The Meaning Behind “It’s My Life” by Talk Talk and Why Their Music Was About Soul, Not Misery

The late Talk Talk frontman Mark Hollis loved to explore different musical styles, and his band certainly did so over the course of their five-album career between 1982 and 1991. One of their standout tracks was “It’s My Life” from their second album of the same name released in 1984. A lush, mid-tempo work of synth-pop, it exemplified their great amalgamation of elements: low-key verses, a dramatic buildup in the pre-chorus, and an angsty chorus. All wrapped up in a synthesized soundscape and a snaking bass line that made it a delightful sonic confection.

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“It’s My Life” proved to be so endearing and enduring that when No Doubt picked a song to cover for their The Singles 1992–2003 greatest hits package, it called to them. Of all the tunes they could have picked, this was the one. Not only did their poppier rendition turn out to be a big hit for them—and until then it was the only cover they had ever recorded—it renewed interest in Talk Talk’s original track.

Like some other Talk Talk songs, “It’s My Life” dealt with relationship angst. It also acknowledged a relationship marred by ambivalence and regret.

Funny how I find myself in love with you
If I could buy my reasoning, I’d pay to lose
One half won’t do

I’ve asked myself, how much do you
Commit yourself?

It’s my life, don’t you forget
It’s my life, it never ends (it never ends)

In a 1984 interview with Dutch magazine Oor, Hollis was questioned about his vocal style by an interviewer who did not quite take to the melancholy side of his musings. The singer noted “It’s My Life” begins “with the first two lines of sarcasm, then you get with a certain calmness to the bridge, then a little excited, and in the chorus I sound just very angry.” He added: “What can I say? Yes, there is a sad overtone to my voice. But even that often comes with joy. You know that feeling that if you’re happy, you can cry with happiness?”

“It’s Soul”

In an interview with Betty Page from the British music newspaper Record Mirror that same year, Hollis was asked if he enjoyed making people feel depressed, to which he replied, “I don’t think I make people feel miserable, I really don’t. I don’t think it’s about misery. … it’s soul, that’s where it all comes from. It’s sad because that’s what soul music is. You look at Otis Redding’s ‘Try a Little Tenderness’ and ‘I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,’ it’s all love, innit? It’s got to be. … I think the songs have got to be sung with feeling, so they’ve got to be written with feeling.”

Regardless of critical suspicion and derision from some, Talk Talk created a lot of refreshing and enigmatic music during their decade-long tenure, straying from their synth-pop roots into more experimental terrain on their last two albums. As far as “It’s My Life,” the song was their first to chart in numerous countries, including the UK and Belgium, where it broke the Top 50; the U.S., New Zealand, and Germany (Top 40); and France and Holland (Top 30). It was Gold-certified for UK sales.

Rethinking the Video

The video for “It’s My Life” shirked conventional modes of thinking. The original version directed by Tim Pope mocked the idea of lip-synching, intertwining footage from the BBC animal documentary Life on Earth from 1979 with shots of Hollis standing in different parts of the London Zoo, his mouth seemingly taped shut (which harkens back to an image in the original, unused video for “Talk Talk”).

The band’s label EMI did not appreciate Pope’s approach, so they asked for new material to be shot. Thus the original clip was shown on blue screen behind Hollis and the band as they performed overly dramatic and he lip-synched the song poorly on purpose. Much of the original video remained, but the intermittent new inserts seemingly assuaged the suits.

As one can glean from his interviews and the band’s varied career, Hollis acted as a contrarian to mainstream music sensibilities. But not in a fabricated way—it seems that was just who he was. Talk Talk’s music was not cookie-cutter, and it feels like any hits they had came from artistic happenstance rather than a direct personal imperative to top the charts. Whatever worked—it was his life, and their life, and we got a lot of memorable music from them.

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Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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