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Lyrics Series I 10 I From “Always Crashing in the Same Car”

I’m always crashing in the same car

As much as I like Bowie’s lyrics, I seldom find myself using them in day-to-day conversation. This line is an exception. It’s a great expression of making the same mistake over and over again. On the surface, there’s little mystery to the line, the song title, or the totality of the song, which, though brief, maintains the driving metaphor beyond this one line. But as is often the case with Bowie, his choice of metaphor taps several veins of potential meaning.

Cars have been a staple of rock and roll since Ike Turner’s “Rocket 88” (1951), which, according the Wikipedia, has its own antecedents in an even earlier song, “Cadillac Boogie” (1947). Bowie was far from the first to evoke the image of a car crash in music— I’m thinking, “Teen Angel” (1960). Again, turning to Wikipedia, there’s an entire page listing car crash songs.

The image extends to other forms of media. Andy Warhol depicted car crashes in his Disaster series. David Cronenberg made a movie based on the book, Crash, about people who fetishize crashes. Car crashes are a staple of movies and television, from the Blues Brothers to Happy Days’ Malachi Crunch (a phrase that has far outlived the show).

In the vernacular, we evoke images of car crashes to represent chaos, disastrous mistakes, cascading catastrophes. We talk about how we can’t look away from a car crash as a stand in for anything unpleasant that captures our attention. Although the phrase mentions a different type of vehicle, Bowie’s delivery faintly echoes the sentiment of a “slow motion train wreck,” a disaster everyone can see coming.

Bowie wrote the song during his Berlin period, but that’s when he was recovering form his most extreme period of excess in Los Angeles. Cars have international appeal, but I’m not the first to note that they symbolize American bravado. The late 70s were still a time of big, ostentatious cars that served as status symbols. Crashing a car was different than pushing a rock up a hill or hitting one’s head against a wall. Crashing a car is a fall after a rise; it’s a tragic ending to something that held swaggering promise.

Cars were often symbols of youth, especially in rock songs and in movies. Bowie turned 30 in 1977, five years past the age that Billy, the once-mentioned character in “All the Young Dudes,” planned to commit suicide. Bowie was not only reflecting on his new maturity, but was lamenting the death of his youth.

Despite the vehicular references, “Always Crashing” is a slow moving (if short) song. In that sense Bowie conjures up a paradox — you’d think a song about a car crash would be fast-paced. The contrast suggests an inevitability. The narrator doesn’t simply keep making the same mistake, but he’d destined to do so. The line comes after Bowie sings, that he was always looking left and right while at red lights. Despite his precautions, he’s always crashing in the same car. He can’t help himself.

I have written about how some of Bowie’s lyrics amount t a kind of self-pep talk, in which Bowie holds himself to a higher standard (think, for instance, “I can do better than that,” from “Queen Bitch”). But Bowie also touches on a theme of doomed fate, helpless submission to inevitability in other songs like this one, or “Ashes to Ashes.” It’s like he’s struggling with the concept of agency or free will. Is there anything he can do to avert the crash?

The answer provided by this song is no.

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