Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Surfing With Bot'Ox

"Babylon By Car" is a mysteriously titled 2007 single by the French electroduo Bot'Ox. It's not entirely apparent what this instrumental blend of nu-disco and Krautrock has to do with Babylon, aside from an "Arabic"-sounding flat second in one of the riffs. As Congorock taught us, all you need is some music that sounds vaguely exotic to Western ears and you, too, can claim the mantle of Babylon! No complaints here; Congorock's "Babylon" is one of the best singles of the year, and this one sounds pretty good.

It's possible that "Babylon By Car" is also supposed to conjure memories of the Normal's (and Grace Jones's) "Warm Leatherette", a car song that celebrates kinky thrills while being impaled on your emergency brake. That'd speak to our conception of decadent Babylon, for sure. More interesting is the way the song equates Babylon with driving. As I've argued elsewhere, Babylon songs mention driving almost as often as they mention sex, drugs, and phallic towers. Cars can represent freedom; when the Dolls celebrate Babylon's freedom from societal convention, they drive really fast to get there. Cars can also symbolize status and ennui; when Faster Pussycat have nothing better to do in Babylon, they sit in traffic on the L.A. freeway and hurl insults at other drivers, while they make out and do drugs. When Steely Dan wanna have a threesome, they lure the girls into their car and go for a drive. (Maybe Becker and Purdie hang out in the trunk while Fagen sings and steers.)

Americans love cars, but this symbolic meaning of "Car" is more a Western thing than an American thing; after all, Bot'Ox are French, and their music is indebted to Kraftwerk's autobahn. (Although Kraftwerk may, in turn, be indebted to the symbol of the Car in earlier American rock; further research.) In pop music we love our cars, and they symbolize freedom and status. But when we equate them with Babylon, we acknowledge that maybe something's wrong with that freedom and status. At the very least, it's unnatural. But what's natural? And why do we privilege the natural? This is one of rock 'n' roll's deepest tensions -- its pleasures are undeniable and unbeatable, but they might carry you over the edge. When singers use Babylon to celebrate their decadence, they pay lip service to that edge. Sometimes, like Steely Dan, they stare right into the void. And just as Babylon lays bare the void that lurks within Sex and Drugs, when it sucks the Car into its decadent milieu, it reveals that the Car contains a void too. Tack it up, tack it up, buddy, now I shut you down.

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