8 Famous Songs Where the Singer Is Clearly Lying to Us
Some stories have unreliable narrators. That means the story tells you something happened, but if you read between the lines, they’re really telling you it didn’t happen at all. Once you learn about unreliable narrators, every story potentially becomes better. Something sounds inauthentic or just plain dumb? Maybe that never happened at all, maybe that’s the point and maybe you should pat yourself on the back for figuring that out.
Songs try their hand at this, too. The singer takes on a persona and offers simple message, but I’m convinced something else’s going on beneath the surface. To show this, I have chosen one example from each decade because I am 80 years old.
‘21 Questions,’ 50 Cent (The 2000s)
50 Cent has a series of questions about your relationship. Mostly, it’s about how tightly you’ll stick with him (if he goes broke, if he’s arrested), and he also has a few scattered queries about stuff you like. The questions continue for a few verses, with each question getting one or two lines. Then, at the end, he asks this:
If I was with some other chick and someone happened to see
And when you asked me about it I said it wasn't me
Would you believe me, or up and leave me?
How deep is our bond if that’s all it takes for you to be gone?
It’s an unusual length of time to spend on this one question (or is it two questions?) compared with the rest of the song. And then, he abandons the question format and continues talking about this one situation:
We only humans, girl, we make mistakes
To make it up, I’ll do whatever it take
I love you like a fat kid love cake
You know my style, I say anything to make you smile
Now’s when we realize the truth. This last situation isn’t imaginary, like the others he asks about. Someone really did spot him cheating, and he’s trying to gauge what his girl’s response will be when she finds out. And when we note how long he spends on this, we realize this is his only genuine question. Nothing up to this point mattered — he was just asking those other questions to ease her into the Q&A session, so she doesn’t feel suspicious on hearing the one question he really wants to ask.
Despite his ruse, she does feel suspicious, and so, those final four lines are what he says after she figures out he’s not just asking another hypothetical and really did cheat. It's a good joke, if anyone caught it. As evidence that people didn’t catch it, check out this “response” song, titled “21 Answers”:
Lil’ Mo answers the questions (“yes, I’d stick with you,” mostly), then gives up after one verse, before the gimmick gets old. A more apt response song would answer this same way but then would hit that final question. We’d hear a record scratch, and the music would stop. “What?” she’d say, dropping all meter and just talking. “You mean that’s what all this was really about? No, no, nice try. You are OUT of here.” Sound of a door slamming.
‘Sorry,’ Justin Bieber (The 2010s)
Yeah, is it too late now to say sorry?
Cause I'm missing more than just your body
So sings Justin Bieber. But this is what is known as a suspiciously specific denial. You had no reason to assume he missed only your body up to this point, but now that he goes out of his way to protest too much, you realize that’s exactly the only part of you he misses.
I'm not just tryna get you back on me
Cause I'm missing more than just your body
He feels the need to make this claim again. This removes all doubt: He only wants sex, and if he’s saying anything else, he’s lying.
Do the remaining lyrics support this interpretation? To find out, we’d need to actually listen to the verses. I leave that task to you.
‘Different Drum,’ Stone Poneys (The 1970s)
Every denial sounds suspiciously specific to the paranoid mind. Consider Linda Ronstadt’s “Different Drum.” You’ve heard this song in the background of many movies and TV shows, labeling the characters as happy bohemians. That placement is based largely on the opening line, “You and I travel to the beat of a different drum” because the remainder of the song isn’t too happy.
If it aimed to make sense, the opening line should have been, “You and I travel to the beat of different drums.” It’s about two people out of sync: He wants a steady relationship, and she doesn’t.
In one line, whose many syllables prove that the song really does travel to the beat of a different drum, she lays out just why she can’t be with him:
I ain’t sayin’ you ain’t pretty, all I’m saying's I’m not ready
For any person, place or thing to try and pull the reins in on me
Hold up. She’s not saying I ain’t pretty? I was never worried about this before, but now that she goes out of her way to mention that objection, I fear she does think I’m not pretty and is lying about it. Preceding that line is another denial:
Don't get me wrong, it's not that I knock it
It's just that I am not in the market
For a boy who wants to love only me
She’s saying she’s not knocking on relationships in general (I think), she’s just not into monogamy. But in real life, whenever someone says “don’t get me wrong,” that means they are about to tell you a prepared lie. Here, the lie is her excuse for breaking off. The truth is, she thinks I ain’t pretty.
If “pretty” seems an odd choice of words to describe a man, know that the song was originally to be sung by a man addressing a woman. Michael Nesmith, best known as part of The Monkees, wrote the song, and the earliest recording of it is him joke-singing it on an episode of the band’s TV show.
This performance stumbles on the “don’t get me wrong” part and skips right past “I ain’t saying.” My theory: When sung comically like here, it becomes more obvious that those lines are lies. He had to skip those parts because being obviously evasive would detract from the main joke of the scene (that he’s singing the song poorly).
‘I Get Around,’ The Beach Boys (The 1960s)
Despite the title, the verses of this song by The Beach Boys are all about how the singer doesn’t get around.
I'm getting bugged driving up and down the same old strip
I gotta find a new place where the kids are hip
Those aren’t the words of someone who gets around. That’s someone who wants to get around but is stuck right here.
My buddies and me are getting’ real well known
Yeah, the bad guys know us and they leave us alone
Okay, the Beach Boys are right to boast about what gangsters they are, but if they’re well known in the area, that points even more to someone established in one place, not someone who goes from town to town. Clearly, these guys don’t get around geographically at all. So, maybe they’re instead saying they get around... sexually?
We always take my car, cause it’s never been beat
And we've never missed yet with the girls we meet
None of the guys go steady, cause it wouldn’t be right
To leave their best girl home now on Saturday night
That’s exactly what they’re saying. The emphasis in the chorus on going “town to town” is pure smokescreen. These guys aren’t ready for any person, place or thing to try and pull the reins in on them. And they carry enough weaponry that all local gangs fear them. Why weren’t parents in the 1960s fainting with horror when their kids listened the Beach Boys? It was because the band looked like this, wasn’t it?:
Incidentally, the song opened with a different verse originally, but Mike Love said, “Those are pussy lyrics” and insisted on something stronger.
‘The Loco-Motion,’ Little Eva / Kylie Minogue (The 1980s)
While many songs in the 1960s were about cars and women, a bunch of others were about dances. We had “The Twist,” we had “The Bristol Stomp,” we had “Mashed Potato Time,” and they were all about actual dances — dances that predated the song, dances that were created by people other than the songwriter. We also got “The Loco-Motion.”
There was no dance called the Loco-Motion when the song “The Loco-Motion” came out. When people heard the line “Everybody’s doin’ a brand new dance, now,” they thought singer Little Eva was telling the truth, because that’s how songs about dances worked back then. A story spread that Eva had invented the dance while babysitting for Carole King and the song came afterward, but that wasn’t true. There was no dance (other than whatever random moves she later made up while performing the song).
The lyrics do offer dance moves. Here’s what they say:
You gotta swing your hips, now
Jump up, jump back
But those aren’t really dance moves. Those are generic descriptions of the basic concept of dance. Then the song offers more suggestions, and these are even more empty.
Move around the floor in a loco-motion
Do it holding hands if you get the notion
If a dance has set moves, either you must hold hands or not hold hands. You can’t choose. And “move around the floor in a loco-motion”? This is when it hits you that “locomotion” is the default word for movement in general. This is like if I wrote a song called “Everybody, Do the Traverse-Some-Space-with-Your-Body.” Except it’s a much better joke than that, because the phrase they chose is more concise, more catchy and yet still manages to be an even more generic descriptor.
The song was making fun of all those 1960s dance crazes by singing about an imaginary one. Then, some 25 years later, we got this cover version by Kylie Minogue:
People missed the joke the first time around, and this time, they stood no chance of catching it. There no longer was any trend of songs about existing teen dances, so the song no longer could be making fun of anything.
‘Music Sounds Better With You,’ Stardust (The 1990s)
Ooh baby, I feel like the music sounds better with you
Love might bring us both together, I feel so good
Those are the lyrics to the 1998 song “Music Sounds Better With You,” by the French group Stardust. Those are not a few lyrics that I picked out. Those are all of them. The entire song consists of this single refrain, repeated 11 times.
Anytime someone feels to need to repeat something so many times, they’re struggling to convince us (or themselves) it’s true. Evidently, by song’s end, love is no closer to bringing us both together. That is why the French group Stardust was never heard from again.
‘Wake Up Little Susie,’ The Everly Brothers (The 1950s)
In this song, the singer and his girlfriend fall asleep watching a movie and wake up hours later. They’re at the drive-in, presumably, as ushers would expel them from any indoor theater, and Netflix was too expensive at the time for watching movies at home. Now, a judgmental public will conclude this guy and Susie had sex, and our heroes are dreading having to face everyone.
The singer and Susie did not actually have sex. If I suggest they did, that would be me missing the joke, missing it even harder than the radio stations who refused to play this scandalous song. Except, as part of that joke, the song offers this to us:
Well, I told your mama that you'd be in by ten
Well, Susie, baby looks like we goofed again
Again?! What previous goofs did these two stumble into? The song doesn’t say, which means the singer is withholding some information from us. What other information is he withholding?
Consider how, when teens headed to the drive-in, if they were thinking of hanky-panky, they didn't need to stay out till four o’clock. They could do all they wanted to do in the car during the movie itself. This was the appeal of the drive-in. We know this one had no attendant keeping an eye on patrons, since no one knocked on their window to wake them up after the credits rolled. So, what if he and Susie did have sex after all — and then they fell asleep, while the boring movie played? Now, he must face her accusing parents, who conclude they had sex since they stayed out so late. The parents will reach the right conclusion but for the wrong reason.
That’s truly ironic. Even more ironic than the 1996 song “Ironic,” which I won’t dissect in this article because its lyrics are all sincere. They’re said without a trace of irony.
‘All Too Well,’ Taylor Swift (The 2020s)
This song first appeared on a 2012 album, but it was 2021 when an expanded 10-minute version became the lengthiest number one song in history. It was also 2021 when one lyric from the song became a meme:
I left my scarf there at your sister's house
And you've still got it in your drawer even now
Fans tried to use this scarf and this sister to figure out exactly which real relationship this song was about. Fans do something similar with every Taylor Swift song, which can do the songs a disservice. Sometimes, singers tell stories that aren’t one-to-one recreations of their own lives, and even this most autobiographical song had a co-writer in addition to Taylor Swift.
That scarf comes back, late in the song:
Now you mail back my things and I walk home alone
But you keep my old scarf from that very first week
Cause it reminds you of innocence and it smells like me
You can't get rid of it
Except, she has no way of knowing whether the scarf still smells like her. She has no way of knowing that he kept it, that’s it’s in his drawer, rather than that he mislaid it or threw it away. Since they’re no longer meeting face-to-face (he posted her other things instead of handing them to her), she has no access to the home at all, unless she broke in when he was out. Plus, even if she knows he has the scarf and she knows its smell, she can’t know why he’s keeping it.
She is not an omniscient narrator. She’s just recounting her experience and perspective. With this line, she has to just be inventing a motive. So, what else is she inventing?
All songs about breakups are unreliable. Whether it’s Miley Cyrus saying she can buy herself flowers, or the Statler Brothers saying they’re fine counting flowers on the wall, or this other country singer saying mowing the lawn is a fine substitute for a relationship (any song about vegetation really), we’re always listening to the heartbroken singer lying to themselves. That is the point of the songs.
That’s true to real life, in which people lie about their relationships even more. So, if you’ve heard anyone saying anything, don’t believe it. And if you do believe it, to make it up I’ll do whatever it takes. You know my style, I say anything to make you smile.