Towards A Unified Theory Of A Teen Poignantly Driving At Night Through A Lit Tunnel Song
originally published oct. 23rd, 2021
I feel like the last two editions have been slacking on the implied goal of narrowcasting this newsletter to my one (1) subscriber who is also my girlfriend, so to make that right, thankfully there’s something she said a while ago that’s been floating around trying to find purchase.
In discussing the (great) song “Overdrive” by Conan Gray, she described it as a “Teen movie poignantly driving through a lit tunnel” kind of song.
Which!!!!! I mean!!!!!! That’s it, right???????? Stop and listen, not least of which because spoiler, familiarity with the song will be deeply relevant for the next several thousand words.
It’s that satisfying feeling of hearing a description of a vibe or an aesthetic that just clicks in like the last lego piece (or, hypothetically, the little plastic underside of a mouse that one had installed backwards for 17 months.)
But most importantly: it matches a playlist I’d already made in like 2017!!!! The playlist in question was titled “Aurora Drive Home” in that it was a series of songs meant to conjure the image of the route I would frequently take down Aurora Ave in Seattle when having to drive home at night from some school thing that had kept me late (usually play rehearsal.) And at one point featured driving through a little lit tunnel. And you better believe your boy (thought he) was poignant 😤
And so, a project: with Overdrive as a starting point, compile a theory of what constitutes a Teen Poignantly Driving At Night Through A Lit Tunnel song, use it to go through the songs in the Aurora Drive Home playlist (and a selection of songs pulled from various playlists I found searching “teen driving through a tunnel” on Spotify), and determine some initial picks for the most canonically Teen Poignantly Driving At Night Through A Lit Tunnel songs.
In order to compile said theory, we must catalog the elements that contribute to that feeling. What are the descriptive markers that conjure that emotional experience?
To break this down into its constituent elements, I’d argue there are the following key sub-parts:
At Night Through A Lit Tunnel
1. Teen (poignantly)
The easiest approach to express “teen” is to simply have your song be from the perspective of a teen, itself easiest done when you, as the artist, are a teen, or like close enough to count in music industry terms (at which I will place an upper limit of 27, as that is the age Carly Rae Jepsen was when Call Me Maybe became big.)
So Conan was what, 20? 21? When Overdrive came out? Yeah we’re golden, well under the Carly threshold, definitely teen enough to count.
But being a teen, while helpful, is not a requirement to get a fundamental teen-ness through in your track.
What is it to be a teen, in modern America? To be a teen, I would argue, is to live in a world split between the authentic and constructed.
On the authentic part, teenagerdom is the one era of life where there’s an expectation to be fearlessly oneself, to be awkward, to be weird, to be overcome with emotion, to do dumb/frivolous/dangerous things and do them with passion. An Adult Driving Through A Tunnel song would be about like, taxes ’n stuff, probably. Oh hey did you hear what Susan in accounting said in that meeting? Look I don’t want to brag, but I got a killer deal on these window treatments. I know a guy, I can give you his card. Adults, Fucking embarrassing.
In addition to passion and messiness, at least for this subgenre, there has to be an element of poignancy. There has to be this feeling that there’s some reflection occurring, something that is driving towards revelation. This can be a nostalgic poignancy, thinking about the fleeting joys of youth and whatnot, or an optimistic poignancy, thinking about how things might get better if we can just [pick any one of: get out of this town/have this one dance/take my hand/save tonight/fight the break of dawn]
So a good teen song should explore the messy ranges of that authenticity, should have its eyes either forward on the future or back on the past, and should be going for it, both in its lyrical and musical content. Overdrive, all about “catching feelings”, “Let’s trust the night”, “feel the heat” definitely fits this mold, and with it being a high-energy dance pop song the music underlies that vibe pretty well.
But that expectation of passion and boundless authenticity is just that: an expectation. An image curated by decades of media and decades of adults deciding and perpetuating what it is to be a teen. That’s even present in this exercise: in order for a song to conjure the idea of teen, there must be a constructed image that it’s fitting into.
A good teen song I think operates on the first level: it’s about the first-order feelings and experiences of being a teenager (love, stress, anxiety, driving tests, etc.) And it may or may not do it by expressing those first-order feelings via John-Hughes-approved tropes and images (consciously or not.)
A great teen song, though, I think plays in both the first and second level, in that it’s both about the first-order feelings of being a teen, but also wrestles or plays with the fact that everything discussed in a teen song is in conversation with the cultural expectation of being a teen.
As a demonstration, I’d say a perfect example of the first one is Love Story by Taylor Swift. A teen song about teen romance, and it even uses tropes like the Romeo & Juliet story and the disapproving dad and the knocking at the window, but uses them mostly just as images, as ways of shorthanding what Taylor’s trying to go for.
I’d compare that to, lol, arguably the entirety of Lorde’s discography, but for specificity’s sake let’s say Tennis Court. Lorde starts the song with “don’t you think that it’s boring how people talk”, a quintessential teen sentiment (which, Lorde, same!!!) The song is starting off on the first-order. But then she pulls in the “Baby be the class clown/ I’ll be the beauty queen in tears / it’s a new art form / showing people how little we care” in the chorus, and its not just that she’s using them as shorthand the way Taylor does with the R&J story, but she’s pulling together both the fact that she feels genuine teen feelings, but knows they fit into molds and archetypes and “new art forms.” The second-order teendom.
Here I’d say Overdrive is a great example of the first one, but not quite trying to do anything with the second. Which is fine! We can’t all be Lorde!!!!!
Anyway, some initial thoughts on teen-ness:
Be a teen, or close enough
Write about teen stuff
Have the song be passionate and/or forward/backwards-looking
Bonus points if you wrestle with the inherent contradiction of teenagerdom having an expectation of being “authentic”, when that itself is a constructed expectation
Okay the easy first one is like……… is the song about driving??? If so, points!!! Especially points if it uses multiple driving references or images, and especially especially if the driving is itself a metaphor for something else, especially especially especially some aspect of the teen experience.
Boom, “Overdrive”, there in the title! The chorus has as images “Burning down the street”, “No left, right”, “No red light”, “Fast lane”, “Go 10-5”, and the not strictly car-related but are made so in context “You right next to me” and “Feel the heat.” And bonus points for driving being a metaphor for hooking up at or after a party!!!
And while I do think having driving-related lyrical content is probably necessary to get full marks on the driving component of the scorecard, it’s neither necessary nor sufficient for a good showing. It has to feel like a driving song as well.
The most critical element to the driving feel, I think, is rhythmic. It has to be a song that feels like it’s always going forward, and always going forward at a consistent…… well, driving pace.
So (western world at least) it’s gotta be in 4/4 time, and it’s gotta emphasize that 4/4 in its beat. There is a time and a place for syncopation and time changes and clever rhythms, but a driving song where you’re going out on the road is not it.
You can get extra bonus points if elements of the instrumentation reinforce that fundamental beat, such as through a driving (lol) 1/8 or 1/16 note bass, or big synth or guitar hits on key beats like the 1 or 3.
Overdrive? Yes! Does that!
However, you can get a little fun rhythmically and still maintain the driving feel, provided you’ve established a rock solid underpinning. If you syncopate the melodic elements on top of the core beat, you can add some spice and energy and liveliness in a way that reinforces and supports the core drive-ahead feel.
This is especially true if you pull the Right Where You Left Me trick and have your melodic elements aggressively reinforce the 4/4 for a long time, only to break and go nuts at the end. In Overdrive, that’s the chorus to a tee, where the lines are all 1/8 and 1/4 notes, but then the little synth line once the chorus ends switches to a more syncopated rhythm (will be charged a “syncopated” tax shortly!)
Tempo is an area where I’m torn, because I think the clear thing is a driving song cannot be too slow. Tied to this idea of always moving forward, there needs to be some base level of energy and speed in the song to maintain that vibe. 100 BPM I think feels like a good baseline, upper level of normal resting heart rate and all that.
(This is also a good point to say: what is good for a driving song is not necessary uhhhhhhhhhh good for traffic policy 🥳)
I also think though it can’t be too fast; there’s a difference between a driving song and a racing song, for example. So in a similar manner to which I’ll adjudicate what is the maximum age to count as “Teen”, I’m gonna impose a Bruce Rule: the ideal driving song cannot have a BPM higher than 146, the BPM of maybe the canonically most Driving song, Born To Run.
I’d also add, while not necessary for a driving song, additional bonus points can be gained from contributing to a feeling of always moving forward and never arriving. After all it’s a driving song, not a having-driven song. Journey > destination, etc. And one key way to do it, that Overdrive in particular uses, is to have a chord progression that never resolves.
Overdrive is in F major and its chords, for the whole song, cycle between B flat major, D minor, and C major (a IV - vi - V progression.) In this progression, it’s starting already on the IV chord, putting us in motion, and then it’s ascending and descending and cycling around, in a way that still gives us enough interplay between major and minor and still gives us enough interesting stuff to keep us engaged, but it never resolves to the root F major at any point. It just starts back up again where it kicked off, always moving forward to the next infinite cycle.
Be about driving, bonus points if driving is a metaphor
Be in 4/4 time, aggressively reinforced by the beat and instrumentation (with optional syncopation on top of the 4/4 for spice)
Be between 100-146 BPM
Bonus points if you use a IV - vi - V progression or something like it
3. At night through a lit tunnel
This is where I think contrast to a song mentioned above is helpful, because I would say Born To Run by Bruce Springsteen gets absolute full marks on the teen and driving bits of the scorecard. It’s a viable argument to say it’s the canonical driving song, maybe even the canonical teen driving song.
But it in almost no way is a teen driving at night through a lit tunnel song.
No, it is a teen driving down the highway, preferably through Jersey, preferably along the coast past the boardwalk, song.
One of the clearest differences is that a daytime highway driving song is probably going to be guitar-driven, more analog in its affect, the instrumentation reflecting that sense of being out on the open road away from everything about city life. While a nighttime tunnel song will be primarily synth driven, tying together the digital and artifice not just with the idea of being within the city vs out on the highway, but even the idea of the lit tunnel itself: a man-made structure lit artificially. While a highway song conjures the sun, a tunnel song conjures LEDs and fluorescence. The pastoral mode is alive and well in modern teen pop, one might say.
Now guitar certainly can be present as instrumentation, but it should provide a supporting role to a more synth-based core. In particular, the two ideal places for a guitar in a teen tunnel song are: 1) giant crunchy guitar blasts at moments of emphasis (especially whatever is the big downbeat of the chorus), and 2) disco-y flighty rhythmic guitar hits.
(Overdrive does, both!)
I’d also say a nighttime tunnel song should have some element of melancholy or uncertainty about it. After all, even if you’re having a good time, you are still driving at night, driving through a city, driving through a lit tunnel. There is not the potential for boundless optimism you can get out on the open road (though also less of the isolation; again with Bruce, Nebraska is album full of highway driving songs, just the opposite, darker valence.)
This can happen lyrically or musically, and from the music perspective, to again contrast Overdrive with Born To Run, the latter primarily operates fully in the major, the verse and chorus all being E to A to B (I - IV - V), with both the grounding function of the E major root chord as mentioned above, but also the relevant minor chords shunted off to just the (excellent) pre-chorus. Overdrive, again, is a IV - vi - V song, so it plays more in the ambiguous, major/minor, “hey how are we feeling about all this???” vibe that fits the song and fits the aesthetic.
Finally, an element of driving through a tunnel, especially if you’re driving through a tunnel with the roof down, is the mix between the freedom and openness you get from driving, with the claustrophobia you get from being in an enclosed artificial space. A good tunnel song plays with that tension and uses both elements. Born To Run is a highway song, no claustrophobia to be found.
I think there’s a lot of different ways to play with this, but a cheat code I think is filters, especially low- or mid-pass filters. Filters act to remove certain frequencies from some sound (whether applied to the entire mix, or to an track or set of tracks) and one flavor of filter is known as the “pass” filter, because it lets a certain type of frequency pass through unimpeded, while lowering or filtering out entirely other types.
A low-pass filter, then, is a filter that only lets the low frequencies through while cutting out the high and mid frequencies. (Mid-pass then lets mids through and cuts low and high, high-pass lets high through and cuts low and mid.) If you ever hear an edit that’s like “XYZ song but it sounds like its coming through the wall at a party”, a low-pass filter is probably used; if you hear something that’s made to sound like its coming through a phone line or an old radio, a mid-pass.
They often can give a feeling of being contained, of being limited, or of being underwater (because water itself kinda acts as a low-pass filter, where higher frequencies get absorbed into the water and therefore don’t travel as well.) And so the application of a filter can get across a sense of acoustic claustrophobia pretty effectively.
Where it really shines then is when the cutoff (or frequency point at which the filter kicks in) is adjusted over time. So in the case of a low-pass filter with the cutoff going up in frequency over time, as time goes on more and more frequencies fall under that cutoff value and more and more of the sound gets through, and it literally sounds like things are opening up.
….if you were to guess “Hey does Overdrive do this?” guess what!!
You can hear it in particular in the pre-chorus -> chorus transition, where the synths of the verse are layered with a low-pass filter of some sort, which then expands under Conan singing “Let’s just trust the night”, and then POW explosion of the chorus, big bright and free.
So, at night through a lit tunnel:
Synth-driven (with optional guitars allowed in a supporting role)
With some melancholy and uncertainty (minor chords and avoiding the root can be one way to do it)
Mix of freedom and claustrophobia (filters are a good cheat code for this)
So the first question then, if we were to aim for a concrete score on the our three elements (lets say rate each out of ten), where does Overdrive land?
On the teen front, it’s a teen song about teen shit, with a light air towards the future, but none of the 2nd-order Lorde-style bonus points. I’m giving it a 9.
Driving, 10/10. Very 4/4 song with a 104 bpm about driving and does the never-ending IV - vi - V progression. Full marks.
Night through a lit tunnel? Very much synth driven, some hints of melancholy, and does play with the filters a bit, but I’m giving it a 9. If it was more aggressively synthy or twinkly, I think that’s what would get it all the way there.
So overall, 28/30, indisputably a Teen Poignantly Driving At Night Through A Lit Tunnel song.
Now here I will attach the actual spreadsheet where yes I scored 66 songs from either my playlist or others I found on Spotify. But a key bit is it seems there is no song I’ve yet discovered that I think does all three perfectly. There is no 30/30 (yet).
Some are absolute baller driving songs, like State Of Grace by Taylor Swift. But like Bruce, it’s not a tunnel song (nor really a teen song.)
I must stress this is a non-exhaustive list, only checking 60-odd songs after all, so if you have additional suggestions to score by all means contribute to the body of research. But with what we have so far, the top ten (because there are too many ties for a top five lol)