Ask a 16-year-old: A car is everything. From that euphoric moment walking out of the DMV with a freshly-printed license and the thought “These suckers say I can drive!” to soul-sucking rush hour bottlenecks, cars are a more significant presence in our lives than some family members. They’re an odd mix of utility and luxury, freedom and adherence to the rules. In many cities in this country, it’s impossible to function without one. That’s why even though it’s only been a hundred years or so since the Model T made maybe the most successfully invasive product debut that century, the songs that we sing about cars are every bit as culturally important as love songs, murder ballads, and other major topics that earn prominent spots in our lore.
That said, we thought we’d take a look at exactly what we’re talking about when we sing about cars. Call it a taxonomy, an attempt to condense an entire subject matter into its smallest parts. When we sing about cars, we sing about the cars we race, the cars we want, the cars we have (which are seldom as awesome as the cars we want), the cars we cruise, and the cars we flaunt (frequently for wooing purposes). Whatever your speed, there’s probably a car song out there about you.
“Dead Man’s Curve”
Jan and Dean
Competitiveness and a lead foot prove to be a terrible combination in this cautionary tale from 1964. When the owner of a Jaguar XKE challenges the owner of a Corvette Stingray (the narrator) to a drag race headed toward a near 90-degree turn on Sunset Boulevard, the narrator learns that there’s a good reason you’re supposed to slow down on a curve. The song is a two and a half-minute version of a driver’s ed film (think Wheels of Tragedy), complete with screeching brakes. And in a creepy twist of fate, Jan Berry crashed his own Stingray near the fabled curve two years later, almost killing himself. –Erin Carson
Cake’s discography is rife with some of the catchiest guitar riffs to hit the radio waves, and the guitar revving up “The Distance” serves best for thrusting the pedal down to the floor. The song’s narrator may be “hugging the turns” tighter than dozens of NASCAR drivers, but he never seems to let up and relax. As he continues around the course, he loses sight of everything else in order to go “the distance.” This ride clocks in at about three minutes, Cake providing the perfect jolt of energy to jump-start their next groovy adventure. — Sam Willett
While reminiscing about Michael Jackson, the term “speed demon” is not one that would come to most people’s minds. But aside from fantastical ranches, zombies, and white gloves, the king of pop apparently also had a fascination with fast cars. Produced by Quincy Jones, the Bad single is all about going fast on the freeway, but it comes at a cost, as Jackson squeals, “Pull over boy and get your ticket right…” So, is this song really pro-speeding or anti-speeding? Who knows. But the nearly 10-minute-long video features a claymated Jackson wearing a rabbit mask and hightailing it on a motorcycle, and that’s all that really matters. –Katrina Nattress
Written by Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings, “455 Rocket” is basically a love song to a beat-up Oldsmobile (baby blue with wire wheels) whose best feature was its V8 engine. When Mattea finally gets to race the car, she crashes it into the safety rail with such force that even the cop is baffled by the car’s power. It might not have been much to look at, but “455 Rocket” reinforces the idea that it’s what’s under the hood that counts. –Erin Carson
“Drive My Car”
Let’s for a second pretend “drive my car” isn’t a euphemism (what isn’t a euphemism?). The whole song, as well as the future of the guy and girl in question, is based on a chain of “ifs.” If she becomes famous, she can buy a car. If she buys a car, he can drive it. And if he can drive it, well…You know. Dreams are made on rubber and steel. –Erin Carson
Referred to by George Lopez as the “Chicano national anthem,” War’s 1975 hit “Low Rider” took the trend of hydraulically modded cars, popular in more urban settings, and turned it into the guy that everyone wanted to be, or if they couldn’t pull off that high a level of cool, at least the guy they wanted to meet. The accompanying video is a gearhead’s delight, full of dope hot rods bouncing and cruising around town. Over the years, the song has become a pop culture staple, popping up in films like Cheech and Chong’s Up in Smoke, Friday, and The Odd Life of Timothy Green, as well as being covered by damn near everyone at one point or another. –Pat Levy
Okay, so maybe a Mercedes Benz wasn’t really Janis Joplin’s dream car (though she did drive a Porsche), and maybe her asking the lord for it in this iconic song is meant as a stance against consumerism instead of a genuine want, but still. It’s Janis Joplin. It’s an iconic song. It deserves to be listed. Joplin’s raspy, whiskey-soaked vocals drive the a cappella track, and most chilling of all, the political blues song was recorded a mere three days before her untimely death. –Katrina Nattress
Ronny & the Daytonas
G.T.O.s are legitimately badass cars, deserving of a song that showcases their sleek style and rich history. Ronny & the Daytonas tackled that task with admirable results, their signature surf rock sound with a twang of their Nashville roots more than rising to the occasion. It’s classic hot rod rock that rivals some of the more well known tunes by The Beach Boys and other bands cut from a similar cloth, and it’s easy to see why it earned the band a certified gold record and several weeks at the top of the charts. –Pat Levy