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Gary Numan’s “Cars” walks the fine line between paranoia and mental clarity

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In Hear This, The A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well. This week, in honor of Car Seat Headrest’s new record: songs about cars.

Gary Numan, “Cars” (1979)

When I was a teenager, seeing the video for Gary Numan’s “Cars” on VH1 felt like dropping in on a concert taking place on a spaceship. Not only were the clip’s special effects charmingly primitive—from the unflattering freeze-frames to the fleet of tiny Garys superimposed on a keyboard—but the whole clip was also bathed in a dull, greenish tint. Numan himself was stoic, wary, and more than a little alien sounding, a perfect match for the song’s zooming analog synths and splashy drums. He didn’t look or sound like anybody else from the new wave era, a period I romanticized fiercely during the early- and mid-’90s—perhaps because the music’s dystopian bent and alienation fit my own teen angst.


Yet “Cars” was a collision of old-fashioned asceticism and proud modernity. There’s no chorus, for starters; the song’s segments are differentiated by almost jovial tambourine shakes and keyboard melodies; and the undulating, faux-string Polymoog effects are simple enough to be played with one finger. That yin-and-yang mind-set seeps into the song’s themes. “Cars” shifts seamlessly between paranoia and clarity, as if to prove how fine a line there is between the two. Lyrically, the vehicle is both a safe haven and something that traps the singer. As the song progresses, the disorientation grows worse and more pronounced.

“Will you visit me, please / If I open my door?” Numan pleads in the third verse, but by the fourth verse, he’s unsure about escaping into the real world: “I know I’ve started to think / About leaving tonight / Although nothing seems right.” It’s a commentary on how modern technology is at once liberating and constricting, but also a cautionary tale about how communication breaks down when people drive solo. In that way, “Cars” was completely prescient, as it foreshadowed how mobile technology and advanced modes of transportation continue to shape our lives. Perhaps that’s why “Cars” has aged exceedingly well: Fear Factory and Numan teamed up for a fantastic cover of the song in 1998, while the latter also jumped on stage with Nine Inch Nails in 2009 for a revved-up, metal-boogie version of the song.

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