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Exploring Miranda Lambert’s ‘Automatic’ Lyrics: Was ‘Back Then’ Actually Better?

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Lyrically, Miranda Lambert takes a wistful look back to a simpler time in her new song ‘Automatic.’ Few would argue that her formative years (the mid-to-late ’80s and early ’90s) ticked at a slower tock than the nonstop world of today. Technology has undoubtedly made life more efficient, but has it made us happier? 

Lambert’s ‘Automatic’ includes a number of delightful references that may fly past younger country music fans, and one or two that might even zip by those who grew up alongside her. Hers was a time of high-tops and telephones rented from Ma Bell. You paid a kid to pump your gas and relied on the phone book to order a pizza. Saturday night was family TV night, and if you missed the big game, you waited for the next day’s newspaper, assuming the game finished before they went to press. Little but the sun, taxes and death were ‘Automatic.’

Below is a dissection of Miranda Lambert’s ‘Automatic’ lyrics, plus our conclusion as to whether or not it was indeed better “before everything became automatic.”

“Quarter in a pay phone, drying laundry on the line”- A quarter would buy you a few minutes on a pay phone from about 1988 until about 1998, depending on where you lived. A common trick was to call someone collect, and when the computer operator asked for your name, you’d quickly say something like, “Mom, come pick me up from school!” Then the person on the other line didn’t have to accept charges, but they’d know what you wanted. In the late ’90s, the price rose to $.35. It costs $.50 today. Only one fourth of the pay phones that existed 20 years ago still stand.

Spencer Platt, Getty Images

According to a history of electric appliances, the dryer didn’t truly become affordable for all until the 1990s. Prior to that, one would cost roughly $1600 in today’s money.

Advantage: Now, although the smell of sun-dried laundry is wonderful.

“Watching sun tea in the window, a pocket watch for telling time” - Bottled teas and quick home-brewing machines have made waiting all day for the sun to brew it for you an enormous waste of time, although the idea is still quaint. The pocket watch hasn’t been the preferred method of tracking time for over a century. Cell phones replaced the wrist watch — the most popular brand being Swatch or Guess in the late ’80s — creating a culture in which everyone stares at their phones.

Advantage: Then. Sun-made tea is delicious. And few have walked into a street sign staring at their wrist.

“Seems like only yesterday I’d get a blank cassette / Record the country countdown, ‘cause I couldn’t buy it yet” - This is perhaps the best lyric in ‘Automatic.’ Recording anything on the radio required an enormous amount of focus and attention, and usually resulted in missing the first 10 seconds because you couldn’t run to the stereo fast enough. A four-hour country countdown show like American Country Countdown (with the voice of God Bob Kingsley) would require four 60-minute cassettes, but you’d have to quickly flip the tape after 30 minutes and hit record again. Dubbing from one cassette to another was quite another process, one that presented its own obstacles.

Advantage: Now, obviously.

Astrid Stawlarz, Getty Images

“If we drove all the way to Dallas just to buy an Easter dress” - Today, the drive from Lambert’s Lindale, Texas to Dallas means about 80 minutes on I-20. However, she indicates later in the song that it took longer back then. Of course she’s comparing this era to today, when there’s a department store in every town, if you don’t like shopping online.

Advantage: Then. Those long drives meant quality family time.

“We’d take along a Rand McNally, stand in line to pay for gas” - Rand McNally maps are likely going the way of the pay phone since smart phones offer built-in GPS. Standing in line to pay for gas recalls a time when cash was king — you couldn’t simply swipe at the pump. If she’d said “waiting in line” instead, she could have recalled a great gas shortage, the most famous of which happened about five years before she was born.

Advantage: Draw. Quick swipe cards have created a debt-dependent society. GPS devices occasionally falter, but they’re much easier than trying to refold a map.

“God knows that shifting gears ain’t what it used to be” - This is a clever observation with several interpretations. It leads nicely to …

“I learned to drive that 55 just like a queen, three on a tree” - In Texas, the speed limit was capped at 55MPH until 1987, when it rose to 65MPH. “Three on a tree” is a reference to a manual shifting pattern that used a shifter on the steering column, as opposed to the “four on the floor” models, with the stick on the floor or center column as you’ll find today. It’s explained very well here.

Advantage: Now.

“Hey whatever happened to / Waiting your turn / Doing it all by hand / ‘Cause when everything is handed to you / It’s only worth as much as the time put in / It all just seemed so good the way we had it / Back before everything became automatic” - There are no allusions here, just some general commentary that hard work led to increased satisfaction way back when.

“If you had something to say, you’d write it on a piece of paper” - You’d probably write in cursive, as well. Many schools nationwide are considering eliminating cursive from the curriculum today.

Advantage: Then. No one focuses on or remembers emails or texts, but a handwritten letter is still something to cherish.

“And you’d put a stamp on it, and they get it three days later” - The price of a stamp mirrors the increase in price to use a pay phone. Both were about a quarter in the ’80s, and both cost about $.50 today. The latest postage increase was in January 2014. A one-ounce letter now costs $.49 to mail. Sending a letter across town also took longer back then. You can generally do it in a day now.

Advantage: Now. The cost and inefficiency of the mail system becomes obvious when compared to automated bill-pay and other electronic ways to correspond.

“Boys would call the girls, the girls would turn them down” - Perhaps it was a more chivalrous time, but women have made many strides in the work place in the 30 years since Lambert was born.

Advantage: Draw. To each their own.

“Staying married was the only way to work your problems out” - Divorce rates have actually fallen since a peak in 1981, but this isn’t to say more people are working it out. The rate of marriage has also fallen, as more couples are living together unwed than ever before. Those breakups aren’t factored into current surveys.

Advantage: Draw.

Ernesto Ruscio, Getty Images

“Let’s roll the windows down / Windows with the cranks” – Car windows with manual cranks still exist today, but they were the only choice back then. Frankly, it was a lot of work just to catch a breeze. But computerized locks and windows do make it more difficult and more expensive to retrieve your keys if you lock them in your car. They’re also harder to fix when they break.

Advantage: Then.

“Come on let’s take a picture / The kind you gotta shake” – There’s still some charm to Polaroid pictures. Instagram has essentially recreated the vintage look with many of its filters. For those who’ve never snapped one, you shook it to accelerate the drying process. However, modern Polaroid pictures don’t require shaking. In fact, when the hip-hop duo Outkast urged fans to “Shake it like a Polaroid picture” in their 2003 hit ‘Hey-Ya,’ the company went on a campaign to urge users not to shake it, because doing so actually hurts the photo. Ten years later, it’s safe to say Outkast’s message won that war of words.

Advantage: Now. Digital photography has made the hobby much more affordable and fun.

Final Score: Now wins 5-4! But doesn’t the future always win?

Next: Listen to Miranda Lambert, 'Automatic'

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