New Inroads in Music Research: At the Intersection of Cars and Popular Music

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In conversation with Prof. Kenneth McLeod

What do you get when you cross popular music with North American car culture? This is the subject of five years of academic research by U of T Professor of Music History and Culture, Dr. Kenneth McLeod. The answer to the question lies within Dr. McLeod’s newest book, Driving Identities: At the Intersection of Popular Music and Automotive Culture. (Routledge, 2020). The book examines the evolving relationship between popular music and automotive culture over the past century, revealing the role of both cars and music in defining social and cultural identities. McLeod undermines perceived divisions between art and industry, suggesting that music strengthens rather than severs our relationship with automobiles, and vice versa.

Dr. McLeod is no stranger to unusual pairings between popular music and popular culture. His previous book, We are the Champions (Ashgate, 2011), explores the relationship between popular music and sports; he has also written about the role of music in science fiction. Dr. McLeod believes academic study of popular music is key to understanding “the everyday human condition.” “If we don’t understand the music of the present and what work that music is doing in people’s everyday lives then I think we’re missing a huge part of music’s power and efficacy.” It’s an area of study he believes warrants more attention: “We’re tremendously concerned about the food we consume...but we spend precious little energy considering the music and sounds we consume.”

Dr. McLeod makes a convincing case for the similarities between music and cars. “Both cultures are inherently about literally and figuratively moving us. They are both intimately connected to notions of freedom and liberation—whether physical or emotional. They are both often about human leisure. They are also cultures that are both tied to industrial mass production, marketing and consumption.” Indeed, music plays an important role in connecting drivers to their cars, to form a “human-machine entity” that Dr. McLeod terms the “auto-self.” “[When driving a car] we tend to leave the constraints of our physical bodies behind and we often temporarily adopt a new personality, identity, or feeling...Music is often used to enhance these experiences."

As Dr. McLeod clarifies, the identities formed at the intersection of automotive and popular music culture are not monolithic: “car and music cultures often work together in different ways to drive various identities.” In the book, he discusses how both cultures have been used to reinforce and contest traditional notions of sexuality and gender. He also examines the role of music and cars in constructing African American identities, and in resisting white supremacy. Dr. McLeod draws parallels between car modification and techniques of sampling and remixing in rap, as two kinds of “resistive acts of modification,” that challenge white-dominated industrial control.

Today, Dr. McLeod notices a decline in the number of songs celebrating cars. “[Car culture] isn’t as central to youth culture as in previous decades—certainly at least in part because of concerns around environmental ethics. The internet, and other forms of virtual travel, have perhaps replaced the sense of freedom and liberation that the car offered youth culture in the past.” Yet the current COVID-19 pandemic may shift this dynamic yet again. “Cars, ironically, are seen as relatively safe socially distanced havens...There have been numerous musical concerts, raves, and drive in theater events across Europe and North America that are being held for audiences and participants self-isolating in their cars.” Dr. McLeod himself uses music to summarize the current situation, quoting Gary Numan’s hit song “Cars:”

Here in my car I feel safest of all

I can lock all my doors,

It’s the only way to live,

In cars.