Future Tense

How Will Pop Music Adapt to Autonomous Cars?

After decades of driving in hit songs, American lyricists will have to get used to the passenger seat.

A car stereo and a self-driving car steering wheel.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock.

A brief scan of the lyrical landscape reveals what the car represents in American culture. There’s machismo, naturally, as with the sunny bravado as the Beach Boys bop: “We always take my car, ’cause it’s never been beat/ And we’ve never missed yet with the girls we meet.” Commitment: “I drove all night to get to you.” Luxury and power: “Pull up in the monster, automobile gangsta/ With a bad bitch that came from Sri Lanka/ Yeah, I’m in that Tonka, color of Willy Wonka/ You could be the king, but watch the queen conquer.”

There’s liberation, “Ridin’ along in my automobile/ My baby beside me at the wheel,” sometimes salted with limitation, “You got a fast car/ Is it fast enough so we can fly away?” And, of course, with little red Corvettes, pink Cadillacs, Mustang Sallys, and keys stuck in the ignition, every shade of sexual metaphor.

The car, in other words, distills so many of America’s cultural values: rebellion, love, money, adventure, independence. Yet its place in our country’s collective consciousness seems to be on the brink of change. On-demand ride-hailing apps are beginning to erode the version of the American dream in which all citizens aspire to possess wheels of their own. Self-driving cars, as Robert Moor wrote in New York magazine, seem poised to transform our “republic of drivers” into “a nation of passengers.” But as the automobile takes on a new life in our society—one that will likely leave traditional ideas of ownership and autonomy in the dust—will it find a new place in our pop canon, too?

We may already be starting to hear it.

It’s worthwhile to recall just how intertwined American pop music and the American car really are. To start, the two share a strikingly overlapping historical arc. The 1910s and Roaring ’20s brought both the mass production of the Model “Tin Lizzie” T and the mass proliferation of radio stations across the United States. (It only took until 1922 for the two to be paired together.) By the mid-’50s, the sprawling interstate highway system was paving the way for the country’s now iconic midcentury car culture. Freeways and the vehicles people drove on them fueled American conceptions of individuality and freedom. Hot rods. Drive-ins. James Dean. The open road. Around the same time, the ascendance of rock ’n’ roll was reshaping our culture along similar contours. Unsurprisingly, the two often crossed. Some credit Jackie Brenston’s 1951 swinging hit “Rocket 88,” an ode to the much-coveted Rocket 88 Oldsmobile (and to women and booze), as the first rock ’n’ roll record. Or maybe it’sMaybellene,” Chuck Berry’s rollicking 1955 blues track about a V8 Ford, a Cadillac, and the namesake woman who just “can’t … be true.”

As Berry’s producer said, “the big beat, the cars, and young love; it was a trend and we jumped on it.”

Through the next decades, countless sets of wheels burned lyrical tire skids onto the road of pop music. The ’60s saw the Beach Boys make a career on odes to California’s youth, surf, and cars, and Bob Dylan revisit Highway 61. The ’70s blasted the hydraulic bass line of “Low Rider” and the defiant coming-of-age drive of “Born to Run.” By the ’80s, Prince was singing about a woman as fast as a certain diminutive ruby Chevrolet, Billy Ocean was imploring another to “get outta [his] dreams, [and] get into [his] car,” and Pebbles, with a wink, was asking a man if he wants to ride in her Mercedes. Shifting gears, the ’90s rocked to Tom Cochrane’s “Life Is a Highway,” rolled to Coolio’s “Fantastic Voyage,” and rode the darkened highway of the Wallflowers’ “One Headlight.” And as the world cruised into the new millennium, Rihanna issued her terse mandate to “Shut Up and Drive,” and M.I.A.’s love letter to “Bad Girls” had her coolly informing listeners that her “Chain hits my chest/ When I’m bangin’ on the dashboard.”

Indeed, if you look back at the second half of the 20th century and the early part of the 21st, you’ll notice a trifecta of car culture, youth, and pop music. As Moor wrote in his New York magazine piece about the place of the driver in American culture, “Teens made love in cars; car radios played pop music featuring lyrics about cars and lovesick teens, in rhythms that alternated between a slow cruise and a racing clip, tender one moment, savage the next.”

And yet, in recent years, things have begun to change. For one, Americans seem to be pumping the breaks on our car love fest. The percentage of people with driver’s licenses has been declining. (According to a study using 2014 data, nearly a third of 19-year-olds didn’t have one). As has the percentage of households with cars and the amount of time we spend in these vehicles. On top of that, we’re increasingly swapping our role in cars from driver to passenger; ride-share services like Lyft and Uber continue to make inroads in more cities. These companies are also racing against others like Waymo, Tesla, Toyota, GM, and Ford to roll out fully autonomous vehicles on our streets, too.

Music listeners are already starting to hear the transformation of this relationship in songs. Swedish pop star Zara Larsson dismisses a suitor on 2016’s “Ain’t My Fault”: “It’s light outside/ I just called an Uber, and it’s right outside.” On “All Night,” Chance the Rapper delivers the slick diss: “You should use your phone, call a Uber/ You a goofy if you think I don’t know you need a Lyft.” And on the Run the Jewels 3 track “Talk to Me,” Killer Mike delivers a story with a last line that might strike an ear attuned to rap artists in the front seat while riding dirty with more than a little dissonance:

Customs found a joint in my passport

Pulled cash, and I gave him what he asked for

Goddammit, it’s a motherfuckin’ miracle

Small bribe, made it back into America

Hit Uber and maneuvered out the area.

These songs still hit on the social status the car has long carried. And, like cabs and black cars before it, there can be a freedom in being able to summon a car. But it’s hard to ignore a new kind of dependence signaled by each of these lyrics, too. Imagining Killer Mike waiting at the curb outside ATL baggage claim, impatiently checking his iPhone, somehow doesn’t carry the same cachet as, say, him driving away in a Camaro.

Some of these tracks seem tied to the awkwardness of transitioning to a future in which, as many predict, cars will be increasingly shared à la connected, on-demand systems like Lyft and Uber. If we don’t own our own vehicles, cars may lose some of their status as signifiers of personality, tribe, and wealth. Think of what 2003’s “Act a Fool,” recorded for the second installment of street-racing movie franchise The Fast and the Furious, might sound like sans Ludacris’ boasting about his souped-up car. Perhaps that’s why, on the 2016 hit “Uber Everywhere,” rapper MadeinTYO wants you to know that, despite his proclivity to use the ride-hailing app, “Yeah, I wanna get the [Fer]’Rari, but I know it takes some time (skrrt-skrrt).” (He also wants listeners to know that, after the song went viral, he switched his allegiances to Lyft.)

There’s another important dimension to this question, too. As the psychologist Adam Waytz wrote for Slate, as driverless cars become more commonplace, “these technologies could bump up against the prized American autonomy.” What has this vehicular volition traditionally looked like? Waytz offers the examples of “tailgating, conscientious speed-limit-monitoring, passive aggression toward walkway pedestrians, [and] highway-traversing pursuits of the fastest lane.” As with the notion of ownership, these new limitations, too, are likely to inflect the visceral union in music of car and driver.

Take the trope of the getaway car so often invoked in songs. Would Taylor Swift have written her 2017 track “Getaway Car”—“You were drivin’ the getaway car/ We were flyin’, but we never get far”—in a world stuffed with autonomous vehicles that have tightly regulated speeds to prevent dangerous driving? Would Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s 2002 collaboration “’03 Bonnie & Clyde”—their version of the glamorized, almost spectral outlaws speeding away in a stolen car—be plausible set in 2040, unless they were world-class hackers? Would taking up Bruce Springsteen’s offer on 1975’s “Thunder Road” of “Well, the night’s busting open/ these two lanes will take us anywhere” have felt as spontaneous if “anywhere” had to be a preset route with a fare attached to it?

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that the car will disappear from music. There have been plenty of evocative songs about cars that don’t involve being in the driver’s seat, including Iggy Pop’s 1977 songThe Passenger,” on which the singer suggests, “So let’s take a ride to see what’s mine,” and Charli XCX’s recent track, “Backseat,” which employs the car to conjure an image of confinement, of being trapped, like a rider, in a relationship the song’s narrators have checked out of.

What’s more, driverless cars may make us shake old notions of the passenger as an inherently passive seat. Being a modern passenger comes with the autonomy of being able to call a car at any time and still set our destinations. In the future, we may be able to stylize the interior with our own lighting, videoscapes, and soundtracks. Though driverless cars may make it harder to break the rules of the road, freed of the obligations of driving, we may get the opportunity to break many more while on the road: more sex, drugs, and rebellious escapes—and, certainly, the lyrics to match.

As part of what may be the last generation of drivers—I’m 27, and obtaining my license at 16 was considered an essential rite of passage—I can already feel the future nostalgia for the exhilaration of pressing the gas pedal and pressing play on heart-racing music fueled by the sensation of being behind the wheel. But with the uncertain path ahead, it’s also downright fun to try to anticipate how our musical musings might adapt. Part of the reason the symbolism of the car endures in the American mind is because of its transmutability. People have been able to take this everyday consumer invention and cast and recast it as an intimate, shape-shifting metaphor for life and the way we live it. Though we may not own or drive these future cars, my guess is that we’ll continue to call on them as vehicles—to borrow from Carly Rae Jepsen—to “go get lost … to take the long way home.”