The history of the car song is a long and varied one, and the use of the motor-vehicle as a lyrical subject is one that is drenched in metaphor and euphemism.
Indeed, the history of such things is almost as old as the car itself. In the 1930’s legendary blues singer Robert Johnson’s first single was the self-penned ‘Terraplane Blues’ which included choice couplets like “I’d said I flash your lights, mama, you horn won’t even blow” and “I’m gonna heist your hood, mama, I’m bound to check your oil”. More famous examples would come later, not least the soul standard ‘Mustang Sally’ (“All you want to do is ride around Sally…”) and ‘Drive My Car’ by The Beatles amongst many others. Yep, it seems that the car provides the perfect metaphorical cover for songwriters to talk about sex without risk of censure and what I want to do today is take a look at one strand of car-songs and two similar examples which share a common image – the Pink Cadillac.
The Pink Cadillac image has been around for a while, first appearing as the title of a track written and recorded by jazz man Paul Bascomb in 1952, before popping up again 3 years later as the title of a rockabilly song by a guy called Sammy Masters. Around the same time Elvis Presley recorded a version of the song ‘Baby, Let’s Play House’ with the lyric “you may have a pink Cadillac” included. However, it wasn’t until the early 80’s that Bruce Springsteen decided to take this image and update it slightly, writing and recording his own Pink Cadillac around the same time as he was recording his Born In The USA album. This version ended up as a b-side, but would be picked up a few years later for the version we are going to look at shortly.
So let’s take a look at these two videos and the criteria I will be using to assess just how successfully they exploit the whole car/sex theme. Aside from the best lyrical couplet, I will also want to see good use of mechanics, preferably in dancing roles and maybe with tools as props. Setting is also important and needs to be sufficiently automobile-related, and I will also be looking for gratuitous car shots, not least of an actual Pink Caddy. There will be a final mark for the over-all car/sex-factor…
Aretha Franklin – Freeway of Love
Taken from her enormously successful album Who’s Zooming Who, this was a number 3 hit on the US Billboard chart for the ‘Queen of Soul’ in 1985. It’s Aretha, and very little she does could be considered wrong, and such is the case here. Until I started researching this I had forgotten just what a monster song this is! It contains some top class euphemisms too, such as “Never you mind the exit signs, we got lots of time” and “So drop the top, baby, and let’s cruise on into
this better than ever street”. Lyrically, this song has got it going on, but does the video match up?
Opening shots of a freeway junction and clips of a factory production line set the tone early, before giving way at 0.17 to the first sign of dancing mechanics. Ok, let’s be absolutely honest here, they are really just dancers dressed in boiler suits. I’m not sure any of them would be of use if your car broke down, but they look the part and have some great moves. No tools though, which is a little disappointing…
Next up is, of course, the Cadillac. The coolest thing to note about it is the number plate which reads ‘RESPECT’. It’s Aretha, what else could she have as a personalised plate? Is it sufficiently pink though? We can’t tell because for some inexplicable reason the director decided to shoot a pink Cadillac video in black and white!! Now I’m no expert on making pop-videos (I’m barely an expert on writing about them although I seem to be getting away with it…) but I can’t help thinking a trick was missed here. Even if everything else was in B&W someone should have made sure the Caddy was coloured pink at some point in the post-production process. A shocking oversight methinks.
Moving on, we get plenty of dancing mechanics action, outside Doug’s Body Shop, at a Ford plant and later on hanging out with saxophonist extraordinaire Clarence Clemons (and thus completing the Bruce Springsteen connection) at The Grease Pit. At no point do we see them engaging in any actual mechanical work, or even so much as wielding a spanner or popping a bonnet which is a shame, and yet another trick missed by the director. Throughout the video Aretha and her band are in distinctly un-automobile-ish surroundings, bar two moments at either end of the video where she can be seen being lured into the Caddy and then driving off in it. A few more of these moments would have helped really drive the car theme home (do you see what I’ve done there..?). The final moments of the video take everything in to a very weird place when one of the car headlights grows a face and starts singing along. Sometimes weird is good, in fact a little wierdness often goes a long way in a pop video but no, this is just odd weird…
Ok, time for the scores:
1) Best car/sex lyric: Undoubtedly “We got some places to see, I brought all the maps with me, so jump in, it ain’t no sin, take a ride in my machine”. Plenty of good euphemisms here. 9/10
2) Use of mechanics: Lots of dancing and a variety of settings are let down by a distinct lack of any tools or an actual workshop. If it’s partying you want then yes, but if you need your oil checked then these ain’t the girls for you… 6/10
3) Locations/settings: Lots of car factory and freeway shots and of course Doug’s Body Shop (where I assume Doug will happily give you a full service, ahem…) are good, however Aretha herself spends most of the video in a club with not a car in sight. Shame. 5/10
4) Gratuitous Pink Caddy shots: The Caddy is there but the video is black and white killing the whole lyrical metaphor. A shocking mistake. 3/10
5) Overall car/sex rating: The video largely fails to deliver on the promise of the song (which is fantastic) meaning an overall rating of just 6/10. A letdown.
Natalie Cole – Pink Cadillac
The daughter of legendary crooner Nat King Cole, she was already an established artist in her own right by the time she recorded Springsteen’s song for her 1987 album Everlasting. It was her biggest hit to date and was a top 10 smash around the world in the summer of 1988. It’s much more POP! Than Springsteen’s original and all the better for it.
As for the video, this is an immediate improvement on Aretha, as we don’t only get the sound of a car firing up at the beginning but we also get mechanical action with the bonnet popped and tools and a garage and everything. The director of this video obviously had a much clearer idea of what such a song demanded! Before long we get petrol pumps, Esso signs, the lot. This is much better, however the video is also in black and white which is initially quite a worry. At 0.43 though we do get the first of some excellent dancing mechanics action, so this sort of makes up for it.
As the video progresses the B&W problem is slowly resolved, with the caddy turning pink at 1.18 with the rest of the video snapping in to colour at 1.41. Excellent, an actual Pink Cadillac! About time too. Moving on we get plenty of gratuitous car shots, although many of these are of a white jeep which no matter how you try and frame it doesn’t have the same level of potential for sexual innuendo. We do get plenty of high energy dance action on the garage forecourt though, as well as Cole herself riding on the Caddy bonnet. This is the kind of move which could have served Aretha so well.
Then at 2.55 we get the best dancing mechanic action in either video, a lone dancer, tools in hand, boiler suit on and pulling some seriously funky shapes inside the workshop. This guy has not only got the moves, but I also have every confidence he could change my tyres if so required.
Ok, to the scores…
1) Best car/sex lyric: “Now some folks say it’s too big and uses too much gas, some folks say it’s too old and that it goes too fast, but my love is bigger than a Honda, it’s bigger than a Subaru…” is fantastic, but as a whole the lyric could do with more of this. 7/10
2) Use of mechanics: Whereas Aretha’s just looked like mechanics, here we get them doing actual car repairs and wielding actual tools AND lots of fabulous dance moves to boot (to boot – yes, that is deliberate…). 8/10
3) Locations/settings: Unlike the last video this one is shot almost entirely in a garage-y location with no distracting ‘stage’ shots which is, franky, no less than the song required. A winner once again. 9/10
4) Gratuitous Pink Caddy Shots: After a slow, B&W start we eventually get plenty of pink Caddy action. In fact we get varying shades of pink, which is a nice touch methinks… 8/10
5) Overall car/sex rating: Whilst the lyrics to Freeway of Love contain more overt use of euphemism this makes up for it by giving us much more automobile-esque action, and generally driving the whole car theme home with greater acceleration, bigger horsepower and slicker gear-changes (yes, I’m really doing this!!) which all in all makes for a much smoother and more satisfying ride, taking you to the speed limit and back and leaving your engine well-serviced and your horn, umm, much more horny (ok, that last one didn’t quite work. I’ll stop…). 9/10
So there you have it! Aretha may be the Queen of Soul and ‘Freeway Of Love’ a fantastic song, but it’s Ms Cole who is the clear winner here, having shown a lot more commitment to the whole car-song video thing. Of course this is just my opinion and if you think differently then we’d love to hear what you think and why? We’d also love to know what your favourite car/sex lyrics are, and if you have any suggestions for other videos in this vein you think we might like to get under the bonnet of then please let us know….