The Arrival of the ‘Subaru Single’

Why we love to use indie rock to sell cars

Shannon O'Hara
Dec 22, 2017 · 8 min read

Welcome to my lot! You see a car you like? I guarantee every car in this lot drives like a dream. Try it out! Take her for a test drive! Feel the seats, that’s real leather! Perfect for that camping trip, or those soccer games, or commuting to work, or showing up to that party in style. Oh, are these your kids? Oh, this car? You like this one? I’ll tell you, this car is going to to change your life, and I don’t just say that about every car. This is one of my favorite cars on the lot. A bargain price too. A steal. Dynamite! This deal’s undeniable, and it won’t be here forever — snatch it up while you can!

The car salesman of yore is one we’ve seen in countless comedic portrayals, if not in person. The pushy, excitable personality at once lends the figure strange entrepreneurial powers and earns him a fair share of public admonishment. But now we’re instinctively avoiding that car salesman— and car companies are realizing it’s simply not the best way to sell cars.

Fortunately, there’s a new breed of car salesman in town. The visionaries of the automobile industry have seen another way — or rather, they’ve heard one. From the fast-growing world of indie rock has emerged a subgenre of alternative music—songs that, for reasons we’ll explore, are perceived by car manufacturers to be the most effective music for selling certain cars in television or radio commercials. We’ll call them Subaru singles.

To understand the Subaru single, we must first know our way around the category of “indie rock”—a term that came into broader use to describe a hybrid of grunge and stripped-down rock. Indie rock emanates a low-budget production value, as if to say, “Look at what we can accomplish with so little; we’re just like you, real and simple.” There is an absurd number of subgenres underneath the umbrella of indie rock as well, from lo-fi to post-punk revival to psychedelic. And one such subgenre is, of course, the Subaru single, which is more distilled and friendlier than some of its edgier counterparts. If every branch of indie rock were a different Starbucks frappuccino, the Subaru single would be Vanilla Bean — no chocolate chips, strawberries or pumpkin spice to be found, but still surprising in its flicks of flavor.

There are numerous textbook examples of Subaru singles. Empire of the Sun’s “Walking On a Dream” and Supertramp’s “Dreamer” score Honda Civic commercials (Supertramp may not be an indie rock group, but this song fits the indie mold on its own), while “Dear Mr. Tantrum” and “Room for Five,” both from Fitz and the Tantrums, sell Fiats and Mazdas nationwide. Beloved alternative groups The Black Keys and Vampire Weekend are also well-represented, even appearing in a sketch with Stephen Colbert in which the two bands competed to see who was featured in more commercials and thus the champion “sell-out.”

If Fitz and the Tantrums is our case study, we can pinpoint exact where the Subaru single fits in the landscape of music, particularly indie rock. The band is pseudo-retro in a neon sign kind of way, and its songs adhere to different combinations of a few musical constructions. Enchanting basslines, whistling hooks and dreamy, cathartic pre-choruses back lyrics about exciting yet breezy romance or “walking down the street wearing really expensive sunglasses” charisma. The lyrics are as much for those in ripped jeans and a band t-shirt (think “Out of My League”) as they are for those in white tuxedos on a Sunday afternoon (a la “The Walker,” which even makes a blatant driving reference with “99 miles per hour baby is how fast I like to go”).

The commercials paired with Fitz and the Tantrums songs are more or less exactly what you’d expect. In the Fiat commercial, a colorful Fiat pulls up to the curb and a little boy rushes out to grab a toy car on the side of the road— only he’s not just any little boy; he’s donning the sickest kicks you’ve ever seen and has infinitely better hair than you. In the Mazda commercial, the story about the man who invented a snowboard jump cuts to a Mazda cruising through the mountains, as if to emulate the smoothness of the snowboard jetting down the mountainside. “Uncompromising creativity” is the theme.

This works for selling cars for a few different reasons. The simplest: it’s catchy, and if you remember the song, you might just remember the commercial and then, if all goes to plan, you remember the car too. The music is also trendy in a way that is still attractive to young people without alienating older generations. It’s all the playfulness of doorbuster sales telling you to leave the comfort of your couch and immediately head to the dealership, but paired with an easiness that downplays the obnoxious fabricated urgency of that trope.

But rather than try to define the genre with existing examples, we can take this opportunity to write a Subaru single of our own.

To begin, let’s say we’re trying to sell a 2017 Kia Optima. It’s a BMW-inspired sedan in exterior design, with 37 highway miles per gallon and up to 245 horsepower. Leather seats. Hybrid. Probably some nice cup holders.

Our song starts with a rhythmic clap. It’s fast-paced — one, two, followed by four quicker claps, one, followed by two more quicker — and it repeats, making it easily replicable for a casual listener, much like the clapping interlude from the Friends theme song. Then, a drumbeat kicks in, the kind that makes you lock your knees together and pop your feet up, or at the very least tap your fingers on the nearest solid object, as if you’re an edgy street artist using random objects for drums.

A confident, energetic electric guitar joins the mix. Finally, our vocalist enters into the fold as well — they’re singing an octave higher than you could ever hope to sing; it’s a lively, youthful sound, the lyrics are about falling in love with a stranger, having a whirlwind evening at a bar and being left wanting more, if only because the stranger had a really cool suede jacket on. The clapping reemerges during the chorus, which is punctuated by punchy “Hey!”’s and conveys a sort of adventurous rebelliousness. When you listen to this latest Subaru single, you at once feel like you’re the coolest kid on the block, and like you’re transcending the limitations imposed by standard definitions of cool.

There’s also a tambourine in there, somewhere.

Of course, the song isn’t everything; there’s an entire visual element. Picture it: the two twentysomethings move in across the street from each other, fall in love and go on a camping trip. As they drive up the sun-swept mountains, by some miracle the highway is entirely empty of other cars, and the 70 mph climb up the hill is artificially slowed down to a gentle cruise.

There’s also a dog in there, somewhere.

But why does this formula appear to work when advertising to consumers? Not to deny the huge number of variables that might influence someone to purchase a car, but there’s clearly something about the Subaru single that sticks; otherwise we wouldn’t see it pop up in ads over and over again. In other words, there’s something about these songs that serves the interest of consumption, and of capitalism. Not everyone is in a position to be able to afford a car or get much say in the type of car they choose, but for those privileged enough to be able to, marketing departments are there with sparky playlists to get you out the door. There’s one approach — pick the most mainstream music so as to maximize your appeal — and there is a more tailored one, which car companies tend to adopt: stick to a specific demographic and cater to its needs.

Typical Subaru customers are in their late 30s to early 40s and from the middle class. A surprisingly high proportion of owners are teachers, outdoorsy types and/or, interestingly enough, lesbians. You could argue that such a market is “niche,” but it’s also deceptively enormous and waiting to be mined for its collective wealth. It’s a market that values the Subaru not only for its aesthetic, but for its reputed dependability and its association with advertised ideals of autonomy, exploration and unconventional family. Understanding your target audience is one achievement; figuring out what type of music encourages it to pull out wallets is quite another one entirely.

First, it helps that indie and alternative rock bands are often younger, and, because you can hear it in their music, listening to a Subaru single often makes commercial watchers feel young too. Familiar motifs of fickle love (“Burnin’ down the road fast, Kissin’ like a car crash”), thrill-seeking (“you’ve been sinning in the city”) and nostalgic summers (“the summer stops with the beat of my heart”) crop up constantly in the lyrics, and these concepts lend themselves to a sense of freedom and adventure, while still remaining familiar and grounded. For the same reason that there’s a cliché link between mid-life crises and buying sports cars, purchasing a new ride is tied to pangs of youthfulness.

Moreover, the genre Subaru singles derive from is defined by being unknown or unconventional — it is, in many ways, a reaction to the hackneyed structure of pop music formulated by those who didn’t find what they were looking for in rap, hip-hop, classic rock, emo, country or other genres. This sentiment of turning away from the norm is one that encourages a feeling of separation from the pack, but the music is usually enough of an easy listen that the tone is still approachable. It’s the perfect emotional intersection: people want to stand out from the crowd while still standing close to it. Or at least that’s the idea.

This approach doesn’t work for all cars. The Subaru single is the genre of choice for Hondas, Nissans, Toyotas, Fords, Mazdas, Kias and (spoiler) Subarus, but not necessarily Audis, BMWs, Mercedes or other higher-end vehicles. These commercials are about conveying a sense of luxury, an elite coolness best conveyed through classic rock or timeless slow jams.

In one Mercedes commercial, a man wearing an expensive suit goes about his day as one would expect from a white collar executive. Only in order to really hammer home this protagonist’s intense masculinity, his head is a CGI lion’s head, and the commercial’s slogan is “King of the Jungle.” The song playing in the background is purely instrumental — this commercial is too classy for emotive lyrics — with a heavy, drooping groove evoking relaxed confidence and poised coolness. To sell a Mercedes, you have to induce a tasteful elegance, rather than the playful freedom of a Subaru single. If you can sell one with Fitz and the Tantrums, you should probably consider a career as a car salesman.

We want to buy cars that make us feel a certain way about ourselves. The car we choose to drive is one of the most visible representations of the ways in which we want other people to perceive us. Our taste in music, on a more intimate level, is wrapped up in this same self-image. Whether we like it or not, Subaru has its buyers all figured out. At any given time, we’re just one song away from wanting to drive off into the sunset, that new car smell wafting through the open sunroof.

Shannon O'Hara

Written by

The Annex

The Annex

Cultural dispatches from UC Berkeley

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