Good storytelling involves not only what you leave in, but what you leave out. What’s left out is what makes Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe” so compulsively listenable over 45 years after it first appeared. Say what you want about “Hotel California”; part of its appeal in 1977 and to those of us who still like it today is the ambiguity of it, and the room it leaves in the story for imagination to fill in the gaps. But it’s a subtle thing, this leaving-out. Leave out too much—or fail to tell enough, so that the gaps in your story render it incomprehensible—and you let your audience down.
This is the problem with Harry Chapin’s “Taxi,” which is one of the World’s Worst Songs.
You undoubtedly know “Taxi” well: One night, a cabbie picks up a fare who turns out to be an old flame. She’s heading home to an address in a wealthy part of town. They talk, he thinks about their affair, they get to her house, and she hands him $20 for a $2.50 fare and tells him to keep the change. And he tells us: “Another man might have been angry / And another man might have been hurt / But another man never would have let her go / I stashed the bill in my shirt.”
This is the climax of the story, but there’s not enough context to tell why it’s such a big damn deal. There are no clues to the motivations of either the woman or the driver, so what each of them does ends up a mystery. And when we assign to the woman one of the two most likely motivations—she’s either being deliberately cruel to him or she’s oblivious to what she’s done—Chapin’s response, which is to take the money and go off to get stoned (instead of what—suggest they go for coffee, or ravish her right there in the back seat?), isn’t any easier to understand. There’s no reason for us to believe any particular explanation for any of this, so why bother trying?
Harry Chapin understood why his characters did what they did. (Like “Same Old Lang Syne,” another poorly-told tale, “Taxi” is supposed to be based on fact.) But when he set out to tell us, he left out too much. As a result, “Taxi” doesn’t earn its emotional payoff. We’re left wondering not what happened between the cabbie and his fare, but why we should care.