The Wisdom of Pop Songs – songs about cars

car 1
The key is in the title

It says a lot about the difference between the sexes that, of all the songs about motor vehicles, the vast majority are sung by men and even those that are voiced by women were written by men. As one of the few exceptions, this non-car lover finds the stereotype of the male who loves his four-wheeled mistress as much as his wife to be sad but justified.

One of the earliest examples in the rock’n’roll era is also one of the most entertaining, courtesy of the wit and libido of Chuck Berry. No Particular Place to Go tells of our hero being out for a drive with his girlfriend with one thing on his mind: finding a secluded spot where they can get down to some teenage hanky panky.

Trouble and frustration ensue when the admirably safety conscious stud can’t engage in anything other than a hand-contorting fumble because she’s wearing a seat belt and he can’t undo it, even though he is presumably free to move himself.

All the way home I held a grudge
But that safety belt it wouldn’t budge

cars 2
Being good latter-day Mods, the Merton Parkas may have been referring to scooters – but you can ruin a nice suit that way if it rains

The Beach Boys went through a car phase in tandem with the surfing one in response to the drag racing craze in the early 60s.

Those of us who are neither American nor interested in cars were baffled by the fact that these people were singing about their Little Deuce Coupe. Even when you know they’re talking about a car, the meaning is not immediately clear to most people, although Wikipedia provides an explanation: apparently it’s a 1932 Ford Coupe (coupe – missing an accent on the e – should be pronounced coopay, and means it has a soft top that can be taken down to let the sun in, while deuce is for the year) jazzed up as a “hot rod”. Well, whatever turns you on.

Less complicated – and more in keeping with the traditional pop song – was the same band’s Don’t Worry Baby, in which the narrator has bragged about his car and now has to put his money where his mouth is by racing. He’s nervous but his girlfriend tells him it will be all right because she loves him. That’s the beauty of life lived through pop music: you can come out with the most inane nonsense and it sounds good. In this case it also  reemphasises songwriter Brian Wilson’s highly unusual and unhip tendency to concede he wasn’t a big, tough young adult but an insecure teenager. The individual who wrote When I Grow Up to Be a Man  is scared and doesn’t mind admitting it.

But I can’t back down now
Because I’ve pushed the other guys too far

cars 3
I’m a friendly stranger in a black sedan, they said. Won’t you hop inside my car, they said. I’m calling the police, she said.

Wilson Pickett’s much-covered 60s track Mustang Sally makes liberal use of the double entendre, and particularly the link between riding in a car and, err, the other kind of riding that often involves lying down. If a song such as this even wants to be taken literally, it seems that our hero bought his girl a Ford Mustang and now would rather drive it than play pistons and cylinders with him.

All you wanna do is ride around Sally
Ride, Sally, ride

As all observers of male stereotypes know, sport cars have to be red because that is more phallic, and so it is that Prince gave us Little Red Corvette, although in a major break with tradition, he seems to be complaining that she only wants one thing from him and he’s shocked.

A body like yours
Ought to be in jail
Cos it’s on the verge of being obscene

But then apparently he sees the good side of this state of affairs and reverts to type:
Move over baby
Give me the keys
Cos I’m gonna try to tame your little red love machine

cars 4
Baby you’re much too fast – hang on, what am I thinking? Okay, I’ve got 10 minutes, so let’s have a look under the hood

And so to the girls. Bruce Springsteen’s Pink Cadillac works on a  different level when he sings it rather than Natalie Cole. When he’s singing about her pink Cadillac it’s loaded with leering meaning, whereas when she sings about his, it’s just a car.

Janis Joplin’s Mercedes Benz, co-written by Bob Neuwirth and recorded just three days before her death, seems to be innuendo-free and is a tale of envy. She wants a Merc because all her friends have Porsches.

This is in stark contrast to GTO, a big 1980s hit in the UK for Sinitta which is so obviously written by a man and so macho and suggestive that he must have been kidding. The words the writer puts into the mouth of the little pop songbird include:

He’s got a big red GTO
Everywhere we go the GTO must go
But I wonder if he’ll ever know
If he loves me
Or just his GTO

So, the eternal triangle has four legs and four wheels. Who’d have thought it?

 

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