Saturday, August 3, 2013

Drive, My Love: What's This R&B Obsession with Love, Sex and Cars?

Ever since I wrote that recent blog post about metaphors in music, my iPod keeps reminding me that I overlooked a significant recurring one: the car as sex and love.

Oh yeah, right. How could I forget about cars? They're everywhere in music -- in song titles, in song lyrics, even in the moniker of one of the biggest pop-rock bands of the late '70s and early '80s (yes, The Cars, whose biggest hit was the appropriately titled "Drive" -- not be confused with the later R.E.M. single of the same name). They've been a staple of song forever, since the days of the drive-in, popping up in an assortment of hits, from The Beach Boys' "Little Deuce Coupe" to Gary Numan's "Cars" to Sammy Hagar's "I Can't Drive 55" to Glen Campbell's "I Love My Truck" to Florida Georgia Line's "Cruise."

But not all car songs are created equal. While autos are generally name-dropped literally in pop, rock and country (as in the Florida Georgia Line hit, currently No. 1 for the 22nd week on Billboard's country singles chart, whose featured "brand new Chevy with a lift kit" has no symbolic or double-entendre value), in R&B, motor vehicles tend to get special VIV (Very Important Vehicle) treatment. They regularly snag honorable mentions in R&B songs as metaphorical stand-ins for love and sex.

I have a theory about why this is so. Next to diamonds, an expensive car is the ultimate status symbol, a sign that its lucky owner not only has excellent taste but money in the bank, too (or a fantastic credit rating). I once was talking to a colleague in Bangkok who was commenting on the proliferation of automobiles in Thailand's capital, and she said that although it's led to insanely congested traffic in the city center, she's thankful for it because if a lot of people own cars, it means that Thailand is not as poor as everyone thinks it is.

I could relate to what she was saying. From the day in 1978 when my parents bought a brand new brown Thunderbird to 13 years later when I moved to New York City and no longer had any need for one, a car was crucial to a person's/family's image and economic standing. In the eyes of the well-wheeled elite, you were what you drove, and if you drove nothing, then that's pretty much what you were to them. I always seemed to be hearing another woman talking about how she was dismissing another potential love interest because he lacked the means to pick her up for a date.

It makes sense then that a genre that has become increasingly obsessed with glamor and materialism over the years would adopt the automobile as its favorite mode of transportation (though airplanes -- in Jeffrey Osborne's "Plane Love," Stephanie Mills' "Pilot Error" and Stevie Wonder's "Love Light in Flight" -- and NASA -- in The Jets' "Rocket 2 U" and The Isley Brothers' "Blast Off" -- make for effective ones, too). Factor in R&B's two longest-running obsessions -- love and sex, with the former in control and the latter riding shotgun -- and you've got one of the most powerful driving forces in music.

10 Great R&B Songs Starring Moving-Vehicle Metaphors

"Pull Up to the Bumper" Grace Jones


"Little Red Corvette" Prince


"Freeway of Love" Aretha Franklin


"Drive My Love" Rene & Angela


"All Revved Up" Jermaine Jackson


"Mercedes Boy" Pebbles


"Two Seater" MC Lyte


"Let's Ride" Montell Jordan featuring Master P and Silkk the Shocker


"Ignition (Remix)" R. Kelly


"Cruise Control" Mariah Carey featuring Damian Marley

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