Soundtrack for a Road Trip
After spending October in Santa Fe, New Mexico, I drove home to Portland, Oregon, in my boxy, kiwi-green Honda Element, a 21-hour traverse that I divided into a three-day road trip. It’s an exhilarating drive through some of the most majestic scenery in this or any country: the Sangre de Cristo mountains and Rio Grande Gorge of New Mexico; the Rocky Mountains of Pagosa Springs and Durango, Colorado; red rocks and natural arches in Moab, Utah; bulbous, rippled hills and big skies of the Idaho high desert; and finally my stomping grounds of the past 21 years, the sylvan, rainfall-strewn Cascade range of the Pacific Northwest.
Merrill Mahaffey, “Los Alamos Cliffs,” 2012, acrylic on canvas, 48 x 56”
Because I’m a throwback who doesn’t do satellite radio or stream audio from my cellphone, I still listen to the radio and compact discs when I travel. I’d set aside a motherlode of symphonic music, opera, and minimalism to listen to on the way down to New Mexico and back, but like a doofus I left the whole pile on my kitchen table, a realization that didn’t hit me until is was 150 miles down the road. My mom was with me on the drive, so we happily yacked one another’s ears off with no need for musical distraction. After spending a few days with me in Santa Fe, she flew home to Florida. Once my sojourn ended and it was time to return to Oregon, rather than face 1,370 miles of mostly staticky radio reception or flat-out silence — and given that dedicated CD stores basically no longer exist — I ventured with some degree of desperation into the Taos Walmart (not a store I tend to frequent), found their electronics department, and located a sad, sparse two rows of CDs. Most of them were contemporary country, which I have limited tolerance for, but also included some greatest-hits compilations of not exactly au-courant bands and vocalists. I managed to eke out four that I could live with: The Beach Boys, Cher (yes, you heard right), Waylon Jennings, and Guns N’ Roses. Although far from Aaron Copland, in a perverse sense those four acts collectively represent a slice of Americana you’d be hard-pressed to beat.
Over the next three days I listened to each CD multiple times as the Honda sliced through the Great American West, which has long been both a physical landscape and a dreamscape of shared myth. I’d been perfused in this mythos in Santa Fe, where the vast majority of art galleries traffic in what local scenesters call (some with a smirk, others without a hint of wokeness) “cowboy-and-Indian” art, much of it created by non-Native artists: bronze sculptures of braves with arrows drawn, feathered headdresses aflutter; fourth-rate Frederic Remington knockoffs replete with bucking broncos and sweeping vistas; and fifth-rate Georgia O’Keeffe cow pelvises offset by pudendal flower petals. There are of course exceptions to the kitsch. I saw a group print exhibition by historic and contemporary women artists at Zane Bennett; Oswaldo Macía’s kinetic installation, “New Cartographies of Smell Migration,” at SITE Santa Fe at the Railyard compound of galleries. Along the art-tourist destination of Canyon Road there was Renate Aller’s photo essay on receding glaciers at Chiaroscuro; a figurative-painting invitational at NüArt; Monica Lundy’s portraits of asylum internees at Turner Carroll; and Yuh-Shioh’s mixed-media abstracts at Gebert. But by and large what I saw was artwork that makes you wonder how much longer galleries in the Southwest can get away with proffering these sorts of depictions, which exist in a world apart from 21st Century concerns about cultural sensitivity and appropriation.
Oswaldo Maciá, “Cartographies of Smell Migration,” 2021, Installation view at Kunsthalle Bremen, image courtesy of the artist, photo by Franziska van den Driesch
In this mindset I pulled out of the Walmart parking lot and onto the open road north, armed with my incongruous quartet of compact discs. What a strange, maddening mind experiment this was to inflict upon myself, to cut across this sublime landscape with these as my sole soundtrack. I expected this would feel like an aural version of Alex DeLarge’s torture in “A Clockwork Orange,” his eyelids pried apart as he received the Ludovico Treatment. Nevertheless, it afforded me unanticipated insights into the pseudo-monolithic avatar known as the American character.
Purely as music, the Beach Boys CD was unsurprisingly the most interesting, with their updated barbershop-quartet harmonies, intricate key changes, and inventive orchestrations and sound effects, which actually inspired The Beatles, who always claimed a debt to “Pet Sounds.” The subject matter (surfing, pretty girls, souped-up cars, and school spirit) is standard teenybopper froth, and the unrelenting falsetto singing can strike the ears as whiny. But then, American pop culture in general and SoCal car culture in particular (with its consumerist fetishization of little Deuce coupes and Chevy 409s) is also whiny, entitled, and petulant. While much of the world struggles with close-to-the-bone concerns like not starving or dying of dysentery, we, on the other hand, go apoplectic if somebody trash-talks our football team or Daddy takes the T-Bird away. Even as they advanced the conventions of popular songcraft, the Beach Boys unapologetically exposed the surfeit-induced vapidity of the nation that birthed them.
Annie Leibovitz, “Brian Wilson,” 1976, color photograph
Cover of “Interview” magazine featuring Cher, May, 1982
The bulk of Cher’s lyrics are about about romantic relationships: “If I Could Turn Back Time,” “I Found Someone,” “Do You Believe in Life After Love?” and of course the breakthrough hit with Sonny Bono, “I Got You, Babe.” For all the diva-worship and “Isn’t she liberated?” puffery that spews from her publicity machine, Cher never really sings about real female empowerment. “Dark Lady” isn’t exactly a hymn to suffragettes or an exhortation to smash glass ceilings, yet the songs often reference women who regain their self-esteem after messy breakups and move forward with resiliency, a sub-genre that reached its apex with Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.” Like Cher, we in the U.S. may be navel-gazers who fancy ourselves perennial victims, but we do like to fancy ourselves a people who bounce back up when nefarious forces knock us to the ground.
Waylon Jennings rides the trope of self-sufficiency into cowboy country, celebrating the strong, silent scoundrel who downs whisky like water and cuts his swath through a field of women with a prolificacy that would leave Don Juan humbled. The ruthless anti-hero of the song “The Taker” woos an ingénue with his faux gentility, only to steal her honor, ruin her reputation, then abruptly abandon her. The exception to this mercenary schema is the singer’s 1984 hit, “America,” a surprisingly reflective meditation on our melting-pot aspirations, which even includes a nod (token by today’s standards but not for the time’s) to the persecution of Native Americans: “Well, I come from down ’round Tennessee/but the people in California are nice to me./It don’t matter where I may roam/I tell you, people, that it’s home sweet home: America./And my brothers are all black and white, yellow too,/and the red man is right to expect a little from you, America./Promise, and then follow through, America.” Here, then, side by side, are our two national faces: marauder and appeaser. Which one are we? Yes.
If the typical Jennings persona curdles cowboy self-reliance into selfishness and misogyny, then Guns N’ Roses hurtles that same tendency toward its terminal conclusion: nihilism. “Welcome to the jungle, baby/You're gonna die,” frontman Axl Rose sneers. “I’m gonna watch you bleed./If you got the money, honey, we got your disease.../You can have anything you want, but you better not take it from me...” It’s as if the consumer culture of The Beach Boys has been soaked in venom and metastasized into flat-out menace. Shallowness has led to decadence, paranoia, and anarchy.
The Wild West, the American Dream, the Manifest Destiny — these outdated but persistent archetypes, so celebrated in our music and movies, are a backdrop for our collective hope, privilege, and decline. Still, the toe taps, the synths swell, the chorus ramps up, and suddenly in the middle of Utah I’m belting, “Let’s go surfin’ now, everybody’s learnin’ how, come on a safari with meeeeeeee.” If this was my musical score, then the topographic leitmotif of my drive was the descent from mountain passes into impossibly broad valleys, visually reminiscent of titular “The Big Valley” TV series of 1965-69.
In a sense, America herself has always been a big valley, a basin into which nature pours rain and rivers, and citizens pour ideals and drain ideals lost. A basin is a vessel. It can be a melting pot for disparate flavors to marinate ever-richer or a witch’s cauldron for fomenting discontent and violence. The stew is what we stir into it. Which ingredients do we want, integrity or intransigence, truth or misinformation, science or snake oil? A democracy does not run on autopilot. A democracy, like a song, needs a drumbeat to power the ballad forward or the rhythm will peter out.
Just as my boxy green car needs oil changes and tune-ups, a nation, too, needs constant maintenance, lest whatever noble precepts we once espoused turn rancid, sludge up the engine, and leave us stranded on the desert’s loneliest road. And that is where so many find themselves, waiting for Godot, Axl Rose, or a resurgent Donald J. Trump to save them.