Tales of the unexpected

For decades, the lyrics of the sublime Talking Heads song Heaven have been a subject of intense debate among fans of the band. The refrain “Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens” seems to suggest one meaning but the lines “When this kiss is over it will start again/It will not be any different/It will be exactly the same” take it somewhere else. Finally, the thought “It’s hard to imagine that nothing at all could be so exciting, could be so much fun” muddies the waters still further.

Among the many interpretations of this oblique masterpiece, one of the most popular views is that it’s a lament on David Byrne’s hectic life at the time and his desire for a break, an empty schedule, the chance to go away for a while and totally chill out. Drummer Chris Frantz seems to confirm this perspective in his sleevenotes for the Talking Heads compilation album Sand In The Vaseline: “Sometimes rock stars get over-stimulated and the idea of a place where nothing ever happens sounds pretty appealing.”

However, another popular view of the song – one that rings true for me – is that Byrne is saying that ‘Heaven’ is an illusion created by us to try and add meaning to our lives, but true meaning comes from having a finite existence; Heaven is boredom, dull nothingness, not all that…and that the interesting stuff is happening right here – the true buzz is living in the now.

Is Talking Heads’ ‘Heaven’ perfection or monotony? Who knows for sure, but I think one of the most interesting things about it is that people are even asking that question. That it’s a ‘pop’ song but also a kind of philosophical treatise. It moves me in a way I don’t quite understand and plays to my love of things that do something different or unexpected for their genre.

As another example, back in 1999, many viewers turned on The Sopranos expecting standard gangster fare, but soon got sucked into a deeply Shakespearean drama the likes of which had not been seen on television up until that point. It was less of a quick-hit telly show and more a mash-up of King Lear and Hamlet transported to New Jersey. Similarly, you might have expected The Streets’ 2004 album A Grand Don’t Come For Free to be another album of tuneful beats and deadbeat raps. But in fact it was turned out to be a poignant morality play in musical form. Some people might have bought a ticket for the film Under The Skin expecting a standard Scarlett Johansson movie; anyone who’s seen it would probably agree it’s far stranger and darker than that. And anyone who picked up Watchmen because they were a casual fan of superhero comics or graphic novels wouldn’t have been anywhere near prepared for the existential mindquake they would have experienced on reading it.

This might seem extremely obvious and ‘do something different’ sounds like such a cliché. But doing something not usually done in a genre feels like such a simple way to stand out. And in advertising, it’s used way too rarely. Most car ads look like car ads, most make-up ads are basically interchangeable and almost all beer ads are playing in the same area, tonally. The media gets set beforehand, the ad agency fils in the boxes, the work ends up being wallpaper. Which is why I love the mesmerisingly unique Ikea beds ad, the fact that Nike Fuelband is a training aid not an ad and that when briefed to do an ad campaign for a life insurance company, a Korean agency did this.


About antmelder
Executive Creative Director at Host/Havas Sydney; passionate vegetarian; lover of books, boxing and Bruce Springsteen.

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