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Why Don't We Write Songs About Cars Anymore?

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April 5th, 2012

The Who may have got on a Magic Bus and Cliff may have chosen a Routemaster for his Summer Holiday, but for most of the 1950s through to as late as the 1980s, personal transportation in the shape of the car was every young person’s dream and that dream found expression in the lyrics of pop music. The car was the ultimate status symbol, the ultimate passport to freedom, the ultimate expression of consumer wealth and cool. It was lionized in movies, especially road movies, and song. The car was automatic, systematic, hydromatic. It was the “must have” accessory if you ever hoped to be driving along in your automobile, your baby beside you at the wheel.

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From the iconic chase in Bullit and the glorious exit of Thelma and Louise to Mustang Sally, Little Red Corvette and the hope that the good lord would buy you a Mercedes Benz to the electronic musings of Gary Numan and the less obvious references by Snow Patrol, the iconic place the car held in our hearts was celebrated in song and popular culture. But we don’t seem to write any songs about the car any more. Many lament the fact that there hasn’t been a decent song written about a car since Madness went driving in their not quite jaguar.

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So why is our love affair with the car, in song at least, coming to an end? Is it because they’ve turned from “pussy magnet” into “planet killer” in the minds of the young? Or are today’s vehicles bland, streamlined boxes with no personality and no inspirational appeal? It’s difficult to get passionate (indeed difficult to have any emotion other than self righteous smugness) about a Nissan Leaf or a Toyota Prius. Or is it because ownership, not just of cars but of houses too, is becoming simply too expensive for an entire generation? Are more esoteric financial considerations reducing us to viewing these once objects of desire as mere commodities? The head ruling the heart to the extent that the 2012 Parkers Car Award went to the utterly mundane and uninspiring Kia Cee'd 1.4 VR-7.

Excellent value though this hatchback may be, it’s difficult to see how driving lyrics could be built
on selling points like generous equipment levels, fuel-saving engine technology and a 100,000 mile transferable manufacturer's warranty.

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The young have lost interest in the car and if it bores the young, it won’t feature in popular song.
At least the young in the developed Western capitalist world have lost interest. For those coming
economies in India and China, car ownership retains its aspirational appeal as a sign of status and prosperity, even though it’s choking the cities to death. In Japan, many youngsters think owning a car is more trouble than it's worth, especially in Tokyo where monthly parking and fuel costs are astronomical. This generation has been dubbed "kuruma banare” (de-motorised) in their thinking by worried Japanese auto makers. So too in Europe and the UK. In the 1990s, driving licence rates among young people between 18 and 24 began to decline across the continent and that trend appears to have continued. Less young people have access to a car and hardly any seem to be worried by that.

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Even if they do have some lingering fascination for a set of wheels, young drivers are thought to be unpredictable and much more likely to get into an accident. The truth is that elderly drivers are far more dangerous than a 20 year old, with a far greater accident and fatality rate if you calculate it on a per-mile-driven basis. However, if you are in that 18-24 year old age range, you’ll pay a king’s ransom in premium for your car insurance. Where the pocket dictates, the heart will follow. The car doesn’t have the same symbolic value for modern youth as it did for their parents and is not regarded as the gadget you need to show how cool you are any more.

Young people's interest is shifting from cars to communication tools like personal computers, mobile phones and services. Newer technological gadgets have become more important as status symbols and as tools in their own right. Since the young are the inspiration for and consumers of the popular music business, it’s little wonder then that the internal combustion engine has lost its gloss lyrically.

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As a last hurrah before we get songs (composed no doubt on an iPad, just as the Gorillaz album, the Fall, was) that bemoan the lack of range on a battery or the absence of hydrogen filling stations along the M4 corridor, here’s a nostalgic top ten of tunes that feature the beast when being a petrol head meant you weren’t a middle aged jerk of a TV presenter called Clarkson, but just (in the words of Queen’s Roger Taylor) a guy “in love with my car”.

1. Maybelline - Chuck Berry

2. Little Red Corvette – Prince

3. Radar Love - Golden Earring

4. Mustang Sally – Wilson Picket

5 Dead man’s curve – Jan and Dean

6. Mercedes Benz – Janis Joplin

7. Drive my car – the Beatles

8. Little Deuce Coupe - The Beach Boys

9. I'm In Love with My Car - Queen

10. Car Wash - Rose Royce

Ideas from a post on carrentals.co.uk, some cool topics to discuss.

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