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.