I was standing on stage, making my way through a new song. There’s always some discrepancy between how polished you think the song is at home, and how quirky it comes out the first time in front of a crowd. I stumbled through the bridge, and was glad to reach the middle break.
This particular song had a short instrumental part, a very minimalist rhythmic departure between the coda and the third verse. It gave the song a nice tempo-oriented break before moving onto the next segment, and gave me a moment to collect myself and try to remember the next batch of words.
I played the chord progression, hypnotizing myself in front of the crowd, the steady tick-tock of the tune, a thought popped into my head…
Exactly how much has the automobile influenced today’s music?
And I don’t mean in the sort of ‘fast cars and rock n’ roll’ sort of way, not the old tributes to the automobile that started in the late fifties as one of the earliest staples of the new genre, and continues into the present day. I’m not talking about songs named after a make or model, or songs which take place in a car; or even the whole sub-genres of music meant for the road (driving songs, road songs, and the ‘BOOM BOOM BOOM’ beats that are designed for today’s automotive sound systems), or even all the songs that will inevitably wind up in car commercials.
I mean, in a very literal sense, the automobile is such an integral part of life now, it even affects the creation of our art in the most minute, abstract sense.
The idea came from listening to the tempo of the song as I tried to recall the words, noticing that the rhythm very much resembled the almost algorithmic clicking of the turn signals on older American cars.
Standing there, I recalled a conversation I had earlier in the week, with an online friend. He is an older guy, more than twice my age. He was telling me about a song idea he had a few years back, and in trying to describe the tempo, he said, ‘Imagine a rock stuck in your tire and thumping the ground as you drove around at 20 mph.’
And I knew exactly the beat he meant.
It made me think, too, wonder about how much the car played a part in my own song writing, and not simply in the the lyrics where I use the travel and road as one of my common themes.
I thought of the countless times driving along when a melody would strike, or a few words for a chorus. I would sit there repeating the phrase over in my head to commit it to memory, adapting the rhythm to the motion of the windshield wipers.
So I wonder now, how often does this happen? How many of the great and timeless classics written in the last fifty years, music we hear on the radio everyday– if they are not already about traveling or about cars in some sense– how many of them have been written in a car, to the tempo of some accessory or even the knocking of the engine? how many droning melodies have been dreamed up in tune with a motors purr?
It’s a lot to think about in the middle of a new song, trying to recall how the final verse begins. I think I seamlessly refocused my attention and finished the song. After all it was a brand new piece, never played before, so any momentary lapse, any back up of traffic in the chords as they yield right-of-way to the lyrics, most likely went unnoticed.
© Robert Emmett McWhorter