December 03

Unreliable Narration in Songwriting

There is a song that I released a few days with a reference to a Highway 80 in Kansas.  The lyric references the experience of trying to drive home over the holidays in a flashback of sorts, with the protagonist trying to make it home in time to enjoy Christmas with his parents.  Except, there is no Highway 80 in Kansas.  The relevant highway in Kansas is actually Highway 35, which runs through Wichita.  The highway I was thinking of is actually Highway 80, but in Nebraska.  I’ve actually been through Kansas and Nebraska, quite a few times in fact, but the reference was when I was in Nebraska and and not Kansas.

I thought about changing the lyric upon learning of this error, but I decided not to.  Why?  Because unreliable narrators are part of the actual phenomenon of narration.  In this case, the narrator is recalling memories from the his past, and so the possibility of unreliable narration is already built into the premise of the song.  And as it happens, there was an unreliable narrator – it was me.

Does it improve the song to be technically correct about the interstate highway in Kansas?  I think it doesn’t.  The narrator is not super familiar with the areas, and travels through as a part of his journeying to and from California.  It’s understandable that he’d mix something like that up.  And in fact, it might be a little dishonest to correct the information based on a Google Maps search.  After all, narrators don’t necessarily have that sort of information at their fingertips, and in this case, the narrator recalls the details as memories, where the reason for the memories is more emotional than documentarian.  The content of the memories also isn’t particularly focused on accuracy.

So there you have it.  The song retains the unreliable narrator.