Rollin' on Empty

(Photo Illustration By Chris Meighan -- The Washington Post)
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By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 7, 2008

Dude, where's my car song?

While you were electronically adjusting your side-view mirrors or being guided by GPS or reading the external temperature gauge or something, a curious thing happened in rock: The car-song trend sputtered and lurched and finally went kaput.

According to the diagnostics, those revving automobile engines -- the inspiration for countless rock-and-roll songs, from the Cadillac-Ford race of Chuck Berry's classic "Maybellene" to Bruce Springsteen's rhapsody about "a '69 Chevy with a 396/Fuelie heads and a Hurst on the floor" in "Racing in the Street" -- have gone silent.

"They ain't writin' car songs no more," laments Paul Grushkin, author of "Rockin' Down the Highway: The Cars and People That Made Rock Roll."

"They ran their course; they did their thing," says Brian Wilson, co-author of some of rock's greatest car songs, both for Jan & Dean ("Dead Man's Curve," "Drag City") and his own group, the Beach Boys, who released enough automotive-themed tunes in the 1960s to fill their own gas-'n'-go compilation. Among them: "409," which celebrated Chevrolet's new 409-cubic-inch V-8 engine and opened with a vroom vroom.

Never mind that it was apparently a Chevy 348 making all that noise; gearheads were geeked, especially with Mike Love singing about "my four-speed dual quad posi-traction 409" as if he'd just emerged from under the car with grease all over his face.

As a genre, rock-and-roll fetishized cars and celebrated car culture from the get-go. Indeed, the ongoing debate over the starting point of rock music usually includes Ike Turner's fuzzed-out 1951 chart-topper, "Rocket 88," a paean to the Oldsmobile 88 on which Jackie Brenston (whose name was on the single instead of Turner's) sang of a "V-8 motor and this modern design/My convertible top and the gals don't mind."

A caravan of car songs followed, spanning decades, makes and models, and filling more than a few summer soundtracks, not to mention road-trip mixes.

Today, there are still automotive references in popular music, particularly in hip-hop. But they're usually brief mentions that often aren't about cars at all; instead, they're sexual metaphors ("Girl you look just like my cars; I wanna wax it," R. Kelly sings) or status signifiers ("I deserve to do these numbers/The kid that made that deserves that Maybach," Kanye West raps).

The few later-model car songs that have been released by brand-name artists aren't actually car songs at all, as with Audioslave's "Getaway Car," a 2002 album track about escaping a relationship, or Tracy Chapman's "Fast Car," a 1988 hit about a cycle of poverty and substance abuse.

Or they are about cars but aren't paeans: In Cake's "Stickshifts and Safetybelts," from 1996, John McCrea is annoyed with his vehicle, rather than in love with it, because its design seems to be conspiring against him and his female companion. Particularly those bucket seats. "When we're driving in the car," he sings, "it makes my baby seem so far."

In country music, when Craig Morgan isn't singing about his combine harvester, trucks are the vehicle of choice, often used to represent something like a companion -- a motorized horse.

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