Most of you may are probably too young to remember the Coolio 1994 hit “Fantastic Voyage” (which was actually borrowed from the 1980 song of the same name by Ohio-based funkadelics Lakeside), but he video was summer-beach party incarnate. The opening sequence, before the music starts, sees Coolio answer a call from his friend Spoon, who suggests the two of them get to the beach for a barbecue. Coolio’s frustrated response is: “How we gonna get there? We aint got no CAR!” Coolio slams down the phone and then mutters, “Fool.” As the music starts, a funked-out, masculine, magical fairy godfather appears and turns Coolio’s busted-ass bicycle into a completely pimped out convertible. Coolio and Spoon’s dilemma has been solved. They turn up their car stereo, gather all the ladies they can find (by loading them into a bottomless trunk as they cruise the town), and head on down to the beach for a summertime party. This is just but one example of a music video centered around a car, and it’s all-important kick ass stereo system.
How should we perceive music that is blared in public space? Is thundering out sounds from a car stereo while cruising at seven miles per hour through an urban center considered rude? Obnoxious? Or a permitted freedom of expression? Some people get very annoyed by any automobile that pumps base out of its subwoofer loud enough to rattle the coffee pots on the local Starbucks as it creeps by. Others become impressed and awed at the sheer power of the stereo, the slickness of the vehicle, and the overall edge in the driver’s style and musical taste, rubbernecking towards the sound as if it was a bad car accident. But I wonder what of the intention of the driver? Is the volume and song for him only, and you are just a spectator that happens to catch the effects of being near enough to hear it? Or is he playing it for you–so you will listen and the decision has nothing to do with him at all?
Perhaps the more important question that needs to be asked psychologically is: what is the driver of the vehicle attempting to draw your attention to? Assuming we all agree that the loud stereo and slow cruising speed is calculated to make the public look at him and his car, the following question has to be: but for what reason? Is the driver trying to draw attention to: a) himself; b) his car; c) his stereo; d) the song; or e) a combination of all four? Why do some people spend so much money on car stereos? It is plainly not just for their (meaning the ‘drivers and passengers’) listening enjoyment, but it is so everyone around them can hear their music as well. Are they imitating a music video like the one described above? Are they attempting to relive something they think is cool from a memory in their younger days of other cars they witnessed while once walking along a street? Or is it just another ploy to get the attention of members of the opposite sex the same way birds sing, roosters crow, and crickets rub their legs.
Letting the public know what kind of music one likes is a fairly common expressive. The way someone dresses can say a lot about the ‘genre’ of popular culture to which they are attracted. Each type of music has its own “style” so to speak, and I think we would all agree that the Bronx hip-hop fan would probably dress differently than the Park Slope indie fan. The loud car stereo is a combination of being able to share with the world those likes and tell and show off the economic power one has to purchase expensive items that are not part of a ‘factory’ modeled component. Their car stereo is not intended for FM radio at moderate volumes. Furthermore, it imposes a specific sound (the style of music being listened to) onto the rest of the community. This gives voice to a particular subsection of society that may otherwise be viewed as unimportant or subversive. In other words, it is a, “I am here” statement. “Listen up. Pay attention to me and hear what I have to say.”
Finding ways to draw attention to oneself is nothing new in our culture. Lip-gloss that shines, body glitter that sparkles, shoes that raise heights, hair color that stands out as not being natural, these are all subliminal social practices and decisions we make that help others around us take notice and subconsciously classify us. There is a lot that we do in our society that subconsciously falls into the category of “daily routine” so that people will observe our existence. Choosing to install an Alpine iDA-X305 into your Honda Civic and then turning the volume of your newest K’naan album up to -14dBs while puttering around the main drag by the beach is not a subconscious effort at all–it is extremely conscious. Sure, it may be something practiced only by the overly extroverted, but it is just another form of self-expression and nothing more or less.
So, if you are like me, and you find yourself annoyed with the vehicle that sits at the red light with its stereo blasting at the sound level of a jet engine, try not to be so bothered. The driver is doing nothing wrong, and in a way it is just another form of hair dye or lip-gloss on steroids.
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– Kory French