Less than a minute into the music video for the Pretenders’ “Brass in Pocket” — one of the first clips ever aired on MTV — we see teddy-boy-coifed bassist Pete Farndon maneuvering a pink whale of an automobile toward the diner where singer Chrissie Hynde is waitressing. All three male Pretenders are riding along, and they’re each British, as is most of the slang in the song (“got bottle,” “skank,” “reet,” plus that title, signifying pocket change). But the car is definitely American; steering wheel’s on the left-hand side. Farndon looks cool and relaxed, driving with only one hand.
There is a moment in the song when Hynde coos something about “driving, Detroit leaning.” (Sadly, not one of the lyrics sung by Scarlett Johannson during her Lost in Translation rendition.) And the way she draws out the word “Detroit” sounds so cool that it made us want to know what it referred to, if only so we could do it ourselves. Hynde grew up in northern Ohio, close enough to the former automobile capital to have become familiar with the term, a manner of driving in which the driver places one hand on the wheel, and leans far back. (We called several Detroit history experts in an attempt to find the definitive source of the term, but came up short. It’s just one of those things that everyone knows, but no one knows where from.) Sometimes the head is tilted, sometimes the body is shifted to one side, sometimes the seat is pushed back to make the effect even more pronounced. It came from a time when all you had to do to look cool in a car was drive and angle back and listen to some good loud music and maybe bop your head slowly. A 1982 track from Exit (a tiny band essentially consisting of musician George Gullet) called “Detroit Leaning” puts it explicitly with the lyric, “Detrot Leaning/Lean to the side.”
But it’s not a term completely relegated to decades past. A 2011 YouTube clip shows a Jughead-hatted chucklehead calling himself OB who ineptly attempts to demonstrate Detroit leaning from the couch in his mom’s basement. “He’s leaning so far back, you pull up next to him, all you see is his head, you don’t even see his shoulder,” he explains of a hypothetical leaner. Pantomiming a left-hand turn from a right-hand lane, he scrunches into his “stankface” then starts making furious concentric circles with his hand. Weird thing is, though, if he’d actually driven much around the Motor City, he’d be familiar with the “Michigan left turn,” which is really a right turn followed by U-turn. The first intersection physically constructed to enable that kind of “left” turn was installed at the corner of 8 Mile and Livernois way back in the early sixties, to cut down on accidents. (Countless Michigan intersections have since been designed that way since.) It is completely possible that OB is not aware that he is ripping off a Simpsons bit from 1994.
Since everybody knows that physics itself makes your body lean right when you steer your vehicle left, perhaps OB’s mixing up the Detroit lean with the related but seemingly distinct “gangsta lean,” as made famous in such even-bigger-than–“Brass in Pocket” hits as William DeVaughn’s 1974 “Be Thankful for What You Got” (where “diggin’ the scene” occurs) and Dr. Dre with Snoop Dogg’s 1993 “Nuthin’ But a G Thang” (where said lean is said to be “hellafied.”) The “gangster lean,” per urbandictionary.com, involves different hands: “A gangsta lean is not leaning to the inside of your car … The proper lean is with the right hand on the wheel, leanin’ to the left, so everybody can see yo’ mug.”
Regardless of which direction you lean and how far back, it’s all about the swagger. Chrissie Hynde knew it when she threw the phrase into her song. And to this day, when she performs it, she knows exactly how to make it work. Lean and drive, everyone.