Automotive References in Music

Tim Marrs

I am not a music snob. I'm the guy with an 80-gig iPod, of which 79 gigs are empty. I think that Vampire Weekend is a Transylvanian holiday. I have tickets for one concert this summer, and it's Poison. But I do know this: For all the automotive references in music, you'd think there'd be a little more creativity. And not just because it's hard to find something that rhymes with "Koenigsegg."

Since the rock world decided, post-Beach Boys, that it was no longer cool to sing about cars, these days the car-as-muse belongs mostly to the rap and country genres. And country is sort of limited, since country singers are prohibited by law from mentioning any vehicle that's not four-wheel drive, American, and a pickup.

So the bulk of the automotive name-dropping occurs in rap, because many rap songs hew to a basic thematic structure that hinges on the dichotomy of two main ideas: One, that I have lots of things; moreover, you do not. Of course, there are exceptions to the rule. There are plenty of rap songs that aren't based on braggadocio, and there's music in other genres that is. But in general, until Alicia Keys writes a ballad about a long-wheelbase BMW 7-series, rappers are the kings of automotive name-checking.

Like many white guys born in the 1970s, I like rap, and I've witnessed the evolution of rapping about cars. I grew up with the Fresh Prince, who sang about taking his mom's new Porsche for a joyride in 1988's "Parents Just Don't Understand." ("I was arrested/The car was impounded/There was no way for me to avoid being grounded.") In 1992, Redman favorably declared himself "more Legend than Acura." And famously, there was circa-1990 Vanilla Ice, rollin' in his five-point-oh with the rag top down so his hair could blow (at least, as it would were it not welded into a towering, frosted flattop buttressed by gallons of Aqua Net).

We didn't know it at the time, but rapping about an Acura, a Ford Mustang, or even a Porsche would soon become déclassé, as everyone began bragging about the same high-end vehicles over and over. But I'm sick of hearing about Bentleys and Phantoms, Range Rovers and Navigators, Bimmers and Benzes. Do you know how many times "Lexus" has been rhymed with "Texas"? According to a quick Google search, 68,600 times, which feels a little bit low to me. And, based on my unofficial research, the only word left to be rhymed with "Escalade" is "marmalade."

Sadly, it seems the height of esoteric automotive hip-hop references occurred in 1991, with the album cover for Marky Mark's debut LP, Music for the People. Say what you will about Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch, but Marky Mark had the courage to appear on his album cover posing proudly in front of a Saab 9000. He might've been feeling the vibration, but not through the shift lever of his 9000, with its legendarily vague linkage.

Besides the dearth of creativity, there's also a lot of misinformation out there. Akon mispronounces "Gallardo" in "Smack That." In "Wanksta," 50 Cent asserts that he is also known as "Ferrari F50," which seems like a tenuous claim given Ferrari's fierce trademark protection and the fact that 50 Cent is not, technically, a car. Missy Elliot sings about "Benz Jeeps" and "Lincoln Jeeps" in her song "Hot Boyz." Now, I once got a stern letter from Velcro when I failed to refer to its product as "Velcro brand hook and loop fasteners" in a column. Doesn't Missy Elliot know that Jeep is a registered trademark of Chrysler LLC? At least when L. L. Cool J sang about the back seat of his Jeep (in the imaginatively titled "Back Seat"), he appeared to be referencing a genuine Jeep-brand vehicle. Now that I think about it, I'm surprised Chrysler didn't license that song when the Wrangler Unlimited came out with two extra inches of rear legroom. Maybe I should be in marketing.

There are, of course, exceptions to the general automotive lyrical apathy. For instance, in "The Good Life," Kanye West says, "Y'all pop the trunk, I pop the hood . . . Ferrari," alluding to the 512TR's mid-engine layout. He also mentions that part of the good life involves not getting pulled over in your "new V." At this point in the song, the video shows an illustration of some CTS-Vs. I asked a Cadillac spokesman if this was paid product placement (after all, a few years ago, McDonald's offered to pay rappers to include "Big Mac" in their lyrics), and he said that Cadillac had nothing to do with the song or the video. So Kanye might be a bit of a car guy.

But still, clearly, the rap world needs my help. There's nothing worse than a columnist who complains about problems without offering a solution, so let me proffer a few suggestions for the hip-hop world. So listen up, Flo Rida. Pull up a chair, remaining members of the Wu-Tang Clan, as I enlighten you on ways to expand your automotive vocabulary.

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