This breakup song was a surprise breaththrough hit for alt-rock singer-songwriter Duncan Sheik, who accompanied artists like Lisa Loeb and His Boy Elroy before releasing his self-titled debut in 1996. Not only did the track peak at #16 on the Billboard Hot 100, but it stayed on the chart for a record 55 consecutive weeks. It also hit #2 on the Adult Top 40, #10 on the Mainstream Top 40 and #19 on the Adult Contemporary charts.
Sheik is singing from the perspective of a guy who has finally woken up and realized his girlfriend's manipulative displays of emotion do not equal love. He berates himself for being so naive ("Well it must have been that yesterday was the day that I was born") but knows he has to leave before he suffocates:
'Cause I am barely breathing And I can't find the air I don't know who I'm kidding Imagining you care
This won a BMI award as the Most Played Song of the Year in 1997.
With this song, Sheik earned a Grammy nomination for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance but lost to Elton John for "Candle In The Wind 1997."
Sheik has enjoyed a long and productive career in music, but this song is his only hit - his only other chart appearance is the aptly titled "Wishful Thinking," which bubbled under at #103 in 1998 (the song was written for the soundtrack of the film Great Expectations).
Measured by length of stay on the Hot 100, the 55-week run of "Barely Breathing" makes Sheik the biggest one-hit wonder of all time. Runner-up is Dishwalla, who around the same time spent 48 weeks on the chart with "Counting Blue Cars."
Even Duncan Sheik got sick of this song. In his Songfacts interview, he said, "It was a good thing as far as my business manager was concerned, but for me, I was in the state of like, 'Can we please go on to the next single now?' Really. I was like, 'Can I go record a new record now and go on with my life?' Which of course I did."
This has been featured on the TV series Party of Five ("Spring Breaks: Pt 1 and 2"), Cold Case ("The Good Death") and Girls ("Bad Friend").
In the Girls episode, the character Marnie takes up with a conceptual artist who puts her in his latest work: and installation of TV monitors that blare hideous sounds and images while "Barely Breathing" plays. What does Sheik think of his song being used in a piece of torture art? He's fine with it. In fact, he can relate. "There are times when I've performed that song that I feel like I'm in that torture chamber," he told Gothamist. "Having to play that song, I've had that emotional state, so it works for me on a totally personal level."
Music video director Thom Oliphant, who at the time was mainly known for his work with country artists like the Dixie Chicks, was brought in to direct the clip. "He made such a folksy record in a way that I think the label thought, 'Well, let's get a country guy who can straddle the fence and talk to this guy.' The super pop directors weren't right and the hip-hop guys weren't right. I think hip-hop was just exploding at that time, so they were the ones getting all the budgets and all the visibility," Oliphant reasoned in a Songfacts interview.
He shot the video at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, which was undergoing renovations after a long period of abandonment. He explained: "A lot of it was found spaces. I worked with an English cinematographer named Peter Selesnick... He was a big fan of 1960s color work, so that's where the cross process color treatments came from."
Glee's Cory Monteith and Darren Criss performed this on the Season 4 episode "The Break-Up."