On the Road Again: A Reflection on the Impact of Music on Roadtrips
Long car rides may seem like a snooze fest when embarking on a road trip, but the music we play to keep us entertained can actually be a meaningful part of the journey.
Written by Kasey Clarke
Illustration by Gracelyn Prom
Marfa, Texas: a tiny town in West Texas with a population of less than 2,000 people — the destination of a road trip I took with four of my friends in mid-July. The drive from Austin to Marfa is nearly seven hours, and the five of us had to fit all of our bodies and luggage into my small Sedan. The car was packed, hot, and less than comfortable. The drive included long stretches of barren landscape, but we passed the time with the greatest hits of the late 2000s for as long as the spotty phone service would allow.
About half-way through the drive, my friend asked about our music dynamics on family road trips. I replied that my family doesn’t really travel together, but if we did, I typically would pick the music since I always ride shotgun. The conversation continued, but as we drove I reflected on my own previous road trips and how the music we listened to shaped my memories.
The month before I got my drivers license, my mom and I drove to Mississippi to visit my grandparents. My mom wanted me to get as much practice as possible, so we agreed that I would drive the last three hours of the trip. As a severely inexperienced driver on a major highway for the first time, I had to focus all of my energy on not letting the intimidatingly large semi trucks freak me out, rather than what great tune I was going to play next. As a result, I relinquished aux cord duties to my mom.
She began by playing music she knew we both liked, and then jumped around from artist to artist gauging my interest in some of her favorites. We eventually settled on Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer? by of Montreal. This lead to a conversation about creativity and pushing boundaries. of Montreal frontman Kevin Barnes is known for playing with gender and alter egos onstage, and so is David Bowie, so we moved from of Montreal tracks to Bowie’s discography.
I learned to appreciate Bowie at a young age. Before my sister was born, my mom and I would have “disco dance parties” on weekend nights. I would play dress up, my mom would paint my nails, and then we would dance around to Bowie records until I got tired. And now years later on our roadtrip, my mom and I listened to him like we used to when I was a kid.
Bowie played a crucial role in my mother’s coming of age. My mom grew up in a rural Mississippi town close to the Louisiana border. In an ultra-conservative small town, Bowie was nearly a taboo, but, to my mom, he represented everything the “outside world” had to offer. As we listened to “Heroes” and “Fame” and “Life on Mars?” my mom reflected on how David Bowie showed her how outrageous and big life could be despite living in a town that made everything feel very small.
When David Bowie died only a few months later, my mom cried for days. I was grateful, then, for the road trip we took together. Although I appreciated his music, I had never had a connection to an artist like my mom had to him. Because our roles were reversed in those few hours I had to drive, my mom had the opportunity to share a piece of her connection with music, offering me insight on how deeply music can affect our lives.
I think about this often when I take road trips. When we have nothing else to do, we turn to music to keep us occupied. For every trip I take, there’s a soundtrack that anchors itself to my memory and reminds me of the people and places I visit. Some of these moments in the car can make the most boring parts of a trip into the most vibrant and meaningful part of traveling.