On the heels of the “traffic movies” entry, here, from the department of traffico-musicological studies, comes a list of songs about traffic that spoke to me in some way while working on the book.
These are traffic songs, mind you, not “car songs,” per se, so you won’t find (maybe with some slight exceptions) any tired old paeans to Cadillacs or homages to the lure of the open road (because I’m more interested in the less-than-open road). Rather, these are songs that somehow related to some part of the weird traffic world I’ve been investigating. Nothing against Stevie Winwood, but there are no songs by the band Traffic here; I was also dismayed to find out the song “Roundabout” by Yes is not actually about intersection treatments (though I’m still not sure what that song is about in any case).
In any case, here’s the list (iTunes mix below)… And I’d like to hear further suggestions in the comments…
1. “Crosstown Traffic.” Jimi Hendrix. OK, granted, this song isn’t really about traffic. When Hendrix sings: “All you do is slow me down/ And I’m tryin’ to get on the other side of town”; or “But darlin cant you see my signals turn from green to red/ And with you I can see a traffic jam straight up ahead,” we can assume he’s not really concerned with intersection capacity or Levels of Service. Still, it begs the question: If the narrator had congestion pricing in his town, would he be able to get that much faster to those “better things on the other side of town”?
2. “Autobahn.” Kraftwerk. Who even knows what they’re really singing here — with BabelFish, you get some vaguely poetic, though no doubt mistranslated, glimmerings: “The lane is a grey volume/ White stripes, the Green edge.” But sort of in the way I wish all airports actually played Eno’s Music for Airports, instead of horribly loud CNN, I wish all highways actually sounded like this. Perhaps, as with Japan’s “melody road” paving scheme, engineers could record “Autobahn” into the pavement, like grooves on vinyl, and driving the proper speed would yield this sonic surprise.
3. “Expressway to Your Heart.” The Soul Survivors. Rather like Hendrix, this isn’t really about traffic, but about trying to “get through” to a woman. “Now there’s too many ahead of me/ They’re all the time gettin’ in front of me/ I thought I could find a clear road ahead/But I found stoplights instead.” But it’s a nice description of actual traffic woes, and who couldn’t love a song that begins with horns honking? “Expressway to Your Skull,” by Sonic Youth, also rates here — at least as a title.
4. “Traffic and Weather.” Fountains of Wayne. I’ve been in a lot of morning TV studios lately, and it’s always fascinating to me the way “traffic and weather” are lumped together, as if they were both natural forces, full of trends and patterns, both to be monitored by various sensors and “forecast.” This song uses that conceit for a bit of romantic suggestion: “Oooh we belong together/ Like traffic and weather/ Like traffic and weather.” The Fountains are also to be commended for “’92 Subaru,” which imagines the eponymous vehicle as the ultimate chick-magnet.
5. “She Can Stop Traffic.” The Television Personalities. OK, there’s not much to this song from the underrated and famously erratic Personalities. But I dare you to listen and not find yourself singing along to the inane but infectious lyrics: “She can stop traffic/ She can do magic/ Love can be magic,
but she can stop traffic.” I suppose buried in there is some notion of the role of external sources of driver distraction and its deleterious effects on traffic flow.
6. “Traffic.” The Reyes Bros. I heard this a while ago in L.A. stuck on La Cienaga and it just seemed to fit the rhythm of the actual traffic perfectly (not that I was in a low-rider or anything) . “Hit the gas/hit the brake,” and then that drawling langourous chorus, “IN TRAH-ffic…”
7. “Traffic Jam.” James Taylor. I’m no big JT fan but let’s give credit for just coming up with a little bluesy ditty about congestion (if only because he know he’d clock future royalties as it was played to death during drive-time traffic updates), with its surreal moments: “Now I almost had a heart attack/ Looking in my rear view mirror/ I saw myself the next car back/Looking in the rear view mirror/’Bout to have a heart attack.” Actually, I should really rather cite Artie Shaw’s “Traffic Jam” instead, which does a nice job of simulating the flow of traffic (at least as it sounded in the 1930s) vis a vis big-band arrangement.
8. “Long Line of Cars.” Cake. This SoCal band’s actually a little traffic obsessed. In “Comfort Eagle,” for example, they sing: “We are building a religion/ We are building it bigger/ We are widening the corridors/ And adding more lanes.” And in the aptly named “Long Line of Cars,” they offer suggestive nuggets like “There’s no single explanation/ There’s no central destination,” before concluding with what every driver should probably keep as their mantra in traffic: “And this long line of cars/
Is all because of me.”
9. “Don’t Think About Her When You’re Trying to Drive.” Little Village. The John Hiatt & Co. “supergroup” offer this subtle reminder about the dangers of distracted driving as the narrator looks to put a little distance between himself and his ex-love. There’s a kind of companion song here recently out from Ry Cooder in I, Flathead, “Drive Like I’ve Never Been Hurt.” We could go down this road all day, with Lucinda Williams’ “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road,” etc., but I’ll stop now.
10. “Traffic Light.” The Ting Tings. Another entry in the strange love-as-traffic metaphor sweepstakes comes this number, from the English indie-poppers. Not totally my cup of tea, but I do llove that they worked a roundabout into a song: “…and don’t you be a round-a-bout/ no not another round-a-bout/ we’ve come so far, yet back to the start/ don’t you be a round-a-bout.”
(thanks to Aaron Cohen)