This article is part of the In the Defense of the Genre series. Previously, a selection of pop punk albums that aren’t the best, the most essential, or even our favourites, but are very, very good.
Cars have been a part of American pop culture pretty much since they became a mass-produced and mass-marketed product, but they became particularly central in the 50s and 60s as the post-war economic boom lifted more and more families into the middle class. Americans owned about one car for every three people in 1960: at a time when one third of the population were children thanks to the post-war baby boom, and around seventy percent of adults were married, that meant most families had a car and some had two.
That second car is very important to the story of cars in American popular culture because they were the cars of older teenagers, or at least ones they could borrow. Most US states then, and now, issue driver’s licenses from the age of sixteen, and the car presented teenagers with a rare opportunity for independence and autonomy. Even if it was just for a few hours, they could decide where to go and what to do, and could take their friends, or their date, with them. They were free from the supervision and surveillance of their parents, able to put more space between them and their family in less time than on foot. They could explore their little piece of the world, stray off the beaten path and find secret places all their own.
Teenagers were obsessed with cars, and pop culture reflected it. Archie and the Gang in his rickety old jalopy, Wally buying his first car on Leave It to Beaver, the Beach Boys cruising up and down the coast. Tom Wolfe describes the saturation of car culture in his seminal essay “There Goes (Varoom! Varoom!) That Kandy-Kolored (Thphhhhhh!) Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (Rahghhh!) Around the Bend (Brummmmmmmmmmmmmmm)…”: “Thousands of kids are getting hold of cars and either hopping them up for speed or customizing them to some extent, usually a little of both. Before they get married they pour all their money into this…Even the kids who aren’t full-time car nuts themselves will be influenced by which car is considered ‘boss.’”
The picture is very different nowadays. The rate of teen licensing in the US has plummeted over the past few decades and become ever more stratified along class lines. The AAA Foundation found in 2012 that while, overall, seventy percent of 18-to-20-year-olds had a license, less than fifty percent of those with a household income under $20,000 had one, compared to almost ninety percent of those with $100,000 or more.
But the decline in licensing and car ownership among teens hasn’t eliminated the car from teen pop culture, just changed it. Cars are one of the most common and prominent lyrical motifs in pop punk, that most teen of genres, even though pop punk rose precisely as the decline began. I’m fascinated by pop punk’s use of car imagery for a whole host of reasons, particularly how it is deeply embedded in the history of popular music and yet also develops an approach to cars that is very much its own. Not different exactly, but unique in how it joins two warring tendencies in the portrayal of cars in popular music: cars as a source of freedom and cars as a source of tragedy.
Freedom and tragedy are not the only two thematic strands in the history of the car in pop music. Sex is a big one – “Little Red Corvette” (1983) springs to mind – and there are probably some songs that are just unironic odes to cars. But freedom and tragedy are the dominant strains and, importantly, have existed in a kind of mutual antagonism for most of pop history. The 50s and 60s saw the rise and fall of two genres based in large part around cars – hot rod music and teenage tragedy songs – each of which represented one of these tendencies.
Hot rod music is pretty self-explanatory, a variation on surf rock whose songs focus on such weighty themes as having a nice car and driving it. The evolution is fairly blatant in the work of surf rock pioneers Jan & Dean, who rewrote their song “Surf City” (1963) as “Drag City” (1963) to make it (even more) about cars. The Beach Boys’ early work is full of hot rod music: their album Little Deuce Coupe (1963) has exactly one song not about cars (“Be True to Your School”) but two separate songs just about coupes (the title track and “Cherry, Cherry Coupe”). Hot rod music portrayed cars as a gateway to fun and a source of social status that would help you attract and maintain friendship and romance.
Teenage tragedy songs, also known as death ditties, were a melodramatic pop genre influenced by the tradition of country elegies like “Give My Love to Rose” (1957) or “Mother Went A-Walkin’” (1954). They came to the fore after the surprise success of “Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots” (1955), a song about a motorcycle crash that happened to be released shortly before the death of James Dean. Teenage tragedy songs were generally about a couple, one of whom dies young, often with some kind of moral lesson attached. They weren’t all about car crashes, obviously. Suicide is a common theme, as with the apex of the genre, Bobbie Gentry’s gothic masterpiece, “Ode to Billie Joe” (1967). But car crashes were a fairly common device (see: “Teen Angel” (1959), “Tell Laura I Love Her” (1960), “Last Kiss” (1964)) and they offered a stark alternative to the uncomplicated adoration of hot rod music, exposing the small print in the car’s promise of freedom: if you do this, you could die.
The conflict between these two tendencies was never a battle between distinct genres or artists. Jan & Dean recorded a slightly neutered teenage tragedy song called “Dead Man’s Curve” (1964) (the protagonist survives in that one but it’s implied the guy he was racing didn’t) and Little Deuce Coupe features the Beach Boys’ tribute to James Dean, “A Young Man Is Gone”. But in the broader cultural imagination, there was an obvious struggle over which would be permitted to represent teenage life. Though both genres were highly successful on the charts, lots of radio stations refused to play teenage tragedy songs because they were too morbid. Of course, they were morbid, but only in so far as they reflected the reality that teenagers died sometimes, most often in car crashes, which were (and still are, in many places) the most common cause of death among teenagers.
Though both faded away as genres in the late sixties (or, rather, were wiped out by the British Invasion), their formal and thematic DNA has recurred again and again ever since. Sometimes, it was expressed with unvarnished sincerity. “7-11” (1981) by the Ramones is a teenage tragedy song played completely straight and “Emma” (1974) by Hot Chocolate simply transposes the form from pop to soul. Smokey Robinson’s “Cruisin’” (1979) does the same with hot rod music. But as time passed, more sceptical and ironic takes began to emerge. “Life in the Fast Lane” (1976) by the Eagles takes the romantic image of a couple driving around and turns it into a nightmare, while “Fast Car” (1988) by Tracy Chapman exposes the false promise of the car as a source of freedom when you’re dependent on the cars of others.
The most famous example of this tendency is, of course, Bruce Springsteen, who’s spent most of his career writing sad songs about cars. “Thunder Road” (1975) is the most iconic and a perfect example of his ironic approach to the genre. On paper, it ends on a high note – “it’s a town full of losers / and I’m pulling out of here to win” and the saxophone soars over a burst of glittering glockenspiel – but it’s an extraordinarily melancholy song, the kind that catches in your throat when you try to sing along. That’s partly because of how it paints the longing to escape small town life: “don’t turn me home again / I can’t face myself alone again”; “so you’re scared and you’re thinking / that maybe we ain’t that young anymore”; “we got one last chance to make it real”.
But mostly it’s dramatic irony – the irony when the audience knows something the characters don’t. “Thunder Road” would be a triumphant song about making it out of your small town alive, if only we didn’t know it was a false escape. People leave their no-hope hometowns all the time. Lots of them just flame out and end up back where they started, but even if they’re lucky enough to make it in the city, they’re likely just swapping one kind of struggle for another. Small towns have no jobs, but big cities have no houses. Manage to find one and you’ll lose most of your wages paying the rent. The characters in “Thunder Road” will escape from their shitty town, but the city will just turn them into Tommy and Gina from “Livin’ On a Prayer”. Springsteen has revisited this subverted image of the car as a source of freedom dozens of times, and “Thunder Road” is probably his least sad take. “Racing in the Street” (1978) takes the drag racing fun of so much hot rod music and turns it into a desperate ritual of the terminally hopeless, driving around the same streets over and over, like inmates walking laps around a prison yard day after day, month after month, year after year. “Stolen Car” (1980) puts a much darker spin on “Thunder Road”: the narrator drives out of town on their own and ends the song consumed by fear, not that the police will catch him, but “that in this darkness / I will disappear”. He has fled a broken life in his hometown, but now he’s alone in the world, with no one who’d even notice if he vanished from the face of the earth.
Pop punk builds on this subversive tendency and takes it even further. Whereas most genres, even now, contain a mix of unironic freedom and unironic tragedy in addition to the ironic third way of Springsteen, pop punk never unironically represents the car as a source of freedom. There are still some unironically tragic takes – Brand New’s “The Quiet Things That No One Ever Knows” (2003) is a fairly straightforward teenage tragedy song. But, for the most part, pop punk portrays the freedom and tragedy of cars as inextricably intertwined, and it does so a lot. Cars are an extremely common lyrical motif in pop punk music, for several reasons. For starters, there’s the musical lineage of pop punk, initially arising mostly out of the California punk scene, with its huge musical inheritance from surf rock in general and the Beach Boys in particular. Pop punk pioneers Bad Religion and Green Day both reference cars often, as in “Drunk Sincerity” (1996)
with steam, heat and rhythm in the back of the car
and adolescent perspective, projecting life’s forecast to the stars
you heard love from the lips and you were rapt from the hips
and the promise was eternal, but you couldn’t see that far
and “Castaway” (1997)
I’m riding on the night train and driving stolen cars
testing my nerves out on the boulevard
spontaneous combustion in the corners of my mind
leaving in a lurch and I’m taking back what’s mine
Their imagery is very California, but it’s been inflected with Springsteenian melancholy. The Beach Boys and their contemporaries just wanted to drive around town with their friends, but pop punk bands want to escape their hometowns. There’s no shortage of explicit examples – “Buy some candy and cigarettes and we’ll get in my car / we’ll blast the stereo and we’ll drive to Madagascar” from “M+M’s” (1995) by Blink-182 – but it’s also sort of implicit in all of pop punk’s “get out of town” narratives. Green Day don’t say explicitly that the title character is driving away at the end of “Jesus of Suburbia” (2004) but as Billie Joe Armstrong sings “you’re leaving / you’re leaving / you’re leaving / ah, you’re leaving home”, we know he’s cruising down the highway to find something better.
The Smiths were a particularly huge influence on the early noughties pop punk that followed the original wave of California pop punk bands, and Morrissey uses cars in his lyrics all the time. The biggest example is “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out” (1986), probably their most beloved song, whose title and pre-chorus are referenced in the chorus of Fall Out Boy’s “Chicago Is So Two Years Ago” (2003): “but there’s a light on in Chicago / and I know I should be home”. Fall Out Boy reference cars and crashes more than pretty much any band in the world. The chorus of “‘Tell That Mick He Just Made My List Of Things To Do Today’” (2003), the opening track of their first album, urges an ex to “stop burning bridges / and drive off them”. Two years later, “XO” (2005), the final track of their second album, flips it around, with the singer’s love interest telling him “I hope you choked and crashed your car”. Car crashes in pop punk are often just such a spiteful wish, a moment to spit your vilest feelings so you can exorcise them and find some catharsis. Brand New’s “Seventy Times 7” (2001), written by Jesse Lacey about his former friend and Taking Back Sunday guitarist John Nolan, is a classic example: “have another drink and drive yourself home / I hope there’s ice on the roads / and you can think of me when you forget your seatbelt / and again when your head goes through the windshield”. It’s cruel stuff, for sure, but it’s a hyperbolic expression of sincere hurt. A more tongue-in-cheek example comes from Say Anything’s “Boyd” (2014), in which singer Max Bemis imagines himself in the future, threatening his then-infant daughter’s future boyfriends:
Don’t put your hands on her
Don’t read your poetry
Because it’s worthless and it’s didactic to me
Shave off your handlebar, stitch you to the car
I’ll sell your organs off for tuition
So you better get her home by 11:30
Yeah you better get her home by 11:30
Pop punk, as previously discussed in this series, is fundamentally a genre for teens, and these kind of lyrics create a space to feel through big emotions, even when they’re ugly and inconvenient. Similar reasons motivate the strong association between cars and suicide in pop punk lyrics. Suicide is, in its way, the most extreme possible convergence of freedom and tragedy, an ultimate escape from all things bad and good. The earliest I example I can think of is “Ghost Man on Third” (2002) by Taking Back Sunday – “I’m out and on the parkway / patient and waiting for headlights” – and the most well-known is probably Fall Out Boy’s “Hum Hallelujah” (2007), about Pete Wentz’s real suicide attempt, but the purest to my mind is “A Song for Patsy Cline” (2015) by The Wonder Years. Frontman Dan Campbell sings about not getting the airbag in his car fixed even though he keeps dreaming about dying in a car crash. “My airbag light’s been on for weeks / and I can feel it mock me / it’s bittersweet like laughter through crooked teeth”. He feels taunted by the light, but the thought that he could just choose to crash and die is actually weirdly empowering, this one choice he alone can make, a sense that even if he can’t survive the pain, he can at least escape. “I want to move so far from everything / that they could hear my heart beat / and then break as I lay dying in the street”.
Lyrics like these have been the subject of moral panic, just like teenage tragedy songs before them, most notably when the Daily Mail called emo a “suicide cult” and blamed My Chemical Romance for the suicide of 13-year-old Hannah Bond. But the causation is precisely backwards. Music that deals with themes of mental illness and suicide is popular among teens because mental illness and suicide are already common. It was true of The Smiths, Marilyn Manson and Eminem, it was true of Fall Out Boy and My Chemical Romance, and it’s true now of mumble rap artists. Music about mental illness is blamed for encouraging depression and suicide in teens when, at worst, it merely reflects reality on the ground and is often a key source of solace and respite for struggling youths. Suicide is the second-most-frequent cause of death among teenagers in the US and Canada, and the most frequent among teenagers in the UK and Australia, killing them all at a much higher rate than adults. Teens also continue to die in car crashes at higher rates than adults, so it’s not surprising that car crashes come up a lot in pop punk lyrics. Several bands have released songs about real car crashes that killed friends or loved ones: “Gone Away” (1997) by The Offspring, “Hear You Me” (2001) by Jimmy Eat World, “Fuck You Aurora” (2000) by Alkaline Trio, “Thanks for the Ride” (2015) by The Wonder Years. Brand New’s “Limousine” (2006) was inspired by the tragic death of 7-year-old Katie Flynn at the hands of a drunk driver.
But it’s mostly not so concrete. Car symbolism is generally far more abstracted in pop punk than other genres, which is part of why car crashes have blurred together with suicide imagery. Cars are portrayed in the songs of the Beach Boys and Bruce Springsteen as they are in real life, albeit imbued with emotional resonance by the songs themselves. Cars are driven, they hum and roar and screech on a hard shoulder. The imagery is grounded, even gritty in Springsteen’s case. That’s still there in pop punk, obviously, but it’s far more common for cars to be symbols first and real objects second, with lyrics that play more with the idea of the car than with the reality. “We’re making out inside crashed cars” in Fall Out Boy’s “Of All The Gin Joints In All The World” (2005) and “then I’d say to you, ‘We could take to the highway / with this trunk of ammunition too’ / I’d end my days with you, in a hail of bullets” in My Chemical Romance’s “Demolition Lovers” (2002). The imagery is heightened, even surreal and absurd at times. It’s hard to say why exactly, though I suspect declining car ownership among young people is a major influence. When fewer young people – including those in pop punk bands – own cars, the car becomes more aspirational and idealised. You can see hints of this if you look closely: Paramore and The Wonder Years have been touring since its members were teenagers, and both have lots of songs about being on the road, e.g. Paramore’s “Looking Up” (2009) or The Wonder Years’ “Hostels and Brothels” (2010). But neither released a song about driving a car until quite late in their careers. “A Song for Patsy Cline” was released ten years after The Wonder Years formed, when Dan Campbell was 29, while Paramore’s “Fast in My Car” (2013) came out nine years after they formed, when Hayley Williams was 25.
“Fast in My Car” is a good example of the more abstracted car imagery common in pop punk: “we’re driving fast in my car / we’ve got our riot gear on / but we just want to have fun / no, we’re not looking for violence, no-oh-oh / tonight we want to have fun”. It’s a fantasy of freedom on the one hand, but it’s one that self-consciously undermines itself. The car alone isn’t enough to actually give the escape they so desperately need (“hollowed out and filled up with hate / all we want is you to give us a break”), a point made explicitly in the bridge:
Get in my car and we’ll drive around
We’ll make believe we are free
Already proved we can tough it out
And we get along so sweetly
Say Anything’s “Admit It!!!” (2004) does something similar in just a handful of words by letting the decades of symbolism that have accrued to the car do the heavy lifting. The song starts as a self-righteous screed against hipsters – “despite your pseudo-bohemian appearance and vaguely leftist doctrine of beliefs, you know nothing about art or sex that you couldn’t read in any trendy New York underground fashion magazine” – but becomes something very different about halfway through when Max starts attacking himself instead. It’s a complicated lyrical manoeuvre, continuing the first half’s critique by contrasting Max’s willingness to be honest and self-effacing with the arrogant posers he so loathes and simultaneously transitioning into a fairly grim exploration of his psyche in the last act of the song. “I’m proud of my life and the things that I have done / proud of myself and the loner I’ve become”, he sings and the twist of the word “loner” still shocks a little all these years later. “You’re free to whine, it will not get you far / I do just fine, my car and my guitar”. “Admit It!!!” takes the desperate clinging to hope of Springsteen – “well I got this guitar / and I learned how to make it talk / and my car’s out back / if you’re ready to take that long walk” – and compresses it down into five words – “my car and my guitar” – and makes it even lonelier. He repeats it four further times, each iteration more despairing than the last. There is no escape here, and Max ends the song screaming “when I’m dead I’ll rest” over and over.
My Chemical Romance offer a more optimistic gloss on Springsteen on their final album (so far!), Danger Days: The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys (2010). Ostensibly the tale of a band of rebels called the Killjoys fighting an evil corporation in post-apocalyptic California, it is, like all MCR albums, not really about its own concept. Previous albums dealt with themes of mental illness, addiction and suicide that drew directly from their own experience, but when they set out to write a similar album for their fourth, their lives were going pretty well and they found it difficult to dig into that darkness. They still wanted to continue the band’s mission of saving lives through music so, instead, they made Danger Days, a power pop album where MCR came back for the rest of us who hadn’t made it yet.
And they came back in a big fucking car.
The album opens with a spoken word track from a fictional radio DJ called Doctor Death-Defying and he’s gonna give us the tunes we need. “I’ll be your surgeon, your proctor, your helicopter / pumping out the slaughtermatic sounds to keep you alive”. The hum of feedback on an amp is replaced by someone scraping a plectrum down a guitar string. “This one’s for all you rock and rollers, all you crash queens and motor babies. Listen up!” Cars are woven throughout Danger Days and not just in the lyrics. The music videos for “Na Na Na (Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na)” and “SING” show the Killjoys, played by the band, driving around the desert in a dusty, beat-up, spray-painted Pontiac Firebird. MCR released a three-song EP with Danger Days called The Mad Gear and Missile Kid that’s “what the Killjoys are listening to in the car as they’re having those gun battles”. Half the songs mention cars explicitly and pretty much all of them at least implicitly.
On the surface, Danger Days is not a particularly hopeful album. The Killjoys die in the end and Doctor Death-Defying has to go into hiding. But under the surface, it’s the most hopeful, joyful fucking thing that has ever existed, because it’s about staying alive right now, no matter what may happen in the future. “Save Yourself, I’ll Hold Them Back” is most explicit about this. The first verse ends with Gerard Way exhorting the listener not to kill themselves: “get off the ledge and drop the knife / not a victim of a victim’s life / this ain’t a room full of suicides”. But the second verse starts with him admitting they’re all fucked: “I’ll tell you how the story ends / where the good guys die and bad guys win”. He won’t pretend the world isn’t a dark place, full of misery and cruelty. He won’t pretend it’s all gonna work out in the end. But he also won’t let you die on him, not when you’ve made it this far. The second verse continues: “who cares? / it ain’t about all the friends you made / but the graffiti they write on your grave”. Danger Days is about clinging to hope in the face of total despair, about believing when there’s nothing to believe. It’s a paradox. It’s a fantasy, but it’s also the only real thing that matters. It doesn’t make sense, and it’s the only thing that makes sense. Just as faith can only exist in conditions of doubt, hope can only exist in conditions of despair. The chorus of “Save Yourself, I’ll Hold Them Back” sums it up:
We can leave this world, leave it all behind
We can steal this car if your folks don’t mind
We can live forever if you’ve got the time
The car in Danger Days is a fantastical dream object, more like a mystical steed than a mundane, everyday device. It is the vehicle of our temporary escape, a magic carpet that whisks us away for a moment’s respite, even if it has to return us a moment later. “You can run away with me anytime you want”, sings Gerard on “Summertime”, and it’s not true, but it is. The Killjoys die in the end and Doctor Death-Defying goes into hiding, but then I just start the album over again and it’s “hit the gas / kill ‘em all / and we crawl, and we crawl, and we crawl” and “get me out of my head / ‘cause it’s getting kinda cramped in here / coming ready or not / when the motor gets hot / we can do it again” and “this could be the last of all the rides we take / so hold on tight and don’t look back”. Danger Days is the soundtrack to closing your eyes and imagining yourself far from here, driving away from everything that hurts you in a dusty, beat-up, spray-painted Pontiac Firebird.
This mystical conception of the car is the real heart of its portrayal in pop punk. The car crash in pop punk isn’t just a way to die, it’s death itself. “Can we pretend to leave and then we’ll meet again when both our cars collide”, from MCR’s “Helena” (2004), and “Life’s just a pace car on death, only less diligent, and when the two collide, it’s no coincidence”, from FOB’s “She’s My Winona” (2008). The car is mystical in pop punk because it’s accrued so much mystery and power in decades upon decades of pop culture. Cars aren’t just cars, they’re Two-Lane Blacktop and American Graffiti and Death Race 2000 and Grease and Thelma & Louise. They’re “Baby Driver”. They’re Baby Driver. They’re Bonnie and Clyde and Bonnie and Clyde and “‘97 Bonnie and Clyde”. They’re “Ridin’” and “Jesus, Take the Wheel” and “Shut Up and Drive”. They’re three drag queens in a spluttering old Cadillac on a cross-country trip to chase their dreams in To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything! Julie Newmar. They’re Raoul Duke and Dr Gonzo in a red Chevy convertible “somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold” in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. They’re Travis Bickle driving around New York in his Checker Marathon late at night, looking for something, or nothing, or anything, in Taxi Driver.
They’re freedom. They’re tragedy. They’re life. They’re death. They’re hope in the face of despair, and maybe there are so many pop punk songs about cars because nothing could better represent what it means to be a teenager. Both the longing to flee and the very thing you want to escape. Both the growing up and the never, ever wanting to be an adult.