Saturday, March 19, 2011

When cars were still fun

The last few days have been lovely outside, at least for late winter in Michigan. The sudden surge of spring is probably what caused me to dig out some Beach Boys discs to spin while out on the road.

Anyone familiar with the Beach Boys knows that they really built their careers singer about cars, beaches and girls. In the early to mid 60's, they weren't the only ones to crank out mega-hits about automobiles. Groups like Jan and Dean and Ronnie and the Daytonas capitalized on the Beach Boys' success, making hits of their own like "Little Old Lady from Pasadena" and "Little GTO." Even the Beatles got in on the game with "Drive My Car." Of course, in the 50's, rock pioneers like Chuck Berry had already turned writing songs about cars and driving into something of an art with tunes like "No Particular Place To Go."

There's a tendency to blow off songs about cars as pure fluff. What meaning could we possibly assign to a song about drag racing or cruising around in a convertible? Perhaps more than you might think.

I used to believe that pop songs from the 50's and 60's like "Little Deuce Coupe" and "409" were nothing more than money grabs. When Lennon and McCartney wanted some cash, one of them would say to the other, "Okay, let's write us a swimming pool," and they'd go write their next mega-hit. Other artists of the day weren't much different and it's easy to imagine that they wrote songs about cars for one reason alone: money. People loved those songs and bought them by the millions.

The question that raises is why did people love those songs? Was it just that those songs were catchy? Not likely. It seems to me that those songs connected to people on a genuine emotional level.

40-50 years ago, cars still captured peoples' imaginations. Those were the day of $0.25 a gallon gas, Sunday drives, cruising, drive-in movies and diners and street racing. That was the era of the hot rod. The social life of a young person (fortunate enough to own or have access to one) revolved around his car, unlike kids today whose lives revolve around their cell phones and computers. Thus, to sing about cars and driving was to sing about life.

There are no songs about cars these days, at least not in the pop world. Sure, cars get mentioned in some pop and hip-hop songs, but the car and the driving are not the focus of the song. My theory is that because cars are no longer fun.

With gas at nearly $4.00 a gallon and growing movement to "go green," people see cars as either transportation from point A to B, some sort of necessary evil or status symbols. The affluent want to be seen in their opulent automobiles. White educated middle class folks seem to go for practical, meaning safe, fuel efficient, reliable...but not fun.

There seems to be guilt associated with vehicle ownership for Gen X'ers on down. If you drive too much, you're either destroying the planet or you're spending on gas and maintenance money with which you can't afford to part.

If there's any pleasure in driving, it comes from being in a nice looking ride. To some, cars are just huge gas-powered pieces of bling. Think of the favorite luxury item you own. You might love it. You might love displaying. You might beam with pride when you wear it. I'd put money on you not describing it as "fun." If anything, you might be uptight about it. "What if it gets stolen or broken? What would I do?" you probably think to yourself everytime you pull it out.

There's no going back at this point. Resources are only getting tighter. Gas will only get more expensive. Alternative fuel vehicles will never be the center of your social life. They'll never be fun, largely because no one wants them to be fun.

Here's to a by-gone era.