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How Cars Became Music’s Hottest Accessory While We Were All Stuck At Home

Olivia Rodrigo "drivers license"
Courtesy Photo

Olivia Rodrigo "drivers license"

With the new Fast & Furious movie out this weekend, and the franchise also receiving a spotlight in Billboard's latest digital cover story, we're diving into some additional car-themed stories this week. Here, we look at why cars and driving in general has been such an obvious source of pandemic-era fascination in recent pop music. 

Long before Rostam released his second solo album, Changephobia, at the top of June, he was recovering from COVID-19 -- and pulling inspiration from the experience of being in self-isolation.

Album track “4Runner” perhaps best chronicles how the artist was feeling at the time. “Subconsciously, I think I was dreaming of getting out of L.A. and was trying to capture the feeling of driving, and driving a long distance," Rostam told Billboard before the album arrived. "A really long distance.”

“With ‘4Runner’ I was trying to capture the feeling of the car becoming home,” he continues, “that the transportation device becomes the place that you feel at rest.”

As it turns out, Rostam was far from the only artist who was eager to get back behind the wheel. Through and now following a pandemic year, in which artists and fans alike were on an even playing field -- scared, anxious and largely stuck at home -- the idea of escapism became a uniting and hopeful force. And as a result, it permeated music to a new degree.

Since the start of 2021, cars have appeared almost everywhere you look. Olivia Rodrigo kicked things off with the lyrics and music video for her chart-topping hit “Drivers License” and its follow-up "Deja Vu," in which Rodrigo sings of "car rides in Malibu." "Drivers License" music video director Matthew Dillon Cohen told Billboard when the clip first arrived that Rodrigo "came in and had a very specific direction. The song has an incredible narrative to it that didn’t need anything crazy. I think the idea of just a girl driving through the night in the suburbs with a record that’s that powerful and has so much in it, it allows you to look at the video in an interesting way and dive into things where there might be something more there."

Soon after, in February, Conan Gray released his first new single of the year, “Overdrive,” which arrived with a statement that read: ‘I wrote ‘Overdrive’ to escape reality. I’ve spent the entire past year moping around alone in my house, I wanted to make something to get me to dance… Just a moment of reckless abandon and catharsis in a world filled with inhibition.”

Since, there’s been the the Instagram-worthy lyric “Is that my bestie in a Tessie” pulled from Saweetie and Doja Cat’s Hot 100 hit “Best Friend," Aly & AJ’s music video for “Pretty Places,” which plays out like a personal collection of road trip footage and was described by its accompanying press release as “a lush ode to escapism,” and The Weeknd’s Billboard Music Awards performance of “Save Your Tears,” which he sang as 20 vintage cars whizzed by in a vacant lot.  (After being laughed off the phone by picture car companies for trying to find so many matching vehicles, producer Brendan Garrett sourced them from Craigslist, used car dealerships and private owners.)

Artists weren’t the only ones eager to flee -- or at least, evoke the sense of fleeing. Spotify’s Indie Rock Road Trip playlist -- which features artists like Phoebe Bridgers, Black Pumas and Dr. Dog and has nearly 650,000 likes -- saw an 86% increase in daily listening year-over-year from April 1 - June 21, 2020 compared to April 1 - June 21, 2021.

"Even for music fans who stayed at home, there was a general gravitation towards nostalgic, feel-good music -- so it makes sense that indie fans of all generations were drawn to the Indie Rock Road Trip Playlist," says Lizzy Szabo, a senior editor at Spotify. "It runs the gamut of classic indie songs (Neutral Milk Hotel, Pavement, Built To Spill, Wilco), as well as the new classics-in-the-making (Hand Habits, Big Thief, Whitney) -- all of which are great for singalongs, sentimentality, and comfort while hitting the road and seeing the country.”

In October of last year, it was reported that the COVID-19 pandemic led to an increase in used car sales -- as new cars faced manufacturing delays -- with August and September of 2020 seeing the fastest rate of used car inventory turnover in the past six years, according to data from Edmunds.com.

"As we know, escapism was the theme of last year," adds Szabo, "and due to the pandemic, domestic travel via car was king."

Nashville singer-songwriter Ashley Monroe, who back in February released “Drive,” the lead single off her fifth solo album Rosegold, credits the upward trend in writing about hopping in the car to the feeling of release. While crafting "Drive" alongside co-writers Mikey Reaves and Nikko Moon, she says "we were just talking about creating the feeling of a [Quentin] Tarantino movie. The idea of being on a desert highway, top down, is so romantic and wild," she says, also citing the "'I'm getting away from it all'" energy of Thelma & Louise.

"I think it did us all good to do a little dreamy daydreaming to keep anxiety and fear from taking over," she continues. "Hyper focus on good feelings. I know it helped me -- I wanted others to feel it too."