’90s Song of the Week: Duncan Sheik’s “Barely Breathing”

I’ve come to find I may never know. Your changing mind, is it friend or foe? I rise above or sink below every time you come and go. Please don’t come and go. -Duncan Sheik, “Barely Breathing”

Oh, that hair...

Oh, that hair…

Anti-Spoiler Alert: I frickin’ love this song. “Barely Breathing” is the biggest hit off Duncan Sheik’s 1996 eponymous debut album, and the biggest pop hit of Sheik’s career. Though he never reached such heights on the pop charts again, Sheik transitioned into a career as a successful Broadway music writer. I must not be alone in my adoration of this song; it can be heard on local radio stations which play ’90s “alternative” music. If you create a Pandora Radio station built around ’90’s rock, you will hear this song – along with something by Third Eye Blind, the Gin Blossoms, and Matchbox 20 – within the first 25 minutes of pressing play. Is it OK to be a one-hit-wonder if your one hit helps define the sound of an entire era? I think it’s OK. So does Candlebox.

The song is a one-sided description of a love gone wrong. Sheik claims to know that the relationship is all but dead, and that his lover’s actions are all part of a larger scheme of manipulation. The irony and complexity comes in his ambivalence. “I could stand here waiting, fool for another day,” he says. Then, in line with the tenor of the rest of the song, “I don’t suppose it’s worth the price that I would pay.” Then finally, “But I’m thinking it over anyway.” When I was 16, I thought I understood the song, and I suppose I did. Its principles – anger, frustration, and confusion – are universal and simple enough to comprehend, especially when applied to a romantic relationship. My love for “Barely Breathing” lives on, though, because I lived through relationships like the one in the song. As I would come to learn as an adult, there’s a difference between understanding something and relating to it.

I spent the first three years of college in an on-again-off-again long distance relationship with my first love. It failed so spectacularly that to think about it all these years later is comical. How could I have been so stupid? It wasn’t worth the price I paid, but I kept thinking it over anyway. The most immediate impact that relationship had on me was ruining my chances at a successful subsequent relationship. Specifically, my three-year-long fiasco shaped the way I viewed disagreements. By the end of us, our arguments were so bitter and vicious that I would not be able to calm myself until long after I hung up the phone. The girl I was with next had her quirks, but she was great. Sadly, she never had a chance. I was a broken jerk by then.

Yeah, I'm that guy.

Yeah, I’m that guy.

I teach Heart of Darkness in all of my senior classes. It is a novel I read in a British Novel class during my senior year at LMU. My copy is the same I used all those years ago. I wrote a nickname for my college girlfriend in it with a highlighter. On the cusp of college graduation, I thought I understood Heart of Darkness, and I suppose I did. It’s a person’s retelling of a person’s retelling of an experience he doesn’t fully understand. If that’s confusing, it’s supposed to be. It’s novel’s entire aesthetic.

It’s fitting that my college girlfriend’s name should be written in Heart of Darkness. Among the novels numerous themes is the idea that humans invariably perceive the world around them through the lens of their personal experiences and resulting biases. Marlow, the novel’s protagonist, has incomplete information regarding his situation. Every conclusion he comes to is a mix of that imperfect information and his own biases. He believes he is right, but like Duncan, he may never know.

Our experiences inform our thoughts and beliefs and nearly everything about us. It is the reason the “Kitchi-Bear” and I never had a chance; I had grown too cynical as a result of my prior relationship. All of her words and actions were filtered through my lens of paranoia. I constantly suspected a hidden agenda, some kind of manipulation. This second failed relationship (almost exclusively my fault), however, would also be part of the reason Lynnette and I ultimately worked out: I realized how and why I failed and made critical adjustments.

It is also the reason, though, that pop songs become runaway hits. A song like Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” is the most generic kind of love song imaginable. There is nothing specific or detailed about the song at all. Anyone could be “I,” anyone could be “You.” Popularity comes when millions of people assign their own meaning and feelings to these songs. The “I” and “You” are filled in with specific names and all of a sudden, THIS IS OUR SONG.

If it sounds as if I am bashing this kind of songwriting, I am not. It is the most meaningful (because it is the most visceral) way to appreciate music. “Barely Breathing” has remained an iTunes staple because it is no longer just a Duncan Sheik song, it’s also a song about my first love. It’s the only way I could possibly write nearly 900 words about a pop song. What a song means is important, but never as important as what it means to me. Or you.


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