Kaylee Heartman / Daily Nexus

In honor of Charli XCX and Troye Sivan co-headlining the Sweat Tour (and Shygirl opening!), I’ve been listening to a lot of their music. In my countless hours of doing my statistics homework to club bangers and electropop, I’ve noticed that they really love one thing: fast cars. Charli, in particular, loves to look cute and break the speed limit: classics like “Vroom Vroom,” “Porsche” and “White Mercedes” sit atop her discography, joined by new breakneck hits like “Speed Drive” from the “Barbie” movie.

Cars as a symbol are ubiquitous across “gay” pop: Troye Sivan “just [wants] to fuck shit up and just ride / In your car tonight,” Chappell Roan is “knee deep in the passenger seat” and boygenius wants to “sleep in cars and kill the bourgeoisie.” But at the other end of the culture is NASCAR, Formula 1 (F1) and muscle car shows. Decidedly the opposite. How did the queer community and the straight people simultaneously gain an appreciation of cars? Why is driving fast so universally appealing? And what does Charli XCX have to do with it?

Through taking a masculine signifier like a sports car and blending it with legendary gay club pop beats, songs like “Vroom Vroom” blur the line between masc and femme. In doing so, it plays into the storied tradition of empowering queer people by crashing through established hierarchy.

From their inception, cars have been decidedly masculine. Professional sports leagues like F1 and NASCAR center and celebritize their male drivers, and their fans are also primarily male. Car bedspreads and toy dump trucks are segregated to the little boys section of Target. Bloated movie franchises like “Fast & Furious” parade Vin Diesel and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson driving cars out of burning buildings. Ford F-150 ads have gone viral for their hypermasculine voiceovers. More than 87% of mechanics in the U.S. are men. Every aspect of society is pushing the messaging that cars are for men: driving them, buying them, fixing them and even breaking them. 

But cars are more than just for men, by men. Cars, to some extent, are extensions of the men that drive them. There’s an unspoken idea that men with small dicks drive big cars as a form of compensation, and to some extent, that rings true. Cars marketed to men (pickup trucks, massive SUVs and hypercars) have been getting bigger and louder, despite the marked increase in cost and higher emissions. Perhaps men drive these massive pickups and Chevy Suburbans to feel important, to dominate the road. It tracks that  someone would overcompensate by someone taking up 1.5 lanes on a highway. Cars are a manifestation of a facet of straight man masculinity: being bigger than everyone. 

Societal messaging leads us to understand cars and masculinity as deeply interconnected. As such, it makes sense that cars are treated as gender signifiers; this manifests in both driving the car that aligns with your presentation, but also using it as a motif or symbol in media. 

For queer people, cars don’t have to function as extensions of masculinity. They can be accessories. The aesthetic value of the car is what matters — and also what the symbol implies. In the same way that the clothes we wear influence our gender presentation and self-perception, driving a car is using a similar gender signifier to communicate that same information. To drive a fast car is to put on the performance of masculinity, and with the aid of behind the wheel anonymously, to truly embody it while driving.

What’s interesting, though, is that queer music that centers cars does it in a decidedly different way than traditional music does. Most of the songs that I’ve mentioned are house party bangers or crooning indie rock, whereas hard country songs about big pickups (see “Truck Yeah” by Tim McGraw) and rap music about Ferraris (“MotorSport” by Migos, for example) dominate the straight side of things. Even the cars they idolize are different: Charli specifically drives a “Lavender Lamborghini.” You’d be hard pressed to find a country song about a pastel-colored F-150. 

So, queer people’s cars show up in party music. Why?

In a space like a rave or a nightclub, we see why cars and the masculinity they provide are so prevalent. There is merit in appearing more masculine, yes, but it also ties into one of the most important parts of queer party culture: genderfucking. 

Messing with the gender binary has always been part of queer parties: drag queens dominate ballroom culture, masc lesbians drink Coors Light at bars and even the occasional I.V. gay will wear a fishnet top to Biko House once in their life (no hate). Queer parties also serve as gathering spaces where people can explore and deconstruct this binary freely. Outfits, makeup and, of course, the soundtrack are essential ingredients in creating a place. Songs like “Vroom Vroom” and other queer party anthems use the motif of cars as just one of the ways they blur this line. 

This is where Charli XCX comes in. The song is about looking cute, but more importantly, driving fast. Charli writes, “Lavender Lamborghini, get out on the right side / Chauffeur stayed at home, because my girl wanted to ride.” She gets out on the right side (the driver’s side in the UK). She’s driving. She’s been “waitin’ for a good time,” so she drives! This song, and this EP, is about Charli jumping into the sleek black sports car on the cover to find paradise, to win the trophy. The song, and the EP as a whole, serve to soundtrack and accentuate Charli’s hyper feminine, bikini-wearing, molly-popping persona. 

But songs like “Vroom Vroom” and ‘Trophy” put that in conversation with  traditional masculine actions and signifiers, like driving unreasonably fast and spending unreasonable amounts of money. These activities make numerous appearances in rap, country, and rock music of recent memory, and by taking them out of their traditional musical setting, it creates a dissonance between the signifiers and the context they’re presented in. 

Queer people use cars as a method to appropriate masculinity, which, in today’s world, is a more valuable currency than dollars. But this doesn’t manifest in driving Lambos down the 101 (for most … but you do you). People get in the driver’s seat in sweaty house parties and dark raves and revel in the power it affords you. Queer party songs like “Vroom Vroom” (or any of the other 15 singles that Charli mentions cars in) empower people through deconstructing this gender binary. These songs are a manifestation of rearranging the binary in your favor: of bending it and destroying it and creating power through that reconstruction. 

Places like the ballroom and the gay bar have been places for queer people to hide away from the straight world and to empower themselves in an environment free from hierarchies and rules that disadvantage them. Part of that is finding power in deconstructing those binaries through appropriating traditional masculine signifiers. Part of that is feeling the fantasy of driving an expensive car at ridiculous speeds. And part of the power of queer party culture is screaming “Let’s ride!” when your favorite song comes on at the club. 

While Sury Dongre has never broken the speed limit, “Von dutch” by Charli XCX has certainly brought him close.

A version of this article appeared on p. 9 of the May 23, 2024 print edition of the Daily Nexus.