Here’s America’s problem: we forgot how to drive.
It’s an existential crisis; a decline chronicled by the history of pop music.
Begin at the end, with Olivia Rodrigo. She’s got her handful of current hits but she’s so unhappy. In Drivers License she should be celebrating the little laminated card that allows her the means to head out on the highway lookin’ for adventure. Instead she sings sadly as she rolls jilted through her suburban neighborhood. Automobiles do seem to cause her problems, as she spits out in good 4 u that her ex-baby’s riding high in some mystery car.
Ms. Rodrigo’s mistake is that she sees only a generic car, when she needs to specify the make, the model, the accessories. Is it the Beach Boys’ Little Deuce Coupe or is she In My Merry Oldsmobile from more than a century ago? It makes a big difference.
The joys of motorvatin’ over the hill
If only she could go back 70 years to the beginning of rock and roll when riding around wasn’t the point. It wasn’t even about a car, really. It was about THE car.
Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats would have her “sportin’ with me, ridin’ all around town for joy” in their Rocket 88. She wouldn’t be obsessing about her insecurities and the blonde she spots outside the whatever the heck it is she’s driving. No way. She’d be partying in what the Delta Cats tell us is a “modern design black convertible top” with a V-8 motor inside. They’d be calling on some guy named Raymond to “blow your horn, Raymond, blow your horn.”
Just a few years later than that she could be Maybelline when Chuck Berry was “motorvatin’ over the hill,” checking her out in her Coupe de Ville. Instead of getting ghosted she’d be chased by his V8 Ford.
These days we don’t know any more whether we’re allowed to love cars or whether we’re supposed to break up with them. Should we be buying a hybrid? Is a relationship possible with a plug-in? Could even a fool actually fall in love with a self-driving car? Or maybe we’re supposed to be waiting on the bullet train. Or standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona, trying to ID the Lyft or Uber that should be arriving right across the street any minute.
In 1955 Charlie Ryan’s Hot Rod Lincoln (yes that’s the original that Commander Cody covered) could have given Rodrigo a vision clear enough to risk making her daddy say “you’re gonna’ drive me to drinkin’,” just for driving that particular car, which we’d recognize in a heartbeat because Charlie gives a full description: a Model A with 12 cylinders a 4-barrel carb, dual exhaust, 4:11 gears and safety tubes.
As late as 1964 Rodrigo could be having Fun, Fun, Fun with the Beach Boys. When you know what kind of car you’re dealing with, you can still joyride even “after daddy took the T-Bird away.”
The rebellious freedom of THAT car
American popular music is a lot of things but at the leader of the pack is a driving, rebellious freedom powered not by cars or even a car, but THAT car. A little G.T.O., 409, Mustang Sally.
Something started changing in the 1970s when Janis Joplin sang Mercedes Benz. She didn’t necessarily even want to drive it. She just wanted it, apparently to impress her friends. From Germany Kraftwerk sent us Autobahn that not only wasn’t about a specific car, it wasn’t about anything. All we know is the vehicle had a radio, because after (translated from the German) “driving, driving driving, on the autobahn,” near the end of their 22 minute and 42 second cruise they turn their radio on and the song playing is … Autobahn. Are you kidding me? A musical shaggy dog story? No wonder from Australia AC/DC released Highway to Hell.
Back in America our star singers tried to keep the romance alive with favorite models and colors. Springsteen’s Pink Cadillac and Prince’s Little Red Corvette traveled the ribald road—The Boss even getting Biblical likening the Caddy with the “crushed velvet seats” to Eve’s apple, or something like that. Tracy Chapman just needed a Fast Car to get out of town and start a new life. Shania Twain didn’t care what brand she had as long as In My Car (I’ll be the Driver), because “In my car, I’m in control. In my car, I come alive.” Rihanna just wanted you to Shut Up and Drive.
Fountains of Wayne understood the power of a singular car, updating hippiedom with their ’92 Subaru that had a Greenpeace sticker, a “moon-roof so we can sit back and watch the stars, oh yes, and the GPS so I always know where you are.” Oh but that was too short-lived. In the very next song on the album they send us to the hellhole of the DMV where a license renewer “with six forms of ID” hits on Yolanda Hayes “behind window B” in a romance as unpromising as anything Olivia Rodrigo’s involved in.
Popular music used to be clear and sure of itself. It wanted to get someplace, fast. It wanted to win, it wanted to have a blast, and it knew the precise vehicle to make that happen, down to Chuck Berry’s request in No Money Down for
And power brakes
I want a powerful motor
With a jet off-take
I want air condition
I want automatic heat
And I want a full Murphy bed
In my back seat
I want short-wave radio
I want TV and a phone
You know I gotta talk to my baby
When I’m ridin’ alone.”
Olivia Rodrigo sings that she’s crying alone. But the reason for her popularity is we’re all sniffling with her through baffling, unmoored days and nights. Maybe we need our music to give us back our mojo; to tell us we should See the USA in Our Chevrolet because as Dinah Shore reminded us, “America’s the greatest land of all.”
Or maybe that’s putting the cart before the horse.