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Rock 'n' roll songs about cars have lost their way

Dude, where's my car song?

While you were electronically adjusting your side-view mirrors or being guided by GPS or reading the external temperature gauge, a curious thing happened in rock: The car-song trend sputtered and lurched and finally went kaput.

According to the diagnostics, those revving automobile engines – the inspiration for countless rock 'n' roll songs, from the Cadillac-Ford race of Chuck Berry's classic “Maybellene” to Bruce Springsteen's rhapsody about “a '69 Chevy with a 396 / Fuelie heads and a Hurst on the floor” in “Racing in the Street” – have gone silent.

“They ain't writin' car songs no more,” laments Paul Grushkin, author of “Rockin' Down the Highway: The Cars and People That Made Rock Roll.”

“They ran their course; they did their thing,” says Brian Wilson, co-author of some of rock's greatest car songs, both for Jan & Dean (“Dead Man's Curve,” “Drag City”) and his own group, the Beach Boys, who released automotive-themed tunes in the 1960s. Among them: “409,” which celebrated Chevrolet's new 409-cubic-inch V-8 engine.

As a genre, rock 'n' roll fetishized cars from the get-go. Indeed, the ongoing debate over the starting point of rock music usually includes Ike Turner's fuzzed-out 1951 chart-topper, “Rocket 88,” a paean to the Oldsmobile 88 on which Jackie Brenston sang of a “V-8 motor and this modern design / My convertible top and the gals don't mind.”

A caravan of car songs followed, spanning decades, makes and models.

The metaphor evolves

Today, there are still automotive references in popular music, particularly in hip-hop. But they're usually brief mentions that often aren't about cars at all; instead, they're sexual metaphors (“Girl you look just like my cars; I wanna wax it,” R. Kelly sings) or status signifiers (“I deserve to do these numbers / The kid that made that deserves that Maybach,” Kanye West raps).

The few later-model car songs that have been released by brand-name artists aren't actually car songs at all, as with Audioslave's “Getaway Car,” a 2002 album track about escaping a relationship, or Tracy Chapman's “Fast Car,” a 1988 hit about a cycle of poverty and substance abuse.

Back before cars became utilitarian things – Point A-to-Point B conveyances – cars and rock 'n' roll defined youth culture, screaming power and freedom and individuality. “The whole obsession of cars in rock music was a reflection of teenage culture,” says Bob Merlis, a music publicist and automotive journalist who curated two “Cars and Guitars” exhibits for the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles. “The car was a very exotic thing that gave the teenager a place of his own, or her own. It's where you'd go to escape your parents.”

To Dean Torrance, cars represented freedom and creative expression. But, he says now, he wasn't thinking about cars quite so deeply in the 1960s, when his group, Jan & Dean, had success with several automotive-themed songs, including “Little Old Lady From Pasadena,” about a Super Stock Dodge that tore up the quiet streets of Pasadena, Calif.

“It was just the only other thing we knew anything about,” Torrance says from his Orange County home. “We started out writing about boy-girl situations and our surfboards. There had to be something else to write about. What else did we know anything about? Cars!”

‘The romance is gone'

In the early 1960s, Wilson and the rest of the Beach Boys were infatuated with cars along – with girls and surfing – and they turned their obsession into a minor industry, with hits including “Little Deuce Coupe” (about a lightning-fast 1932 Ford) and “Shut Down” (detailing a drag race between a Super Stock 1962 Dodge Dart and a 1963 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray). If Chuck Berry was behind the wheel of the bandwagon, then Wilson was riding shotgun.

But Wilson gave up the seat years ago. In a telephone interview, he says he can't remember the last time he came up with a song about automobiles.

“I was always fascinated by cars,” he says. “They made me think of the competitiveness of life. I still like cars, but I don't write about them anymore.”

Do you blame him?

Personal cars circa 2008 tend to be impersonal, ubiquitous and inherently uninteresting weapons of mass environmental destruction.

“There's not as much focus on car culture these days,” says Merlis, the automotive writer and music publicist whose clients include the noted gearheads and occasional car-song singers in ZZ Top. “People need cars, they drive them, but they (complain) about putting gas in them. They're so anonymous. The romance is gone.

“What's still there is mostly nostalgic: ‘Remember that '57 T-Bird blah blah blah.' Younger people don't relate to that.”