"I'm Not in Love" (And Other Musical Lies)
We humans have always loved stories. But sometimes, we’re a little too willing to get swept up in them. Case in point: history is littered with narrators who are completely, unabashedly...full of it.
Of course, the mere presence of an unreliable narrator isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Whether in literature (The Catcher in the Rye, Fight Club), film (Rashomon, A Beautiful Mind), or even television (Roseanne, How I Met Your Mother), audiences have long been taken with — and taken in by — storytellers who turn out to be less than 100% trustworthy.
And while unreliable narrators are relatively common in film and literature, they’ve also shown up in music. Here are 10 songs with stories as memorable as their protagonists are dubious.
10cc - “I’m Not in Love”
To paraphrase the Bard, me thinks the singer doth protest too much.
For the duration of this 6-minute song — which, in 1975, topped the charts in three countries — 10cc singer Eric Stewart repeatedly declares that, despite all the signs that he might be smitten, he’s “not in love.” Instead, he’s just going through “a silly phase.”
Ultimately, it’s a repeated, whispered line (fun fact: voiced by the recording studio’s secretary, Kathy Redfern) that reveals the narrator’s true feelings—
“Big boys don’t cry / Big boys don’t cry...”
Hey, Eric? They sometimes do.
Michael Jackson ft. Paul McCartney - “The Girl is Mine”
In this 1982 hit, both Jackson and McCartney claim ownership of “the doggone girl,” in a way that suggests that she’s the one who’s calling the shots. (Paul: “She told me that I’m her forever lover” / Michael: “Well, after loving me, she said she couldn’t love another.”) As the men argue about who owns the woman’s heart, they completely miss the irony that neither of them does.
Sixteen years later, singers Brandy and Monica respond with the gender-swapped “The Boy is Mine,” which tops the Billboard Hot 100 chart for 13 consecutive weeks. It turns out, audiences still love a good musical love triangle — especially when the third person seemingly can’t be reached for comment.
Nick Cave - “The Mercy Seat”
In a much darker example of the unreliable narrator, Nick Cave’s “The Mercy Seat” chronicles the dying thoughts of a prisoner who’s about to executed. The convicted criminal repeatedly proclaims his innocence, singing, “And anyway I told the truth / And I’m not afraid to die” — even as he begins to feel the heat of the electric chair on his head.
It isn’t until the bitter end that the crook seemingly comes clean, with the final line (“But I’m afraid I told a lie”) serving as a chilling, if all-too-brief, deathbed confession.
MXPX - “My Life Story”
The protagonist of “My Life Story” is that guy we all know, who shows up late, if he shows up at all. And he always — ALWAYS — comes armed with a ridiculous excuse.
The narrator’s reasons for flaking on his partner start off small (his car breaking down) before reaching cartoonish levels of implausibility (a plane crash, from which he somehow emerges unscathed).
We can’t imagine this relationship will last too much longer.
Toadies - “Possum Kingdom”
Some narrators are more obviously “unreliable” than others. While the main character of 1994’s “Possum Kingdom” couches his true intentions behind saccharine platitudes (“I will treat you well / My sweet angel”), it’s pretty clear from the get-go that he’s up to no good. (“I’m not gonna lie / I’ll not be a gentleman.”) By the song’s end, the narrative resembles a horror movie, with the main character threatening the life of his unidentified date. (Repeatedly: “Do you wanna die?”)
The Pogues ft. Kirsty MacColl - “Fairytale of New York”
After its release in 1987, “Fairytale of New York” nearly earned the coveted “Christmas #1” spot on the U.K. charts (despite being banned from the radio due to controversial language). Three decades after its release, the song remains hugely popular among those who prefer their holiday tunes bittersweet.
On the surface, “Fairytale” seems to be about a bickering couple on a Christmas holiday in New York City. But the lyrics leave a few things open to interpretation. (And, seeing as the opening lines are sung from a jail cell, there’s reason to believe the rest of the narrative takes place solely inside one man’s head).
In a 2012 interview, Pogues singer Shane MacGowan told The Guardian, “The guy is a bum who is living on the street. And he's just won on a horse at the unlikely odds of 18-to-one, so you're not even sure he is telling the truth."
Parliament - “Little Ole Country Boy”
While Parliament’s titular “country boy” claims to be a harmless teenager who doesn’t “gamble, drink, or swear,” he’s nonetheless found himself beaten and bloodied, being taken to jail in an ambulance.
So what happened? If you believe the narrator, his girlfriend “was acting fishy,” which led him to spy on her in her own home. The narrator was spotted by “another guy,” who promptly attacked him. Finally, the young woman pressed charges, accusing him of being a “peeping Tom.”
Given the unquestionably criminal actions of the narrator, we’re left to wonder whether there ever was any relationship between him and the girl. Though he may claim to be a “victim of circumstance,” it’s clear that the “little ole country boy” is far from innocent, and could easily be lying about the whole situation.
Ludo - “Lake Pontchartrain”
“Lake Pontchartrain” tells the story of three friends who take an ill-fated road trip from Missouri to Louisiana, from the perspective of the only one who makes it back alive.
As if they’re living out the script of a bad monster movie, the group first encounters strange locals, gets stranded in the woods, then makes a series of increasingly foolish decisions — ultimately resulting in two of the three being swallowed up by the sentient Lake Pontchartrain.
Of course, this is what the survivor wants us to think. But should we really believe him?
The Smiths - “Girlfriend in a Coma”
In some ways, the narrator of 1987’s “Girlfriend in a Coma” seems pretty forthright. He’s expressing a range of emotions about his comatose paramour — he doesn’t want to see her, then he does; he’s concerned about her wellbeing, while acknowledging she’s often frustrated him.
On the other hand, his choice of words is pretty morbid—
“There were times when I could have strangled her / But you know I would hate anything to happen to her.”
Ultimately, the narrator appears to be putting up a front, showing concern for his girlfriend because complaining about her would be inappropriate under the circumstances. But, because he’s honest to a fault, listeners can see right through the act.
The Human League - “Don’t You Want Me”
Still a karaoke staple, The Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me” is a classic “he said, she said” story. The couple agree on certain details — when and where they met, chief among them — but seemingly little else.
The first verse is sung by the man, who swears that he saved the woman from a life of drudgery as a cocktail waitress. In the second verse, the woman counters that she was already destined for bigger things, and the man’s presence was incidental. Regardless of where the truth lies, it’s clear this relationship just wasn’t going to work out.
“Don’t You Want Me” serves as a lasting reminder that there are two sides to every break-up. More than this, it reminds us that we all have the capability of serving as unreliable narrators in our own stories.
Of course, that doesn’t mean we’ll ever fess up to it.