By: Gabriela Yareliz
“A man goes where he wants, when he wants,” Daniel Castellano says on The Mindy Project when standing in line for the 100th time at the DMV to try to pass his driving test. The United States is filled with open space. In 97% of this country, I would say you need to have a car to get by.
While a car is a necessity, it is a right of passage. What do you do in the middle of your teenage angst? You study to pass your permit exam. I got my permit at 15 because I was signed up to take Driver’s Ed, the only class where I cried (in my life). I felt the pressure. Sweet Georgia peaches, the amount of cones I drove over.
The driver’s license holds a specific place in the American experience. I am ignorant of any other country where driving is such a big deal. Hell, we write songs about it. I think the idea of driving has influenced American music a lot. Anyone else blasted Journey, The Eagles or Chicago in the car? Nothing beats it. Nothing is the same. Windows down. Drive through a rural place with country music on. You will never feel it more. If you have lived here, you have stared out the window like you are in a music video. Don’t even tell me you haven’t.
Just recently, Olivia Rodrigo brought us a Driver’s License ballad. Here is this teenage girl, driving past her old boyfriend’s house. It’s that emotional car moment we can all relate to. I am convinced driving is the cheapest form of therapy.
Sunday drives are a thing that belong to American history and also American Wealth (see 1903 and then the 1950s). After dad worked all week and mom ran that household to perfection, what would the American family do? They would pile into the car on Sundays and just drive. There was no particular destination in mind. Maybe it was just to drive through the neighborhood or get ice cream. (More on Sunday drives here and here). When life got busy, we knew how to pause and be with the ones we loved most. (Some people started doing drives again in the pandemic, but you can imagine that not many people are taking Sunday drives nowadays due to gas prices).
Cars would take you to drive-in theaters, drive thru restaurants, and to other states. As someone who grew up in a car world, we took a bunch of road trips. Piling into the car meant going to camp with a church group or visiting family in another city. When we lived in Michigan, we would visit my grandfather and great grandmother on weekends in a city just north of us. I spent many a Saturday night in the back of a car. I saw so much of this country through the back of a car. Open highways, sometimes covered in snow, the streetlights lining and lighting the way, mountain side houses in North Carolina, the ocean from tall bridges in Charleston, orange groves and retention ponds in Central Florida.
Cars are accessible. I have walked through many housing projects due to the nature of my job. You can find some nice cars parked around the projects. Even what is considered the poorest person on the ladder can have a car. There are American icons who slept in a car– see Steve Harvey.
Cars shape our society, and more importantly, cars shape American youth. Whether your parents get you your own car, or you work to buy your own or you simply borrow your parents’ car, cars afford(ed) us independence. An independence I am not sure many other young people know abroad. Sure they can take a metro or train somewhere, but can they drive across the country, music blasting, with one too many friends stuffed into the back shoving fries in their faces…? I am not sure. Even still today, when one looks at Instagram accounts from around the world, it is obvious cars do not hold the revered status they hold here.
Cars shape the stories we tell. See Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, documenting his drug riddled road trip to Las Vegas with his attorney.
Before I learned to drive (and even at times after I had my license), I was a co-pilot. I had a giant atlas on my lap. If you need a map read, I am your girl. I am good at maps. I did have my fair share of MapQuest maps printed, as well. GPS came much later in my life. Maybe late high school, and then college. I still don’t understand how I am supposed to know which turn is “200 ft” from me.
I went to a high school where they had a parking lot for student vehicles. The spots closer to the school were for the top Seniors of their class. I am not even kidding. This sounds foreign to some people. Also sounds foreign to some who grew up in large cities like New York.
Cars are sort of a protagonist in the American teen’s journey to finding oneself. I think we can all look back at an experience in our late teens or twenties where we had a life-changing or emotional moment in a car. I am not even being dramatic. I know I did. What do you think all these movies are about? You were either going somewhere, running from someone, or some even lost their virginity in the back of a car.
Take it from someone who had a car and now doesn’t, the loss of independence sucks. You are crammed in trains with dangerous characters, you have to literally drag your groceries from the supermarket back home or you depend on others or an Uber to go to certain places or move things of a certain size. It is draining. I look forward to having a car again, someday.
This independence and ability to explore are part of American Wealth. And can I also say one thing? The ability to have a teen angst moment is such a first world thing. When you are in survival mode, there is no time or energy to go through mini frivolous crises. The opportunity to be edgy and obnoxious is a very privileged thing. I grew up in a bracket of years that celebrated angst. See The OC on TV.
We loved Alloy and dELiA*s clothing. It was all funk, shiny boots, mohair sweaters and low rise jeans with a suede tie up instead of a zipper. Claire’s was way edgier. I mean it always had pink glitter frames, but we had the chokers, “cute by psycho” tops and terry wrist bands.
I adored the edgy style. I was not preppy and honestly couldn’t afford to be dressed in Abercrombie & Fitch. I loved Ashlee Simpson’s style when she came onto the scene. And yes, I wore the black nail polish. I haven’t since.
I have noticed that some teen icons today copy the style many of us had or wanted to emulate in the late 90s/ early 2000s.
I mean, look at Olivia Rodrigo’s style. This is my childhood stuff (it really all does come back). Look at the shoes, the hairstyles, everything– I smiled when I saw this.
Even the music is starting to sound like what was on the radio in junior high. GAYLE’s music video abcdefu is like a blast from the past. This is 100% inspired by the early 2000s. And yes, there is a car in the music video (of course, which is such a symbol and reminder of the place the vehicle has in our lives). She is a Texas girl, and hey, this level of teenage angst shot with a camcorder vibe is a reflection of American Wealth. I leave you with her early 2000s vibe jam. It looks like something we would have acted out in 2001, except we would never have been allowed to say such things. Kids, these days.