Pop-Culture | Posted by Amanda C on 08/22/2011

Teardrops On My Car – or, Why Taylor Swift Doesn’t Seem To Drive Much

There is no shortage of coverage on Taylor Swift. In the music industry, in teen magazines, on TV, or even (yes) feminist circles – she’s a cultural icon; how could we not talk about her? I think of her as a guilty pleasure. I think her songs are catchy and cute and though her obsession with boyfriends and her slut shaming are certainly far from feminist, I don’t think that listening to Taylor Swift songs spells doom for the feminist movement. It’s impossible to cover all the feminist/antifeminist implications of Taylor’s music in a single post. I just want to point out a pattern I have noticed over the course of her three albums: she mentions driving a lot. This is not a phenomenon unique to Taylor or even music in the country or pop genres. Cars are very important in our daily lives and in our culture. They’re a method of transportation. A status symbol. A ticket to freedom. Of course they’re in our songs, too.

As a young adult, Taylor is legally of age to drive and because she is now a rich pop star I’m sure she can afford an array of fancy cars I can only dream of. Yet, in her songs, Taylor almost never seems to actually be the one driving. Who, then, are the owners and operators of the vehicles she sings about?

Why, her boyfriends, of course!

Or her exes, or the guys she longs for.

The point is Taylor tends to (according to her songs) spend a lot of time sitting contentedly in the passenger seat while her boyfriend drives (“I watched you laughing from the passenger side”; “he’s got a one-hand feel on the steering wheel”; “two AM riding in your truck” – the list goes on and on). The few times she talks about herself driving tend to show her in a sad and lonely state (“I drive home alone”; “I see your face in my mind as I drive away”).

Many more gifted feminist writers than I have touched on Taylor’s musical obsession with the guys in her life, but I’ve never seen anyone write about cars in Taylor’s songs. I don’t think that Taylor is part of some conspiracy to keep young women from wanting to drive, but I do think her use of cars and driving reflects larger social norms about power in romantic relationships. As I said, cars are a symbol of freedom and independence. And in most movies and television shows, who in a young male/female relationship drives the car? The boyfriend. Girls are more often shown walking or getting rides from Mom or (of course) Dad. Girls have to wait for their boyfriends to pick them up and they must ask their boyfriends to drive them home at the end of the night.

The power is in the guys’ hands because it just isn’t manly to have to wait for your girlfriend to come pick you up. Or for her to drive you. Why? Because driving offers a kind of power and autonomy that we’re often culturally uncomfortable seeing in the hands of women (especially young women) and even more so when the men in their lives do not have this power.

I don’t think that in reality guys have cars so much more often than girls do. I would imagine that the number of teenage guys and girls who have (or have frequent access to) cars is roughly equal. I think the gender driving disparity among teens in moves and television comes from perceived gender norms, not any basis in fact.

I personally love to drive. I like deciding where I am going to go and when and knowing that I can always count on a sober driver. And when I drive alone, I like to blast my music and sing along loudly (and, of course, contemplate the songs I’m listening to from a feminist perspective). I’d take that freedom over a boyfriend with a nice car any day.

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  • SarahC @ at 12:21 pm, August 22nd, 2011

    Interesting. I actually listen to quite a bit of country music, and there’s definitely a tendency in it to portray men as driving and women as not. The songs I can think of immediately that involve women driving their own cars are Gretchen Wilson’s “All Jacked Up” and Shania Twain’s “In My Car (I Am The Driver)”. In Wilson’s song, she attempts to drive drunk and doesn’t make it out of the parking lot. Twain’s is about all the concessions she will make so she can be the one driving. I think those are kinda notable because it seems to suggest not just a nostalgic overuse of a particular patriarchal trope, but an actual discomfort with women driving cars in country music.

  • Renee @ at 5:22 pm, August 22nd, 2011

    okay most girls date guys who are olde than them so if you apply this to highschool that means that the guy in the relationship is more likely to drive sooner mmmkay and idk about your experience but mine has taught me that girls give less of a shit than guys about cars, now I’m not saying that NO girls has EVER shown interest in the inside outs of the automotive world but they are in the minority. And just like you said cars mean diffeent things for diffeent people it could be seen as a status of wealth a sign of impracticality or like you mentioned freedom and power. To me our society veiw cars as adventure and excitement type things. I’m not saying ur hypothesis is bullcrap it just seems a little far fetched.

  • O'Phylia @ at 10:13 pm, August 22nd, 2011

    Taylor Swift is far from feminist and holds to social norms.

    In other news, water is wet.

  • Vanessa M @ at 1:45 am, August 23rd, 2011

    I admit it: I’m a feminist and I listen to Taylor Swift. That doesn’t mean that her really damsel-in-distress songs (which, fortunately, doesn’t describe most of her songs) please me, though… So… Yeah :P

  • Talia bat Pessi @ at 1:11 pm, August 23rd, 2011

    Fascinating article. Never occurred to me before. Taylor Swift, along with all other country music, bores me to the grave, so I’ve never listened to her stuff enough to notice these kinds of patterns.

    But you’re right, you have a good point about stereotypical relationships and what Swift’s music shows about them. My school has a weekend in the country every year, and I had to leave early last year, so I bummed a ride in with a teacher and her family. I was happily surprised to see that she was doing the driving and her husband was in the passenger seat.

  • Icefox @ at 2:46 pm, August 23rd, 2011

    Yeah, Taylor has those motifs a lot (another one of them being “throwing pebbles at a window”). Although in one of her earlier songs , “Picture to Burn,” she says “I really hate that stupid old pickup truck you never let me drive.” So at least, at some point, she wanted to drive. And I don’t dislike Taylor, even if she does hold to these social norms.

  • Natalia @ at 10:46 pm, August 23rd, 2011

    Interesting observation, but you have to be careful about using driving as an example of how “feminist” you are. Of course I am a feminist and I’m independent but I’m 21 and I still don’t have my license (I know, very shameful). It’s weird because I’m pretty independent about other things in my life but I’ve just never felt the need to start driving. Also, when it comes to dating, of course things have to be equal but a lot of feminists overlook little details.

    For example, there was a BIG economic difference between my ex-boyfriend and I. I’m a university student who doesn’t work during the school year and he was a college graduate making at least $5,000 a month. Of course I wanted to pay every other time and keep it equal, but it came to a point where he wanted to live a higher lifestyle, which he could afford. So I told him straight up that we could go out more to fancy restaurants, but of course he’d have to pay most of the time cause I could simply not afford it. He also drove me around everywhere cause he had a car and he was also very nice in that sense. So does that make me less of a feminist? No. For the things that really mattered in the relationship, there was complete equality. I also never felt like he was my sugar daddy, so I didn’t feel forced to stay with him either.

  • SarahC @ at 11:45 am, August 24th, 2011

    Um, really, Renee? In my experience, I learned how to drive before any of my guy friends. In fact, most of the girls I spent time with during High School were /much/ more interterested in, and got their licenses sooner than, the boys, even adjusted for age. I actually know a guy who, even at 19 years of age, relies on whatever girl he’s dating, or on one of his gal friends or his parents, the schorl him around. And automobile parts? Not only are we not discussing that, I’m the only one of my friends, man, woman, or otherwise, to care about that sort of thing at all.

    Natalia, I think you do have a point, in that we need to be careful to not jump to conclusions about the realities of people’s lives. Because while sometimes driving is a feminist issue in real life (women should both legally and practically be able to drive themselves, especially if they live in places with spotty public transportation), for young, urban women in North America and the EU, it’s not actually a big deal, and it does nobody any good to vilify real young women whose dates drive them. However, It would be nice to see some variety in pop culture presentations of what a date looks like. How about one where they take the bus? Or maybe one where his car won’t start, so Taylor drives him instead? Portraying women driving as a second choice might not be ideal, but it could make a cute song, and would certainly be a step in the right direction to at least have a woman singing about driving and having things go all right.

  • Heather @ at 2:24 pm, October 4th, 2011

    You bring up some interesting points. Taylor certainly sings about the boys in her life, and those relationships seem to follow the old-fashioned rules of courtship. I think many people in our society are still influenced by those old-fashioned courtesies and rules that men are supposed to be gentlemen to their women. This entails driving them, making sure they get home safely for the night, holding doors open, etc. While teenagers may not abide by these formalities all of the time, parents tend to enforce their views upon their children. I know my parents think a guy is the perfect gentleman if he is the one to call, the one to initiate the relationship, the one to drive. I think it would be extremely difficult to change these views in society because they have been around for so long. The difference lies in how we choose to view these roles. Traditionally, these roles were natural because women are typically smaller in physique than men. Therefore, they are more fragile and are in need of protection. For these purposes, the roles are fine. However, the problems arise when the roles are over analyzed… women can’t do anything for themselves, men always have the role of power, etc. These imbalances, unfortunately, will never subside unless everything is extremely equal on both sides.

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