strongly with young people who weren’t even alive at the time? Perhaps the message of Talking Heads has stayed relevant, or perhaps it has become more relevant as time has gone by. Stop Making Sense was released at the height of the Reagan era, and Talking Heads’ music often reflects the common anxieties of that period of American life. Now more than ever, though, our political climate has come to resemble that of the Reagan era and those familiar anxieties have returned.


One of the most popular songs from the film is “Life During Wartime.” Released in 1979 on the album Fear in Music, the song’s speaker sings of living in a world under constant pressure from increased militarization and an authoritarian government. “Heard of a van that's loaded with weapons,” Byrne opens in the film, “Packed up and ready to go / Heard of some gravesites, out by the highway / A place where nobody knows.” Byrne sings of everyday life turned to a struggle for survival, and being forced to resort to ‘radical’ behavior just to get by: “Trouble in transit, got through the roadblock / We blended in with the crowd / We got computers, we're tapping phone lines / I know that that ain't allowed.” Living a “Life During Wartime,” there is no time for the future, and no expectation that a better one will ever arrive.


In 1979, events like the Iranian revolution and subsequent hostage crisis, or rising tensions with the Soviet Union, may have been fresh on the minds of Talking Heads. But modern life certainly feels just as much like wartime, and not just because Russia is once again a major antagonist to America, even going so far as to reignite Cold War-era nuclear worries. The existential threat of climate change, consistently a top issue for young voters, presents its own theater of combat. Cities are flooding, oceans are boiling, and nothing is being done. Byrne’s words from over 30 years ago encapsulate the nihilist view of many young people today: “Why stay in college? / Why go to night school? / Gonna be different this time… Burned all my notebooks, what good are notebooks? / They won't help me survive.”


Photo Credit: Cronenweth/A24


Economic concerns in Talking Heads’ music also resonate with modern audiences. Their hit “Once in a Lifetime,” from the 1980 album Remain in Light, reflects a feeling that the American Dream is meaningless, that attaining it is impossible, that the idealized hallmarks of said dream (“a beautiful house,” “a beautiful wife,” “a large automobile,” etc.) are materialistic and unfulfilling. The song’s chorus speaks of “water flowing underground,” symbolizing this dream that is there but beyond reach. Instead of attaining what America had promised, Byrne and his peers waste away, “letting the days go by, letting the water hold [them] down.” Yet, the song also embodies an awakening, a realization that everything has remained the “same as it ever was.” “You may ask yourself, ‘What is that beautiful house?’” Byrne sings, “You may ask yourself, ‘Where does that highway go to?’” The Reagan era saw wage stagnation and the weakening of union power that permeated throughout the following decades, but today there is a similar awakening that “Once in a Lifetime” embraces. Some of it is disillusionment: Increasing numbers of young people believe they will never own a home. But there is also increased action: Strikes and related work stoppages have hit highs in the past year not seen in decades. People are no longer content with things to continue the same as they ever are.


Even “Psycho Killer,” the band’s first hit and the opening number of Stop Making Sense, offers a message poignant both to the time of its composition and today. The singer of “Psycho Killer’”could be read as just that— a serial killer. Byrne sings in both English and French, reflecting his mania, telling the audience that they better “run, run, run, run, run, run, run away.” But Byrne relates this feeling of being seen as a “Psycho Killer” to his neurodivergency. Byrne has described himself as having “mild Aspergers,” and, in the song, expresses his feelings of being different from other people alongside his self-given label as a dangerous killer: “When I have nothing to say, my lips are sealed / Say something once, why say it again? / Psycho Killer / Qu'est-ce que c'est?... better run… away.”


“Psycho Killer” was written in the ‘70s, at the beginning of an age of great moral panic. Whether it targeted hippies, Dungeons and Dragons players, or ‘Satanists,’ there was a great disdain for those who thought and acted differently, and that disdain turned to fear—fear that these harmless groups posed some kind of existential threat. This moral panic also manifested in the media frenzy regarding America’s ‘golden age’ of serial murder. The Manson Family, the Zodiac Killer, Son of Sam, and Ted Bundy among many others were all active from the late ‘60s to the early ‘70s. Today’s politics is no stranger to this moral panic, it just has a different target—transgender people. Whether it be the hundreds of pieces of anti-trans legislation introduced in 2023, or popular right-wing media figures like Michael Knowles (Knowles spoke here at Georgetown in September and claimed at CPAC that “for the good of society… transgenderism must be eradicated from public life entirely”), anti-trans rhetoric has rapidly become openly antagonistic and borderline genocidal. In “Psycho Killer,” Byrne fears his neurodivergency will cause people absorbed in moral panic to treat him like a killer, but today it is being transgender that will elicit the same hysteria from a certain conservative subset.


In revisiting Stop Making Sense and observing its resounding popularity among a new generation, we find a striking testament to the sudden relevance of the film’s music and messages. While those who have lived through the decades between the ‘80s and today may have considered the world to have moved on, we seem to have circled back. “Look where my hand was,” Byrne sings during “Once in a Lifetime,” “Time isn't holding up, time isn't after us.” As echoes of Reagan-era fears return, so do the artists that put those fears to music in the first place.

 

Benjamin Fishbein is a Sophomore in the College studying History, Theology, and Film

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