I could have been crying while I drove into work.
I can’t say for sure. Of all the things I remember from that particular Monday, this minor detail escapes me. I say minor because if there were, in fact, tears, what I can say with absolute certainty is that it was nothing significant. It’s not like I was sobbing or anything, with snot running out of my nose. No, you remember those kinds of cries. The kind where it’s painful, and you can’t catch your breath. The kind where the hurt buried deep down finally explodes through to the surface and snatches you by the throat. The kind where the tears flow like a faucet and seem permanent.
I’ve had this happen to me just once — thank God — but that’s a story for another time.
This was nothing close to that. If I was crying, it was happening for no other reason other than it was Monday, and Mondays can have a way of bringing you down, or at least they can for me — as another 40 hours of soul-sucking work lies in wait. Trivial, I know, in the grand scheme of things. After all, some people can’t work due to some sort of medical condition, which traps them in a vicious cycle of poverty. Or they work for practical pennies on the dollar, also trapping them in a vicious cycle of poverty. Or, if we want to expand our lens out to include the vast array of human suffering worldwide, some folks never have to worry about working for a living ever again after their lives are tragically cut short by literal bombs raining down on the hospital where they stayed and had been staying for months, hovering over the bed of their sick and dying child; their collective fates determined by nothing more than having the unfortunate luck of being born in a place where things like hospital bombings happen.
Of course, it’s impossible to keep a perspective like this at the forefront of our thoughts constantly. It’s too exhausting because it takes work — actual, legitimate, hard work — seeing as it goes against our default mode of thinking. That default way of thinking being to place ourselves at the very center of the universe all the time. A center where our feelings, however insignificant they are, can at times take on a level of importance far more significant than any genocidal war crime or socio-political issue that plagues the poor among us.
The work of perspective is vital. But it was work I found myself unable and unwilling to do on this particular Monday.
I also can’t say for sure when I noticed the driver behind me. Glancing at the guy in my rearview mirror, I could see he was singing. Not surprising, mind you. Tons of people sing in the car. Honestly, it’s where I do my best work — the shower being a close second. But what this guy was doing was something different. Something more than just singing. He was into it. Like really into it. His head bobbed up and down and side to side, grooving to the music which I naturally couldn’t hear. He even went so far as to do that little head dance that Chris Tucker made famous in that movie (you know exactly what I’m talking about, you’ve done it, too).
Pretty soon — and I don’t know if it was a change in song that did it or if an invisible lighting bolt from the heavens struck him — but this dude blew way past the point of merely singing and began putting on what I can only describe as a full-blown automotive concert. His whole body started feeling it, not just his head, with his hand going up, up, up the way it does when singers hit one of those showstopping high notes. You know the one. Where the singer closes their eyes and makes a face like a nail just shot up through their foot, or they stepped on a Lego (I’ve never had a nail go through my foot, but I have stepped on many a Lego in the dark, and I imagine the pain is similar. If the streets of Heaven are paved with gold, the ones in Hell are lined with Legos, and no one has shoes). Just to be clear, this driver didn’t close his eyes. He only made the face. But he did it with his eyes open which, to be honest, was slightly disturbing looking. Like watching someone sneeze without blinking — it looks off.
Thinking back on it now, I don’t know what’s more impressive. The guy’s performance or the fact he managed to do it while going 70 mph with the car never even swerving a millimeter out of the lane.
He followed behind me for probably a handful of songs before we took the same exit off the jam-packed interstate. We came around a bend in the road, headed towards a red light up ahead. I shifted lanes to go straight through the intersection, and he stayed put to turn left, causing us to stop right next to each other at the red light. At this point, I couldn’t help it. I started staring. Just being a real creep, honestly. But my God, what a performance this guy was putting on, belting out note after note — I still couldn’t hear him — with that intense level of emotion all the greats have that seems out of this world. Like it rests in some faraway, magical place, and only a select few of us mere mortals can tap into it. Think Freddie Mercury commanding the Live Aid stage in ’85. Or this guy across from me, behind the wheel of a gold Toyota Corolla.
I stared at him for as long as it takes a red light to turn green, smiling ear to ear the whole time. And if I had any tears to begin with they were long gone by now. The dread I felt driving to work had disappeared somewhere along the way, too. I wasn’t happy, per se. I wouldn’t go that far. But I was…lighter — overwhelmed by the feeling that, despite my mood, everything was just fine. Which it always was. Nothing about that morning had changed except me.
And the driver, he never did catch me staring at him. He was gone. Lost in the music. And after what could have been thirty seconds or five minutes, the light turned green, and he went his way, and I went mine, and that was that.
It would be days later before it finally dawned on me how strange and wonderful that whole morning was. And how distinctly American it was, too.
Titling this piece “The Most American American Thing” is redundant and perhaps even slightly annoying but hear me out. There are plenty of so-called American things, and it doesn’t take much thought or effort to rattle off a ton of them. Just off the top of my head, there are: Hotdogs, Baseball, Fried Food, George Washington, Pickup Trucks, Freedom, Guns. I could keep going and going, but you get the picture. This country, if nothing else, has an incredible public relations team that has associated quite a bit of stuff with the good ol’ US of A. But I would like to propose a theory that there is one and only one thing that is uniquely American — something no other place in the world can claim. Something that is solely ours. To do that, though, we need to examine this country’s relationship with some of the other “American” things, so let’s start with the list I mentioned above.
While it’s true we’re the only nation in existence that celebrates its birthday with a competition to see who can jam the most hotdogs down their gullet in an allotted amount of time, the hotdog isn’t native to America. Like most of America’s cuisine, it was brought over by immigrants, specifically German immigrants, who started up hotdog carts in New York City in the 1800s. And as they say, the rest is history. One thing that should be pointed out about American culture as a whole, not just the country’s food scene –although that might be the best example — is that we didn’t actually invent a lot of what we call ours. Our culture is a remix culture. We take bits and pieces of things from all across the world, throw a little American-ness on top of them, and voila, we got something new. That’s not to say this is bad. Quite the opposite. Hip-hop has turned into the most prominent musical genre in the world and uses precisely this same technique. Picasso said it best: “Good artists copy, great artists steal.” And we can steal with the best of them.
“But what about baseball?” you’re probably asking. “It was invented here, and it’s the nation’s pastime. Shouldn’t it be the most American American thing?” Well, no, it shouldn’t. Not even close.
Yes, baseball was invented here, and it’s a beautiful game, but it isn’t ours anymore. The game’s gone global. To illustrate this point, let’s look back at last year’s All-Star game. The winning pitcher: Japanese. The MVP: Canadian/Dominican. If you were to examine the entire All-Star roster, you’d find players from all over Latin America, parts of Asia, and even a guy from Australia thrown in the mix. In fact, baseball is as exciting as it’s been in years, with guys like Shohei Ohtani transforming into something we haven’t seen since Babe Ruth, and Latin American players like Fernando Tatis Jr., Ronald Acuna Jr., and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (shoutout to their dads), along with countless others, infusing a much-needed youthful exuberance into the game.
There’s a case to be made — and a pretty convincing one — that if you were a scout tasked with finding baseball’s next big prospect, the United States might be not the best place to start. You might be better off starting somewhere like the Dominican Republic or Venezuela. Baseball isn’t solely America’s anymore. And that’s okay. Let it be our gift to the world.
Continuing down our list, fried food dates back to the 2nd millennium, so there’s nothing uniquely American there. Though our collective cholesterol levels do serve as evidence that we are, without a doubt, the fried food kings of the world. George Washington is an American icon, sure, but there’s nothing unique about being a founding father. Fukuzawa Yukichi is that for modern Japan. For Portugal, there’s Afonso Henriques. Every country has a dad.
Like baseball, pickup trucks were invented here but have since become prevalent worldwide. That being said, we are the only people who feel the incessant urge to write songs about them, for whatever reason. (The greatest of the pickup truck song genre is none other than “Pickup Man” by Joe Diffie — a man who sported the greatest mullet-mustache combo in music history. “That Ain’t My Truck” by non-mulleted, non-mustached Rhett Akins rounds out the top two — a song in which our narrator realizes he failed to win the heart of a woman after discovering another man’s truck in her driveway, which is a scenario that could only happen in America.)
Freedom is such a vague term that it’s hard to parse out what someone means when they say it. Upon hearing the word, I suspect the first inclination is to immediately pair it with something like democracy, which isn’t entirely incorrect, but it also isn’t uniquely American. Democracy dates back to the ancient Greeks — a full five hundred years before Christ — so claiming democracy is an American thing would be like claiming that trees or rocks or breathing oxygen are distinctively American. Nevertheless, this country does possess a particular kind of freedom which we’ll get into in a bit. Guns are…
[begins to sweat a little] Well shit…
Alright. So in keeping with the spirit of this piece, guns are unquestionably the most American American thing, and the evidence is quite damning. We’re the only nation with more guns than people. We’re the only nation whose mythology literally starts with the citizenry taking up arms to gain independence. And we’re the only nation where one of the most intense and divisive political debates centers around the issue of firearms and often comes at the expense of more pressing and more foundational issues, like education or healthcare or corruption — issues that, if we had enough courage and political will-power to resolve could mean improving the actual day to day lives of millions of Americans and fulfilling the promise of this country that “all men are created equal.”
But I’ve already outlined the rest of this piece. So instead of changing up the proverbial horse mid-stream, let’s move forward with the original plan, all the while acknowledging that guns are indeed the most American American thing and that this writer is somewhat of an idiot — which is true. Okay? Okay.
The most American of all American things likely won’t come as a surprise, but chances are it’s not the first thing that springs to mind when presented with the task of pinpointing the most unique aspect of our culture. In fact, it’s so incredibly obvious that most of us don’t give it much thought, provided nothing of importance happens while engaging in the activity — a perfect example of the phrase “hidden in plain sight.” It’s something we spend over 290 hours a year doing, with almost 100 of them spent inching along at a snail’s pace (a number that skews heavily towards folks living in dense, urban areas, but still eye-popping nonetheless).
If you haven’t guessed it by now — and you probably have — I’m talking about the rather innocuous act of driving. I would like to posit to you that the most patriotic activity we could ever engage in — more patriotic than, say, reciting the pledge of allegiance or singing along to the national anthem, or emblazoning every piece of clothing we own with bald eagles soaring through the air carrying American flags in their talons — is simply getting behind the wheel, cranking up the radio, and going somewhere. Anywhere.
Because, you see, the United States has something going for it most other countries don’t: this place is enormous. There is a ton of space in America, and it feels as if this facet of the country’s identity is rarely talked about, or at the very least, under-appreciated. Consider this: The United States is the third most populous country — behind only China and India — with over 330 million people. Ranking for landmass, we come in at fourth overall. But, if we’re talking about population density, meaning the number of people living within a square mile, America ranks out of 232 countries…174th.
There are gigantic swaths of the United States in which very few people live. We are spread out in a way no other country with this high a population is. In fact, not a single American city ranks in the top 50 worldwide in terms of population density, making the crowded streets of New York City look like a ghost town when compared to places like Mumbai and Kolkata, India, or Karachi, Pakistan, or Lagos, Nigeria, where millions upon millions of folks are packed together at rates 2-4 times higher than the city that never sleeps.
But it’s easy to get lost in the numbers, especially if you’re someone like me — a fully grown man who graduated college with a decent GPA yet still finds himself sometimes counting with his fingers like he’s a kindergartener. So for those of us in a rocky relationship with numbers, let’s see if we can break it down in a more digestible way. Let’s take the great state of Montana and the country of Germany, which is probably equally great. Both places are roughly the same size. But while the population of Montana is barely over a million people, Germany comes in at around 83 million — good for the 19th most populated country in the world. Pause and think about that. A European stalwart like Germany — a place with its own culture and language, and a country that’s a true power player on the world’s stage — fits its top 20 population into the same space as America’s 44th most populated state.
And we can keep going. Take France and Texas: both are similar in size, but France has 42 million more people living inside its borders than does Texas. (If you’re looking to kill some time, this website allows you to compare states in America with countries around the world, giving you detailed map overlays along with small blurbs of information, and it’s perhaps the best way to visualize what it is we’re talking about here.)
But perhaps there isn’t a better way to showcase how expansive the USA is than to talk about U.S. Route 20 — the longest road in America. Clocking in at 3,365 miles, it runs the entire length of the country, from Boston, Massachusetts, to Newport, Oregon. Folks who’ve finished this iconic American road trip claim the journey takes between 56 – 60 hours of driving time, but for the purposes of this exercise, we’ll use the low end of 56 hours. In roughly that same amount of time, you could drive the entire length of Great Britain five times, or you could go from Lisbon, Portugal, to Moscow, or you could make the trip from Athens, Greece, to Storslett, Sweden — a route that would take you through 9 different countries and include driving the entire length of Sweden.
We are a massive country with a massive amount of space. Whether you’re talking about the vast expanse of land or the size of the portions on our plates at supper, to be American is to be big. And though this fact of American life is lost on most of us — the way anything would be when you’re constantly surrounded by it — it isn’t lost on international tourists. Go to any website that aims to help foreign travelers familiarize themselves with the United States before visiting, and you’ll find this exact fact mentioned (I’m talking about the amount of space, not the size of our food, though that gets a mention most times, as well. Also, did you know Americans are “relentlessly friendly?”).
With all this space comes the question of how to travel across it all. And in America, that means the automobile, which has become a mainstay in our culture and a basic necessity of life for folks not living in New York City — the only city in this country with anything resembling a fully functioning public transit system.
You don’t need me to tell you how important the car is to American culture. You know. You were a teenager once. Or you’ve seen The Fast and Furious movies. Or, hell, any movie for that matter, where at the end, our hero rides off into the setting sun towards a new beginning, the camera craning up to show us nothing but the open road, the music swelling to its climax just before the screen smashes to black, leaving us with a feeling of immense hope that our battered and beaten hero will find their peace a little further down the road.
Or what about NASCAR? I don’t have anything clever or insightful to say about it other than it’s wild that a sport like that even exists (and is there a more apt metaphor for American life than going really, really fast in a circle over and over again?).
Jokes aside, the very identity of what it means to be an American is tied up in a meaningful way with the experience of driving. Examples of this are everywhere. For starters, our primary form of identification in this country is a driver’s license — a small piece of plastic that’s needed for damn-near everything, from getting on a plane to buying a bottle of wine if you look under 40. Which I do.
Turning sixteen is a landmark occasion in our culture, not for any biological reason but because that’s the age we’ve decided a person can drive without mom and dad’s supervision. And it’s the first real feather in the cap for any teenager’s impending adulthood. Then there’s the idea of the American road trip, an idea as perverse as any in our culture. So much so that it isn’t uncommon for retirees to sell most of what they own — things that have taken them almost a lifetime to accumulate — and live out their final years in an RV, as if the open road is a sort of pilgrimage every American is compelled to complete before their time comes to an end.
And it’s this ability to pick up and go, whenever and wherever, without anyone or any entity’s permission, that is the true marker of freedom in this country. Our destinations here in America are determined only by grit and gasoline. Nothing else. And when people talk about freedom, at the core, this is what they mean, even if they aren’t able to articulate it in this kind of way.
I mean, hell, even the roads in this country are famous. “Get your kicks on Route 66.” Is there any other place on Earth that writes songs about long stretches of pavement? Probably. But I guarantee they aren’t as catchy.
And speaking of music, this marriage of the road and music is critical to the experience of driving. As in, it’s impossible to separate the two. Case in point, let’s imagine you happen to get in the car with someone for the first time — not a total stranger, though, because that’s a big no-no, but rather a long-time yet somewhat mysterious co-worker who’s kind enough to give you a lift after your car wouldn’t start. And in this imaginary scenario, the two of you have made it halfway to your house with the car ride up until this point happening in complete and utter silence. The kind of silence that’s so loud you can’t think properly. So finally, in an attempt to break the painful silence, you say something bland like, “The radio not working?”, to which you expect to hear an equally bland response in which your co-worker confirms your suspicion. Because why would anyone drive in silence? But instead, without hesitation, your co-worker says, “No, it works. I just prefer the hum of the road when I’m driving, you know?”
Upon hearing this, you know one of two things is true. Either 1) this person has definitely killed someone and stuffed their head in a freezer, or 2) You are about to be killed and your head stuffed in a freezer. Because only someone who is eaten to the bone by the devil himself would hate listening to music while driving.
But for the first twenty years of the car’s existence, driving in silence wasn’t seen as cause for concern. It was the only way to drive. Car radios came along eventually, but their early iterations were too impractical and costly, making them more of a headache than an essential part of the experience. However, all that would change in 1930 when a newly formed company named Motorola — yes, the same one that’s around today — developed a radio that was compact enough to fit inside the car and somewhat affordable enough to make them more widespread (the initial price was about $150, equivalent to almost $1,200 today).
Since then, there’s been no going back. As the price of the car fell within the price range of America’s rising middle class, the technology inside the dash improved year after year. In 1952 during America’s car culture boom, the first in-car FM radio was invented. In ’65, eight-track players burst onto the scene. Followed by cassette tapes in the ’70s and CDs in the ’80s to today, when every song ever recorded in human history is instantly available thanks to streaming services. Our soundtracks are now only limited by our imagination.
We have become our own perfect DJs, armed with an endless amount of songs ready to fit any human emotion possible.
Feeling a little down and don’t mind sitting in the sadness for a bit? May I suggest the pain-soaked ballads of country crooner George Jones? A man whose voice is tinged with so much heartbreak, you might just drift down to the nearest bar to drown your sorrows — one stiff drink at a time.
Or, if you want to go the complete opposite and liven up your spirits, there’s “September” by Earth, Wind, and Fire — a guaranteed jam no person in the world has ever resisting not dancing to. It’s impossible. If a crazed assailant had a pistol pointed at your dear grandmother’s head and told you that if you so much as tapped your foot during the song, your lovely grandmother was a goner, my guess is you wouldn’t even make past the twelve-second mark. Which is the part where the horn section comes barreling in. And by the time Maurice White’s sultry, smooth voice asked, “Do you remember?” — you’d hear the bang and the thud….and you still wouldn’t be able to stop dancing. Because the ba-do-do-ba-do-ba-do-do-ba-do part is coming up, and who can resist that?
Should you find yourself in a good mood behind the wheel, though, your options become literally endless. You can go the classic rock route, turning up anything from ACDC or Queen or Thin Lizzy or Rush or every Springsteen album minus Nebraska (Nebraska isn’t really an album meant to be consumed while in a good mood. It’s bleak, but it’s his best). Or there’s Hendrix or The Stones or Skynyrd or any other artist your dad or uncle perpetual plays on repeat, as if the world stopped making music after 1988.
If you aren’t in the mood for rock n’ roll, no worries. There’s always hip-hop. Folks like Jay-Z and Outkast and Eminem and 50 Cent and Mike Jones (who?) and Missy Elliot and Kanye before he went crazy, and if it seems like my hip-hop references are outdated as hell, it’s because my knowledge of the genre falls off a cliff after 2010. I recently queued up a hip-hop playlist from Apple Music, and while I recognized some of the newer names on the list — guys like Kendrick Lamar and J.Cole — most of the artists were unknown to me. And in some songs, the artist was mumbling so much that I couldn’t make out any of the lyrics. So yeah… I’m officially old (I wonder if my New Balances will just show up in the mail, or is there some form I need to fill out?).
Then there’s the world of pop music — a genre that reached its apex on July 23, 2010, with the release of Katy Perry’s smash hit single, “Teenage Dream.”
I’m not sure how to describe this song other than to say if it was a drug, it would be pure bubblegum heroin. With its sing-songy chorus and breathy verses, “Teenage Dream” wraps you up in a warm blanket of pop euphoria, carrying you away to a place where everything is beautiful and nothing hurts. And like all great pop songs, it gives you the space to be pulled back into the past of your youth, where love felt free and easy and intense. Where you could sing lyrics like “We’ll be young forever” without even the slightest bit of irony or doubt in your voice. Because back then, when the butterflies in your stomach were a constant, and you burned white-hot with so much passion and life, you couldn’t help but feel like all of this would last forever.
Of course, all this turns out to be a lie. Nothing lasts forever. Eventually, time eats everything, and that forever feeling you had turns into nothing more than a memory. Or better yet, a dream you sometimes get to revisit, should the right song come along and take you back there. Even if you only get to stay for 3 minutes and 48 seconds.
While “Teenage Dream” might be the height of pop’s greatness — at least in this writer’s humble opinion — that doesn’t mean there isn’t a wealth of other pop artists to be enjoyed. There’s Rihanna and Lady Gaga and Beyonce and Lizzo and Harry Styles and Adele and Justin Bieber and Dua Lipa and Billie Eilish and Bruno Mars and BTS and Brittney Spears and any of the ’90s boybands — N’Sync being the best — and Michael Jackson and Prince and Elton John and a whole slew of other artists both classic and present to choose from because the world has yet to run out of pop music.
When the last bombs fall, and the world has been decimated to ash, a catchy melody will still be playing somewhere. If there’s one thing that will last forever, it’s pop music. And probably roaches. Them bastards are tough.
If pure pop isn’t your jam, you can always seek out the genre’s slightly troubled and, for my money better, distant musical cousin: pop-punk. For those unfamiliar with the genre, pop-punk combines the melodies, rhythms, and overall catchiness of pop but coats it all in a heavy glaze of power chords, distorted guitars, and uber emotional lyrics dripping in angst — which is just a fancy way of saying you’re pissed off without having anything to be angry about, mainly because you’re a white, suburban kid.
Green Day and Blink 182 were among the first pop-punk bands to find widespread commercial success in the 1990s. But the genre’s heyday came along in the 2000s, with bands like Sum 41, Brand New, Fall Out Boy, Paramore, New Found Glory, All American Rejects, Avril Lavigne, My Chemical Romance, Taking Back Sunday, Jimmy Eat World, and countless other bands whose outfits consisted of fingerless gloves, studded belts, black eye-liner and hairstyles like this…
Here, I feel the need to pause and share something personal. I consider myself a private person, so sharing something like this feels a little out of character, particularly out in the open to a group of strangers. And if I’m being honest, the fear of being judged is genuine. But this is important for all of y’all to hear, so here it goes.
Dear Alabama Take Readers,
I believe I am the best pop-punk steering wheel drummer on the planet.
Whew…that felt good.
Seriously, I’m one of the best to ever do it. If there was something akin to the NBA for this activity, I would be an All-Star multiple times over, with my face in every Subway and Mountain Dew commercial, and little kids in foreign countries would be wearing my jersey to school. My greatness isn’t born out of any natural skill, mind you, but out of my relentless work on my craft. On long drives, I’ll throw on Commit This to Memory by Motion City Soundtrack — an album on par with the likes of Abbey Road by The Beatles, or whatever album you find to be flawless — and I’ll play that damn thing front to back, starting with the blistering beat of the album’s opener, “Attractive Today,” and closing out with the somber, mellow groove of “Hold Me Down.” It’s a sight to behold and a shame that so many of you out there will never be able to witness my greatness.
Perhaps one day, you’ll pull up next to me at a light. You could only hope.
All this talk of music and driving brings us to one singular artist. An artist who is the unquestionable king of road music. One time, a colleague asked if I’d ever heard of Bob Seger. I answered his question with a question, saying, “Have I ever driven down an American Highway?” And you know what? He laughed.
Because the answer was so obvious. Bog Seger and the road go hand in hand.
Seger was born in Detroit in 1945, and somewhere along the way, he turned into one of rock n’ roll’s best storytellers — infusing elements of soul and blues music with his raspy, textured voice to craft a distinctly American sound. And it’s that signature sound that pairs up nicely with cruising down the road, which, thinking about it now, shouldn’t come as a surprise. The dude was born in the Motor City, after all. Bob Seger being born where he was and becoming what he became would be like a little leaguer from Cooperstown, New York, blossoming into the greatest baseball player of all time. It’s too on the nose. Fake with a capital F. And whether you want to argue that it’s destiny or God or just pure coincidence at work here, what can’t be debated is that Mr. Seger has — as the young folks like to say today — a discography of certified bangers that serve as the perfect accompaniment to any road trip.
The obvious ones come to mind first; the Seger songs you’ve definitely heard, even if you claim you haven’t. Like “Old Time Rock n Roll,” the song made famous by that iconic scene in Risky Business — the one where a young Tom Cruise slides across the hardwood floor in his socks and tighty-whities and proceeds to sing all alone in his house, jumping up and down on the furniture (a classic Cruise move) and acting as if he’s performing to a litany of adoring fans. I don’t know this to be certain, but I’d venture to guess every single person in the world has done something similar at one time or another. Deep down, everybody wants to be a rock star.
And if you’re a parent reading this someplace other than the comfort of your home — let’s say you’re in the waiting area at the doctor’s office or you’re procrastinating the day away at work — and you have a teenager at home alone, there’s a good chance they’re doing their own version of this scene at this very moment. It might not be to Bob Seger, and they might not be in their underwear, but right now, your teenager is using a hairbrush as a microphone and prancing around the house like they’re the headlining act at Coachella. It’s either that or — and I don’t mean to be crass here, really — they’re watching pornography and doing…. well, you know what they’re doing. It doesn’t need to be said. That particular activity, though incredibly popular throughout all of human history, is best left undiscussed, for fear of a potentially fatal level of embarrassment for either the parent or teenager or both. But, depending on how long your absence is expected to be, there’s good chance your teenager will partake in both of these activities within the afternoon. Probably multiple times.
Another song embedded in our culture is the classic “Like A Rock.” Or, as most people who grew up on television in the ’90s know it, the Chevy song.
Starting in the early ’90s, Chevrolet launched an ad campaign centered around their line of trucks — “the most dependable, longest-lasting trucks on the road” — and they turned to the blue-collar poetry of Seger’s song to nail the point home. Every commercial in this campaign follows a simple yet effective formula. The voice-over rattles off a couple talking points; in between comes Seger’s voice: “Like a rock/Oh, like a rock.” All this is set against your standard-fare working-class imagery, with guys in hard hats looking over blueprints and guys in overalls throwing an absurd amount of junk in the truck’s bed before slamming the tailgate shut and dusting off their hands — the ultimate gesture that means real work has been done. No one stuck behind a desk has ever dusted their hands in complete sincerity. There’s even a shot of a Silverado tearing ass through the mud for seemingly no reason other than to show that it can.
And to say that this series of ads was a success would be underselling it. This is one of the most successful marketing campaigns of all time, with dedicated compilations on YouTube of every commercial — the comments under those videos reading like the back of some sort of cliched brochure for the USA, with folks waxing poetic on how these commercials embody the American spirit. And I don’t think these comments are entirely off-base, either. These may be the most American commercials, soundtracked by the most American-sounding artist.
Besides the tenor of his voice and his distinct sound, one of the things that makes Seger such great road music is his variety of songs. The guy’s got a deep bench of jams. You’ve got rollicking tunes like “Rock n Roll Never Forgets,” “Hollywood Nights,” “Kathmandu,” and “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man.” Then there’s the softer, more mellow side showcased in “Mainstreet,” “Still the Same,” “We’ve Got Tonight,” and “Against the Wind.” We can’t forget “Turn the Page,” a song detailing the pains of constantly touring, famously covered by Metallica. No matter how you’re feeling, Seger’s got a song that describes that exact emotion better than you could ever say it yourself.
But for all his hits, one song stands head and shoulders above the rest. It’s the song that turned Mr. Seger from a little-known Michigan rocker into a household name almost overnight: the title track off the 1976 album of the same name, “Night Moves.”
If you’ve never heard the song (where have you been?), or it’s been a while since you heard it, or you haven’t heard it in the last 24 hours — because you should listen to it at least once a day, it’s water for your soul — stop right now and give it a listen. I can wait.
Just….wow. What a gorgeous song, right? And to Seger’s credit, despite the fact he could have simply coasted throughout his entire career on nothing more than the sheer talent of his voice, the man is a masterful songwriter. For example, take the multiple meanings of the term “night moves” in this song. In the beginning, it means putting the moves on a woman (“in the backseat of my ’60 Chevy”). Then, it shifts, with “night moves” referring to the passage of time in what’s possibly the most beautiful bridge section in music history.
And it’s here where the true genius of “Night Moves” lies and why this song has had so much staying power over the years. See, most songs that deal with the theme of young love — like the aforementioned “Teenage Dream,” but there are plenty of others — are more often than not written in the present tense, meaning the young narrator guiding us through the song is experiencing everything as it happens in real-time. It’s why so many of these songs have some kind of lyrical combination of young and/or wild and/or free somewhere in the song because that’s precisely how being young feels. And it’s impossible to reflect on anything in any meaningful way when you’re still so close to it all. You need the distance. In these cases, it’s the listener who’s forced to bring that distance, and as such, it’s the listener who imbues the song with any semblance of nostalgia. You can’t feel nostalgia for something in the moment when it’s happening. Nostalgia doesn’t live in the present.
But with “Night Moves,” that distance and nostalgia are right there in the opening: “I was a little too tall…. She was a black-haired beauty….” It’s a subtle difference, but it changes everything entirely. Our narrator is reflecting, revisiting a past that feels as close and yet as far away as a simple thunderstorm. And because of the way the song is constructed, we’re invited to sink into our past as well. It ends up being a communal experience rather than a one-sided affair, with both us, the listener, and the narrator staring collectively into the autumn of our lives as we’re left wondering why the night seems to move so strange now compared to back then, when we felt like we had forever in front of us.
I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that despite the close cultural connection the act of driving has with the American identity, not everything associated with it is positive. To name just a few, over 40,000 Americans die from car crashes each year (the most of any high-income country), and millions more are injured and/or disabled. Vehicles contribute massively to CO2 emissions, which in turn wreak havoc on the climate. On the not-so-serious side, there are also annoyances like traffic jams and flat tires and road rage and trying to find parking literally anywhere, but at least some progress is being made (I’m talking about the vehicle emissions part here — parking is always going to be a disaster).
Hell, even the state of Alabama, a place that’s usually forced into modernity kicking and screaming, is embracing the use of electric vehicles with its new “Drive Electric” marketing campaign. However, it should be pointed out that this has everything to do with money and big business and absolutely nothing to do with lawmakers caring about the climate whatsoever. Companies like Mercedes-Benz, Toyota, and Honda all have plants here in Alabama that, in some capacity, contribute to the production of EVs, which is the real reason they want you to “Drive Electric.” But, hey, if it helps save the planet (hopefully we aren’t too late), who the hell cares where Montogomery’s heart lies?
But electric vehicles do nothing to help with the traffic jams and fatal crashes, which means another solution is needed. Enter the self-driving car — a technology thought to be pure science fiction only a few decades ago. But it seems as if that fiction is slowly becoming a reality. Waymo, a company leading the charge in this field, saw their autonomous cars pass the 20-million-mile mark in 2020. So the question is no longer if but when.
But I’m not entirely convinced a better question might not be, “Are we giving up too much?”
Look, I am not trying to downplay the potential achievement of saving millions of lives worldwide and liberating all of us from the bane of gridlocked traffic and explosive bouts of road rage. This would be nothing short of a colossal feat of human intelligence and ingenuity. And any time there’s potential to save any number of lives, we should jump at that opportunity. Progress is inevitable. But for progress to occur, often, something has to die. The horse and buggy were killed by the automobile, and fairly soon, the car as we know it will die a noble death at the hands of essentially oversized Roombas with bigger wheels, better engines, and comfortable leather seats. So is the circle of life. But when something as uniquely American as driving, which just might be the last monolithic cultural tie we have left in this already divisive country, fades away, what will we be left with? Will we lose too much once every driver switches over to the passenger seat? I don’t know the answer to this; no one does. But from the looks of it, we won’t have to wait long to find out.
I used to stop singing once the traffic came to a halt. Too afraid and too embarrassed a fellow driver might steal a glance my way and take me for a fool. Nowadays, though, I don’t stop. I keep singing. I keep acting like I’m a rockstar. And I have the guy in the gold Toyota Corolla to thank for that.
It would be melodramatic of me to say what happened on that Monday was anything profound. But it did spark this over 7,000-word diatribe you’re reading now, so it’s safe to say something definitely happened. The actor Robert Duvall once said, “It’s no big thing, but you make big things out of little things sometimes.” Watching that man perform in my rearview mirror was a little thing. But I be damned if it wasn’t a part of something so much bigger.
So here’s to all of us who treat the driver’s seat like a grand stage. May we never stop giving it our all. May we never stop singing at the top of our lungs. And may we never stop reminding the fellow drivers who look our way at red lights of this one simple truth: that we’re still alive. That we’re still breathing. That we sit behind the wheel of machines capable of the power of hundreds of horses who are ready and willing to pull us somewhere new and exciting, so long we’ve got the courage to go.
You wanna know what this country is really all about? Hit the highway. Crank up the jams. And sing. Just sing, baby. And as the tree line whips past you at 70 mph and your favorite tune is blasting through the speakers, don’t forget to tell yourself…this is America.
This is America.