Monday, November 28, 2011

Cars are Cars

In most sci-fi movies with a "rise of the machines" premise, in which the robots take over the world, it is assumed that the human audience is against this and is rooting for the humans onscreen. With Simon, we can't be so sure.

Not after this song. In it, the words "Cars are cars/ All over the world" are repeated almost mechanically, as if to illustrate the sameness the lyrics describe. The speaker seems comforted by this predictability of cars and frustrated by the vicissitudes of the human, analog world.

On the one hand, we have cars, which have a predictable lifespan. Even those in once hailed in ticker-tape parades or having chauffeured heads of state in "motorcades" are easily "abandoned when they’re old," since after all, they are ultimately only machines.

The speaker even lists the parts all cars have in common-- "Engine... Jack... Wheels... Pinion and a rack" (meaning the common rack-and-pinion steering system).

The music in the choruses is jerky, full of the start-stop of rush-hour traffic. The trumpets and saxes obviously stand in for car horns, and in the lines "Drive 'em on the left/ Drive 'em on the right," the lines cleverly come through those respective speakers. Simon did spend some time in England, so he would have experienced driving on both sides of the road.

This gets to the speaker's other point. If cars are the same in all countries, why do people drive them on different sides of the road in different countries? Nations can be frustratingly inconsistent; regional practices "change (even) with the curve" of a road.

This is especially apparent as one moves (or drives) around the world "from time zone to time zone." While cars treat all roads the same and don't care what the nationalities of their drivers are, people can be isolationist and "shut down their borders." While all cars are (sometimes painfully) aware that other cars can affect them, people erroneously think that by closing their eyes and ears to the outside world, they become "immune" (consider, for example, a European economic crisis, poorly understood and therefore ignored by many Americans.)

People are even proud of their "differences." Further, in the words of a James Bond film title, feel that 'the world is not enough' and so they "shoot at the Moon." Why? So they can drive there! It was Jerry Seinfeld who noted that, once on the Moon, the astronauts traveled even more a dune buggy: "The Moon wasn't far enough? There's nothing more like a guy than going all the way to the Moon just so you can drive around."

Now, most songs about cars celebrate their uniqueness and specialness to their owners, from the Beach Boys' "Little Deuce Coupe" to Prince's "Little Red Corvette," to Springsteen's songs about Cadillacs. Here, the speaker revels that they are "Similarly made/ Similarly sold... All over the world."

And yet... the speaker admits that while all cars are the same worldwide, he had one that was special: "I once had a car/ That was more like a home/ I lived in it, loved in it... If some of my homes/ Had been more like my car/ I probably wouldn’t have/ Traveled this far."

You would think that, living in a car, one would travel more than if one lived in a house. But a house could be is something so miserable or confining that it has to be escaped, and then the next one, until one finds he has moved all across the country.

Meanwhile, a car-- a very cramped living space-- actually might feel more open and free than a house with a prison-like atmosphere. When you feels trapped, you must escape. But if you can go anywhere you like, at any time, there is no need to flee; you might as well stay where you are. How many endured jail just for insisting that they wanted to leave the Soviet Union, as opposed to many in America who can move as they please, yet stay put, even for generations.

So people, who can move anywhere and become anything they like, tend to be nationalistic and politically unchanging. Meanwhile, cars, which have no volition and can only go where they are driven, are accommodating and familiar to all.

A Japanese car is perfectly at home on an American road, and vice versa. But just try that with people.

Next Song: "The Late Great Johnny Ace"


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  2. Poval, thanks for the information... but I'd hate to have to deal with traffic so loud I needed a train horn to get the other drivers' attention!