The second-most-watched video ever on YouTube is basically car porn: Seen more than 3 billion times, Wiz Khalifa’s music video for “See You Again,” a tribute to the late Paul Walker from the Furious 7 soundtrack, opens with crooner Charlie Puth warbling at a piano, for some reason stationed on a cliff next to a pair of grimly sleek muscle cars at sunset. The rest of the music video showcases classic and contemporary Dodges in a variety of bold hues. It might be standard product-placement rap-video fare, but in the context of YouTube, the music video’s automobile adulation actually clashes with the ways we usually see automobiles on the video platform: as ordinary, anonymous, cozy, and a bit drab and sterile. America’s waning love affair with cars may be most visible on its newest mass entertainment medium. Cars are everywhere on YouTube, and they look really, really boring.
YouTube is host to countless microgenres, and automobile interiors pop up in a great many of them. The meanings that cars take on shift from video to video, of course, but we can spot a few constants, whether it’s in a review of a Taco Bell item or a pukey-cutesy couple monetizing their pukey cutesiness with wholesome duets.
It’s not hard to see why we find so many car interiors on YouTube. Vloggers, many of whom mount a camera on the dashboard, get to enjoy a kind of makeshift studio in a car cabin: a background noise–free environs and a built-in proscenium made of the car frame. Based on what we can see through their windows, some vloggers drive while recording; others don’t. Many of the cabins are scrupulously (and unrealistically) uncluttered. The result is intimate, but not too intimate.
Practically speaking, there is, of course, endless YouTube content about all manner of automobiles by and for gearheads. But cars seem to be less culturally integrated in both the videos and the commercials on the rest of YouTube. (Contrast that relative absence with the ubiquity of car commercials on TV, car product placements in movies, and car scenes in both of those media.)
Cars have traditionally symbolized aspirations: for freedom and independence, luxury and status, sexiness and aesthetic appeal. Arguably none of those qualities can be discerned in the Report of the Week’s review of Taco Bell’s nacho fries, an 11-minute video that trended on YouTube last week. The anonymous vlogger behind the account, which boasts more than 600,000 subscribers, dons a stiff-looking Edwardian suit that jars delightfully with the kindergarten-colored Taco Bell sign outside the driver’s side window. (Suits are his visual signature.) But in all other respects, the video is like many other fast-food review videos on YouTube: a vlogger delivering personality-driven patter while looking into the camera in an emptied-out car in a parking lot. Viewers likely have no idea what brand the automobile is, nor is anything in the cabin worth a second glance. In contrast with, say, a video recorded in a bedroom or a living room, these car-set videos lack the revealing details that give those homey vlogs a sense of raw authenticity, as most cars look the same from the inside. Taken in the aggregate, fast-food reviews even beat out dashcam crash videos in deglamorizing cars. Dashcam videos at least offer spectacle. I don’t ever want to smell the inside of a fast-food review car.
Still, it’s important not to discount the casual and conversational bonhomie evoked by “sitting” in a car with a vlogger. With dashboard cameras so physically close to most YouTube creators, videos set in cars tend to evoke the proximity and familiarity of the chitchat and heart-to-hearts that often take place in a vehicle’s front row. Replicating the focus on words over images that we associate with conversations during extended drives, this video featuring a young woman talking about her dumpster-diving treasures uses the intimacy of a car cabin to dish about a rarely discussed, if not illicit, activity. The iconic “David After Dentist” video, seen more than 137 million times, elicits memories of wholesome family fun in the car, as does this Frozen duet from “Good Looking” Christian family vloggers Sam and Nia Rader. Even this somewhat less squeaky-clean prank video, of two brothers tricking their drugged-out little sister into believing that the zombie apocalypse is nigh, suggests enviable familial closeness.
That hermeticism takes on a darker tone in rant videos, like the one that launched the Nov. 4 conspiracy theory about an Antifa uprising. To truthers, cars must feel like a safe space—and to their skeptics, a symbol of their ideological silos. Right-wingers, who dominate YouTube politically, might also consciously or unconsciously enjoy occupying the driver’s seat, which we tend to align with patriarchal or parental authority.
Cars still retain their orthodox meanings in many pockets of YouTube. Lambo gawking isn’t hard to find; nor are “new year, new car” brags. But the largely unexceptional nature of automobiles may simply be a reflection of the platform’s younger-skewing demo, which tends to buy fewer cars and drive less than previous generations. Cars may be losing their allure among Generation Z, and they don’t seem to be getting it back on a platform that half of them, in one study at least, claim they “can’t live without.” It can’t be a great sign for the car industry if some of the funniest recent videos set in automobiles are celebrity-stacked ads for Lyft.