The pursuit of a perfect driving song

There are two difficult things about getting behind the wheel of a car for the first time in nine months. The immediate, and obvious one, is remembering the minutia — how hard to step on the accelerator, how deftly to brake. Reconfiguring the turning radius of your 2017 Honda Pilot that needs at least 150 yards notice to complete a simple change of direction. These are the prerequisites, the basic components of hitting the road again. They come easily. They are muscle memory.

The second task is far more taxing. It’s one you’ve been trying to achieve since you first sat in your mum’s 2006 SUV nearly five years beforehand. Back then, it involved fumbling with a knob to find the ideal radio station. These days, it’s trying to recalibrate your suddenly forgetful phone with an impossible Bluetooth system. No matter the method, the goal is the same — finding that perfect driving song.

You have been envisioning this moment for most of your adolescent life. Your older friends have given you lifts to and from soccer practice hundreds of times, and you’ve watched with envy as they scroll through some extensive Spotify playlist before settling on a song. Although you didn’t always enjoy the tune, you acknowledged the subtle magnitude of the moment. You were next to them in the car, and they probably tried to pick a song that you would appreciate. But they made the decision. They clicked the button, turned up the volume. Maybe blasted it through a crowded high school parking lot, maybe turned it down to facilitate conversation. Perhaps they might even sing every single word while encouraging you to film them. Either way, despite the fact that you enjoyed the car ride, the overriding feeling was that of jealousy. You want to be picking that song.

Yet when your time comes, it’s nearly impossible to find the right tune. You think back to all of those great car rides you’ve had over the years, and all the great songs to accompany them. You think about your then 18-month old sister matching every single one of Caleb Followill’s screams on the Kings of Leon’s “Charmer.” You think of the first trap record you ever heard, thumping through your friend’s Dodge in a Trader Joe’s parking lot. Your mind wanders to car rides in a Mercedes with Catfish and the Bottlemen blasting, with all three occupants trying to sing a different part of “7.” Jon Bellion after your senior prom, Kanye West on the way to a party, Vampire Weekend through the streets of Bethesda, Maryland. Each song ingrained within your mind, and now occupying some spot in the depths of your eclectic Spotify collection. You want to imitate those moments, to create a new one. But how?

The logical solution that you turn to remedy this problem (and, rather unhealthily, almost any) is to make a playlist. Since before you had your license, you’ve been curating a driving playlist. It started with a few songs you associate with car rides — most of significance, some of personal interest. Now, though, it’s 198 songs and 13 hours long. Safe to say you’ve given yourself quite the choice. But, after scanning through the playlist and finding many agreeable songs, none quite seems to suit the moment. You consider your feelings at the time, the significance of the day. You notice that it’s a hot, slightly close California Wednesday. There are a few cars about in your Los Angeles suburb, and some kind of construction work on your street. It’s also trash day, so you’re in for a bit of a choppy drive — presumably being forced to stop to let others pass quite regularly. These crucial factors observed, you are able to remove about half of your playlist. The energetic grooves of Tame Impala are out. So too the more aggressive beats of Stormzy and Dave. It’s also goodbye to Mumford and Sons, Tom Petty, the 1975, Counting Crows, Jon Bellion, and Anderson .Paak — these artists, of course, bear very little relation, but you just know they wouldn’t work. With that, you reflect on your day so far. Things are good, it’s nice out. You will probably go for a run later, do some writing, and you have a few other plans that will likely make you happy. That rules out the National, Bon Iver, The XX, and Phoebe Bridgers (how any of those made the cut in the first place baffles you.)

So, you’ve cut roughly 100 of your 198 tunes. Seems like progress. The question then becomes one of genre. Rap? You’ve got plenty of Childish Gambino, Drake, Future, Chance, even A Tribe Called Quest to choose from. But you decide that’s not quite right; there’s nothing particularly cool about stopping-and-starting through a lazy suburb. How about some dad music? The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Allman Brothers Band, Elton John, Fleetwood Mac, and somehow-one-Rush-song could work. Not a chance, mostly because you cannot ethically turn into your father, nor listen to the same music that he would play while driving his car — you haven’t reached that point yet. Your options are suddenly thinning. You scroll (in reverse alphabetical order, for some reason) past Taylor Swift, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Passion Pit, Jamie XX (somehow still in the running, although the XX was ruled out — technicalities), Frank Ocean, Daft Punk, CHVRCHES, BROCKHAMPTON, Arcade Fire, and before you know it, you’ve reached the end of your playlist.

By this point, you’re wasting time. You recall that you were supposed to pick up a prescription from the pharmacist, and are probably keeping someone waiting. You also remember that you need to go to Trader Joe’s for an eclectic list of items ranging from hummus to washing liquid. You also know that your mum will be pissed if you take ages to run two errands. Frustrated, you close Spotify, and open any other app on your phone. You sift through Snapchat, CNN, Twitter, Clash of Clans, ESPN, and Facebook — anything to relax your mind from the deluge of music you’ve just scrolled through. You don’t stay on these apps for long. They’re respites, even distractions. Then, you remember what you’ve seen your friends do so often. While some have located the exact spot in their vast music collection, most have hit one large, inviting orange button at the top of their playlist. So, you reopen Spotify, and decide to leave it up to the algorithm gods.


You wait nervously to see what the machine yields. Of course, your LTE decides to cut out at the least opportune moment, leaving you in anticipation of what might pop up. You angrily turn your data on and off, close the app, and then re-profess your trust in Spotify’s higher power. The app presents its first offering right away this time: “Shape of You.” You question how that made it on to your playlist, why you ever listened to that song, and even start to ponder your overall reliability as a human being having put Ed Sheeran on a driving compilation. You skip to the next tune. “Homecoming” by Kanye West. Good song, wrong moment. Another skip, this time it’s “Sex” by the 1975. It’s been ages, but you say no. You ask Spotify to try again, and it offers “Chicago” by Sufjan Stevens. You shrug and pull out of your driveway, realizing you’ve just spent seven minutes trying to find one song — basically accepting defeat. However, 30 seconds into your journey, you give Spotify another chance to show its quality, skipping again (using the button on your steering wheel because safety.) You madly go through the Strokes, R.E.M, TV on the Radio, Prince, and Oasis, giving each song 15 seconds of play before deciding to move on. None of them satisfy or reach that pure instant of perfection — one you can look back on and desperately try to imitate. So you drive and drive, skip and skip, and soon you’re at your destination. Just as you pull into the parking garage at your doctor’s office, “Shape of You” pops up again. It occurs to you that you’ve gone through a 198 song playlist over the course of a 20-minute drive. You can’t help but laugh as you awkwardly pull into a tight parking spot. You shrug as you lock the car and walk towards the squalid building. Maybe you’ll find that tune next time.


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