“To me, it was more like negative theater. ” Ric Ocasek, The AV Club November 2006.
Having spent a few days pouring over videos and articles about the group, I keep thinking about my impression of them when I was a kid, which was that they were somehow, from the future. Kraftwerk might have sung the praise of automation and Devo certainly warned us of our eventual decline, but The Cars seems to embrace all that stuff as part of the cool that was to come. And underneath all the dayglo jackets and leather, they seemed like guys you might see in line at Star Market. Normal Boston Rock dudes who had their hands in a time machine. The music was sleek, accessible and had some “normal” rock trappings (sick guitar solos, pouty lead vocalists) but as the records went on, there were more synths, more studio trickery, more artifice.
This looks like a regular rock show: big blast of light on the first note, singer singing with a fake British accent (“I don’t want to huld ‘er down”) but look: there’s a Steinberger bass, the guitar player who sings a lot of the songs (not this one) is wearing a checked jacket and leather pants and has a huge long face. Weird looking guy, kinda, but get rid of all that stuff and he could be a guy walking out of Dunks on a Sunday with a copy of the Herald. But he’s not, not just because he’s a rock star in a rock band, but he’s embraced what the future could or might be: synths, faux-art deco swiggle art and above all, somehow, a deep longing coupled with a necessary detachment.
At 0:55, notice keyboardist (that’s a word no one uses anymore. I’m gonna start calling Oneohtrix Point Never a “keyboardist”) Greg Hawkes. He’s surrounded by 20K in analog gear and has a look on his face that is like “whatever”. There’s a notion of acceptance of the future. This is what we do now, this is what the rock of the future is. It’s still rock: it’s still about girls and good times, but it’s wrapped in the fabric of the impending tomorrow: sensual, calculated, organized.
Surrounded by shadowy observers, banks of TVs and pop-art detritus, the transformation seems complete here. These are normal guys trapped inside the vision of a detached tomorrow, making the best of it.
These songs are as good as Beatles songs, by the way. Maybe better.
I don’t mean to say that we are living in the future that The Cars seemed to portray. Hell, maybe they didn’t care about this stuff. Maybe they just wanted people to have something to look at while they played (Ocasek: “We were a band that kind of did just stand there, and that’s the way we wanted it to be.”). But, that was what I saw, and what I hoped for and what I got from The Cars: a glimpse of an approaching mechanized adulthood. And it looked great.