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GM Has Gone Bust, but Its Cars Dominate the American Pop Culture Landscape

A look back at 60 years of General Motors cars and trucks shows when the automaker got it right -- and when it didn't.

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By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 2, 2009

No company -- or at least no company's products -- has been as celebrated in American popular culture as General Motors. For generations, GM vehicles have inspired artistic metaphors of freedom, speed, youth, romance, power, sex. As a billboard in Chevrolet's home town of Warren, Mich., once succinctly put it, "No one writes songs about Volvos."

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As such, it's probably safe to say that General Motors' bankruptcy filing yesterday will do little to damage the image burnished by movies, TV shows and, especially, popular music. The company's cars and trucks are far too ingrained in the popular imagination, if no longer in American buying habits, to fade away like a shuttered assembly plant.

More than the bankrupt Chrysler or even Ford, GM's cars have been instant signifiers of status, and attitude, not just on the road but on TV and in the movies. It's a measure of how well General Motors' marketing defined each of its brands that a mere flash of one of its models -- say, a souped-up GTO or a torpid Chevy Chevette -- could establish a character's personality and likely fate.

Heroes (and admirable anti-heroes), for example, tend to drive muscle cars. Burt Reynolds telegraphed his good ol' boy bona fides by driving a hell-raisin' black Pontiac Trans Am (with gold firebird hood decal) in the "Smokey and the Bandit" movies. A few years later, a high-tech version of the same muscle car conveyed crusading crime-fighter Michael Knight (David Hasselhoff) to the scene in "Knight Rider." The Trans Am's cousin, the Chevrolet Camaro, got the nod in the 2007 blockbuster "Transformers." In the 1960s TV series "Route 66" -- about the romantic and adventurous possibilities of the open road -- the two young protagonists took to the highway in an iconic Corvette convertible.

Rock music has been inseparable from cars since rock-and-roll's embryonic days. Some pop historians credit "Rocket 88" -- written by Ike Turner in 1951 as an ode to GM's powerful Oldsmobile Model 88 -- as the first recording of the rock era.

The nexus between cars and rock is probably the genre's strongest thematic association, perhaps ranking behind only sex and romance. It's more than a coincidence that the development of rock and "car culture" took off at the same time, says Paul Grushkin, the author of "Rockin' Down the Highway: The Cars and People that Made Rock Roll."

Following World War II, rising household prosperity, the growth of suburbs and superhighways, and a growing youth population all converged with the no-limits spirit of the car industry, Grushkin says. "People look back on the cars of that time and can't believe how audacious it was that you would drive something like [those cars] down the street," he says. "You had unlimited horsepower. We'll never see that again."

And thus came a burst of "teen" car songs from the likes of Jan and Dean and the Beach Boys. Baby boomer Bruce Springsteen idealized domestic-made cars, along with youth, in many songs, including "Thunder Road" and "Racing in the Streets," which venerates a particularly tricked-up domestic ride: "I got a '69 Chevy with a 396, fuelie heads and a Hurst on the floor." (It's notable that a rare Springsteen reference to a foreign make is a teasing one; in "Pink Cadillac," he sings, "But my love is bigger than a Honda/It's bigger than a Subaru.")

Prince's "Little Red Corvette" proved so popular that Chevy's ad agency, Campbell-Ewald, used it in a Corvette ad campaign in 2002. No matter that Prince wasn't really singing about a $50,000 muscle car and that the commercial sanitized his sexualized intent ("Little red Corvette, baby you're much too fast"). As Bill Ludwig, the agency's chief creative officer, explained in an interview with AutoWorld: "Frankly, no other brand has inspired popular culture as Chevy has. The Corvette and rock 'n' roll were both born in America 50 years ago. Coincidence? I think not."

He might get some argument about that from GM's Cadillac division, which has inspired countless musical tributes as a symbol of luxury and excessiveness during the same period, starting with Buddy Holly on "Not Fade Away:" "My love is bigger than a Cadillac/I try to show it and you drive me back."

Black artists share a special history with the Cadillac, which for decades was the status symbol in segregated African American communities. An early R&B group was named the Fabulous Cadillacs to suggest its high-class intentions. Aretha Franklin had a 1980s hit called "Freeway of Love" that, like Springsteen, referenced a pink Cadillac. And rock pioneer Chuck Berry long ago sang: "As I was motivatin' over the hill/I saw Maybellene in a Coupe de Ville/Cadillac rollin' on an open road/Nothin' will outrun my V8 Ford."

References to Caddys abound in hip-hop (Nelly, on the song "E.I.": "Then I slide up in the Escalade/Me and E gettin' solid like the Ice Capades"), owing to the near-mythic status of the make among rappers. In fact, rap's fetishizing of the Cadillac may have helped bring the brand back from the brink in the 1990s, bestowing a halo of coolness on a car associated with elderly buyers.

Unfortunately for GM, that has hardly been enough.

"The sadness is that the technology has passed GM and Ford by," Grushkin says. "Not enough people want to buy an American product at this point. But for pure absolute nostalgia, it's American product all the way."


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