When it comes down to it, the thing I love most about music is the ability to tell a story in four minutes and thirty seconds. I’m generally way more of a lyrics guy than I am a music guy (or even a voice guy), although the music I love the most tends to score high marks in all three categories. With all that in mind, very few artists have made as striking an entrance into my musical conscious as Tracy Chapman did in the summer of ’88 with “Fast Car”.
If you’re reading this, I’m assuming you’re at least somewhat familiar with Tracy Chapman’s oeuvre. If that is indeed the case, then I don’t have to tell you much about “Fast Car”-after all, it’s her biggest hit; the song that briefly made her the darling of the music industry. It’s a plaintive tale of a woman who is looking to leave her depressing life behind. She is working at a convenience store, saving money to leave the shelter in which she and her partner are living. She quit school to take care of her alcoholic father after her mother has left the home, and she is aching for a way out–a move into the city, a house in the suburbs. She’s not looking for anything extravagant-just something better than what she has now.
In the bridge, she flashes back to a memory. She’s riding in her partner’s car, watching the city lights ahead and enjoying the comfort of her lover’s arms around her shoulders. The story is Springsteen-esque, with the added gravitas of being written and sung by a black woman. I wasn’t even a teenager when “Fast Car” came out, but it definitely struck a chord of emotion within me, even if I didn’t fully understand or relate to what Tracy was singing about.
On the heels of “Fast Car”, the soft-spoken, retiring Chapman became a somewhat unlikely star. Part of the hubbub around her was aesthetic. There weren’t any dark-skinned, dreadlocked women having hits with folk records in the ’80s (and there haven’t really been any since Tracy). The main part is that Tracy was (and is) ridiculously talented, and she recorded one of the best debut albums of the decade. She deservedly won an armful of Grammys for her debut, although subsequent records (though very good) didn’t perform as well. She had a brief comeback in the mid ’90s with the bluesy “Give Me One Reason”, but superstardom never seemed to sit on her very well. Knowing that the writer and singer of “Fast Car” didn’t turn into a designer clothes-wearing, red carpet-walking cipher gives the song even more of an air of authenticity in my eyes.
“Fast Car” has become ubiquitous over the last three decades, remade or interpolated by rappers (Nice & Smooth), reggae singers (Foxy Brown-not the ’90s rapper or the ’70s movie character played by Pam Grier), indie artists and electronic DJs. The shy, unassuming Tufts student with the acoustic guitar created a standard that will live long past the era it was created in because it taps into a part of the human condition-the need to escape-that will never go away.