There’s a reason that carmakers emphasize audio systems so much in their sales pitches: car music is an important soundtrack in many people’s lives.
Similarly, songs about cars are more than just tunes to drive to—they’re about hopes and dreams, with roads as metaphors for where people have come from and where they’re going.
Car songs often express longing, and while fans are longing for the new, tuned-up Top Gear to begin on Monday, May 30 at 9/8c on BBC AMERICA, Anglophenia thought it might be a good time to spin some car tunes during the final stretch of anticipation for the new season.
Still, most car songs aren’t really about cars as much as they are about love and sex –especially about sex. For songwriters, cars can serve as metaphors, and car parts as suggestive double entendres, meant for much more than just making sure that cars drive on the road.
Bruce Springsteen – “Pink Cadillac”
“I love you for your pink Cadillac, crushed velvet seats/Riding in the back, oozing down the street.” And your car’s pretty nice, too. When Springsteen performed this song in the 1980s, he told audiences: “This is a song about the conflict between worldly things and spiritual health, between desires of the flesh and spiritual ecstasy.”
The Beatles – “Drive My Car”
“Baby, you can drive my car” is the now-famous offer the girl makes to the song’s narrator. But it turns out she doesn’t even have a car. Still, it’s not the kind of bait-and-switch one might find from a used car dealer. “I’ve found a driver and that’s a start,” she says.
Rihanna – “Shut Up and Drive”
Like “Drive My Car,” Rihanna’s song is about a woman looking for a guy to drive her around, or as she puts it: “I’m looking for a driver who’s qualified.” Other points she wants prospective chauffeurs to know: she’s “a fine-tuned supersonic speed machine” and her “engine’s ready to explode, explode, explode.”
Billy ‘The Kid’ Emerson – “Every Woman I Know”
Singer/songwriter/minister William Emerson’s 1956 rhythm-and-blues song presents cars as the ultimate aphrodisiac. “She can play with your keys/ She can shift your gears/Turn on your radio/Just loud enough to hear.” But without wheels, no woman would ever be interested, the song laments.
ZZ Top – “She Loves My Automobile”
In fact, she probably doesn’t even care that much about the guy. “She don’t love me, she love my automobile,” says ZZ Top in this 1979 song, adding, “Well, she would do anything just to slide behind the wheel.” But she appears to be into car ownership for the long term: “Well, she don’t care if I’m stoned or sloppy drunk/Long as she got the keys and there’s a spare wheel in her trunk.”
Billy Murray – “In My Merry Oldsmobile”
This 1903 novelty song, written by Gus Edwards, had remarkably long span of popularity, perhaps the result of its infectious melody and its use by the carmaker Oldsmobile for decades. It was popular in cartoons and on TV, and Bing Crosby even sang it in a movie. Despite its early vintage, the song still links cars and sex: the song’s final line is: “You can go as far as you like with me/In my merry Oldsmobile.”
R. Kelly – “Ignition (Remix)”
This isn’t the first time the R&B playboy compared a woman to a vehicle. In “You Remind Me of Something,” he likened his comely lover to a Jeep. He aims higher in “Ignition (Remix),” in which he sings to his lady, “[You] remind me of my Lexus coup/That’s why I’m all up in yo grill.” Cringe. Still, the insistent groove, which never fails to fill a dance floor, distracts you from any clumsy metaphors.
Arcade Fire – “Keep the Car Running”
This mandolin-tinged track from the Grammy-winning Canadian collective captures the paranoia and dislocation of living a life in flight, bringing to mind Bruce Springsteen’s most desperate road songs. “I don’t know why, but I know I can’t stay,” sings frontman Win Butler.
Lucinda Williams – “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road”
A gifted songwriter, Lucinda Williams creates a palpable sense of place with the lyrics to this 1997 track. From the childhood details of the sound of a screen door slamming shut to the grown-up’s threat “When I get back this room better be picked up,” “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” plops you right in the middle of a country-fried American South panorama.
Hamish Imlach – “The Clapped Out Motor Car”
This idiosyncratic folk song by Scottish singer Hamish Imlach tells how poor farmer Hugh struck out with local lassies until he bought a “clapped out” (broken-down) car. Then, his fortunes changed: “It was rusted it was busted/This old car wouldn’t travel far/But it’s true that Farmer Hugh/Had many a ride in that old car.” The end of the song details an “accident” that’s not automotive in nature.
Shania Twain – “In My Car (I’ll Be the Driver)”
“You can choose the channel when we’re watching TV,” the singer of this song concedes. “You can put a hole in my shoe.” (Ouch!) But things are completely different when it comes to getting behind the wheel: “I’ll be the driver in my car. I’m in control.” That’s one way of negotiating boundaries in a relationship.
Growling Tiger – “Motor Car Horn”
This calypso song by Trinidadian singer/songwriter (and former boxer) Neville Marcano, known as “Growling Tiger,” uses automotive double entendre to heartbreaking effect. The singer describes the pain of watching his lover’s infidelity.
“I don’t mind they carrying on, but what I can’t take is the way he blows the motorcar horn,” is the song’s sad refrain.
Prince – “Little Red Corvette”
This song is, of course, heartbreaking for another reason we’re all aware of. But Prince’s comparison of his love but to a little red Corvette has worked its way into the consciousness of millions of his fans.
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