CONTACTTRAFFICABOUT TOM VANDERBILTOTHER WRITING CONTACT ABOUT THE BOOK

My Top 10 Traffic Jams

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)

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This entry was posted on Thursday, August 21st, 2008 at 1:43 pm and is filed under Book News, Traffic Culture. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

6 Responses to “My Top 10 Traffic Jams”

  1. Christopher Monnier Says:

    One of the highlights of my trip to Europe this past January was listening to “Autobahn” while driving (as fast as my rental car would go) on the Autobahn.

  2. trent Says:

    Here’s another one for the list: “Aggravation” by the Kinks (from their ’92 album UK Jive) which is a manic rant from someone sitting in a traffic jam, possibly even a foreshadowing of road rage.

    But as soon as I thought of that I remembered their late 70′s song “A Gallon of Gas”, which is rapidly regaining relevance.

  3. Conrad Says:

    Wonderful wonderful.

    Speaking of “Autobahn”, if you can get your hands on it, check out Senor Coconut’s version of it off of the album El Baile Aleman. Basically, it’s a latin cover, replete with non-functioning automobile noises, maracas, and trumpets. I haven’t been able to find an iTunes/mp3 cut of it, but you can still get the album.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/El_Baile_Alem%C3%A1n

    Some other suggestions that are near and dear to my heart…

    “The Overpass” – The Gloria Record. With lines like “alone in traffic in the orange sunset, in 40,000 dollars of aluminum, you can almost feel at home, sitting under the overpass and waiting for all your dreams to come floating back…”, you can’t go wrong.

    “A Lull in Traffic” – The Gloria Record.
    A little more gloomy, but quite worthy of investigation.

    “Traffic Jam” – Starflyer 59. You can find a live version on iTunes, but the album version is better (“Fell in Love at 22″ EP), since this is an atmospheric and contemplative 10 minute instrumental that includes police sirens and helicopters.

    “Everybody Hurts” – REM. So it’s not really related, but my wife and I are frequently reminded of this video when we’re stuck in traffic.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EOkkYqF3YPQ

    “Big Trucks” – Pedro the Lion.
    “There’s real people in the big big trucks that you flip off when they get in your road. You get so hacked but you pay no mind to the great big sign that says ‘oversized load’. You really think they can go as fast as you in your ’87 Trans Am? They know you’re in such a terrible rush; they’re goin’ just as fast as they can.”
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cYezH3GAuMY

  4. Michael Says:

    And the classic “Traffic Jam” by Dan Hicks & His Hot Licks, on their 1971 live “Where’s the Money?” album. Now available on CD on MCA Records.

  5. James Says:

    Don’t forget “Whoever you are” by Geggy Tah. A 90′s classic about changing lanes while driving in traffic.

  6. 2fs Says:

    “Roads Girdle the Globe” by XTC – “Hail mother motor, hail piston rotor, hail wheel!”

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Traffic Tom Vanderbilt

How We Drive is the companion blog to Tom Vanderbilt’s New York Times bestselling book, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), published by Alfred A. Knopf in the U.S. and Canada, Penguin in the U.K, and in languages other than English by a number of other fine publishers worldwide.

Please send tips, news, research papers, links, photos (bad road signs, outrageous bumper stickers, spectacularly awful acts of driving or parking or anything traffic-related), or ideas for my Slate.com Transport column to me at: info@howwedrive.com.

For publicity inquiries, please contact Kate Runde at Vintage: krunde@randomhouse.com.

For editorial inquiries, please contact Zoe Pagnamenta at The Zoe Pagnamenta Agency: zoe@zpagency.com.

For speaking engagement inquiries, please contact
Kim Thornton at the Random House Speakers Bureau: rhspeakers@randomhouse.com.

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Upcoming Talks

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California Office of Traffic Safety Summit
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May 19, 2009
University of Minnesota Center for Transportation Studies
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June 23, 2009
Driving Assessment 2009
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June 26, 2009
PRI World Congress
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June 27, 2009
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American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators
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Attitudes: Iniciativa Social de Audi
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Institute for Sensible Transport Seminar
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April 17, 2012
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January 30, 2013
University of Minnesota City Engineers Association Meeting
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January 31, 2013
Metropolis and Mobile Life
School of Architecture, University of Toronto

February 22, 2013
ISL Engineering
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March 1, 2013
Australian Road Summit
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New York State Association of
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September 26, 2013
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