‘Fast Car’: The Rebirth of Tracy Chapman’s Hard-Luck Anthem
June 17, 2020 1:22 PM   Subscribe

 
This is such a perfect song. Every one of those covers in that article still capture that warm familiar blanket of Chapman’s original to me. That speaks highly of the song’s perfection, that everything from a faithful cover to an EDM remix both feel authentic.

I am just a bit too young for the original release of this song, but this song was frequently on in the background when I was growing up — everywhere from radio to Vh1 to the stereo section at Best Buy. I remember reading it was a great test song for audio quality.

Many of my younger friends and students love this song as well, but they always seem to miss what a profoundly sad story it tells. I feel like it’s in the same camp as “Hey Ya,” in that it’s so catchy and so pervasive that people miss the actual lyrics. Our favorite game whenever “Fast Car” comes up is to chirp “ah yes, my favorite song about the horrors of intergenerational trauma!” and watch for the response. It’s almost always confusion, dawning realization, and then a quiet “oh my god...”
posted by lilac girl at 2:18 PM on June 17 [25 favorites]


I would have bet money that was an iconic 90s song, which I guess speaks to how way ahead of its time it was.
posted by bleep at 2:19 PM on June 17 [17 favorites]


Thanks for this article -- I don't remember when this song entered my aural memory but it feels like it's always been there. However, this was the first time I'd ever really read the lyrics, and yeah, it's not a hopeful one, isn't it?

Sorry I need this spelled out for me: they eventually become economically stable but the husband also starts drinking too much, just like her father, but this time he'll be the one to leave and once again, she'll be staying behind to take care of (this time), kids?
posted by batter_my_heart at 2:22 PM on June 17 [3 favorites]


I played this album so many times when I was young.

This part of the article really caught me: The idea that “Fast Car” has become a new standard is striking given the hurdles it had to overcome. They had to fight so hard to get this song released as it is. It made me wonder how many other songs that record companies spiked for being "too odd" might have become anthemic.
posted by rednikki at 2:27 PM on June 17 [9 favorites]


batter_my_heart, the impression I get from the lyrics is that she's hoping he'll leave ("take your fast car and keep on driving"), because she pays the bills, he doesn't have a job and spends his time drinking at the bar. He's a drain and brings nothing to the relationship.

One thing that to me shows the change between 1988 and now: the line "I've got a job that pays all our bills." In 2020, it would be nigh-impossible for a high school dropout (and possibly even a high-school grad) to have one job that paid all of the bills for a family of at least four (her, her partner and at least two kids). That one line seems as much of a fantasy as her dreams of having a good life in the previous verses.
posted by rednikki at 2:33 PM on June 17 [24 favorites]


Listening to this song takes me back to a summer spent in Bombay during college when a boy who I had a crush on played this song for me. Lots of water under the bridge since then, we each moved separately to the US, went to grad school, he discovered he was gay, I'm married with one kid and another on the way - but when I listen to this song suddenly I'm 19 again.
posted by peacheater at 2:33 PM on June 17 [12 favorites]


I listened to this song a lot of times before I ever really listened to the lyrics and understood what it was about. The vocal is so pure and perfect that I just wanted to hear her sing. It is much better, though much sadder, when you listen to the words.
posted by jacquilynne at 2:33 PM on June 17 [2 favorites]


Sorry I need this spelled out for me: they eventually become economically stable but the husband also starts drinking too much, just like her father, but this time he'll be the one to leave and once again, she'll be staying behind to take care of (this time), kids?

I think this is the crucial bit-

You got a fast car
And I got a job that pays all our bills
You stay out drinking late at the bar
See more of your friends than you do of your kids

I'd always hoped for better
Thought maybe together you and me'd find it
I got no plans I ain't going nowhere
So take your fast car and keep on driving

[...]
You got a fast car
But is it fast enough so you can fly away?
You gotta make a decision
Leave tonight or live and die this way


To me, it's basically what you said, but with an added layer of "and good fucking riddance."
posted by showbiz_liz at 2:34 PM on June 17 [14 favorites]


Tracy was on the soccer team at Tufts when my dad was there. We saw her busking in Harvard Square when I was five. She serenaded me with “Puff the Magic Dragon”. I wish I could remember more about this, but I was more interested in my ice cream cone.
posted by pxe2000 at 2:37 PM on June 17 [82 favorites]


not that I'm looking for proof, because there is never proof
but if there was proof that you can't keep a good song down, here it is
posted by elkevelvet at 2:40 PM on June 17 [3 favorites]


A strong album altogether. I'm surprised at how many of the lyrics I remember:

two weeks in a Virginia jail, for my lover, for my lover
twenty thousand dollars' bail, for my lover, for my lover
everybody thinks that I'm the fool
they don't get any love from you

posted by praemunire at 2:42 PM on June 17 [8 favorites]


Yeah that album is so good as a whole. I've tried some of her later stuff and none of it grabbed me as hard as the debut.
posted by PMdixon at 2:55 PM on June 17 [1 favorite]


I love this song so much -- I'll have to listen to the whole album. I don't pay Tracy Chapman nearly enough attention, for as long as her songs (especially Fast Car) have been in my life.
posted by kalimac at 3:00 PM on June 17


I don't think it's a given that the "you" in the song is a man/husband. That's a valid interpretation, but the song doesn't gender her partner. Tracey Chapman was outed as queer by her previous partners (problematic in itself) but as a lesbian, this song definitely resonate for me in that sense, too.
posted by Emily's Fist at 3:01 PM on June 17 [22 favorites]


Sorry I need this spelled out for me: they eventually become economically stable but the husband also starts drinking too much, just like her father, but this time he'll be the one to leave and once again, she'll be staying behind to take care of (this time), kids?

They never get economically stable. The verse right before she's saying that "I got a job that pays all our bills" goes
You got a fast car
We go cruising to entertain ourselves
You still ain't got a job
I work in a market as a checkout girl
I know things will get better
You'll find work and I'll get promoted
We'll move out of the shelter
Buy a bigger house and live in the suburbs
So the story is that she's a high school dropout who quit school to take care of an ailing/alcoholic father, and she's met the guy that makes her feel valued and they have dreams that all they have to do is run away together and everything will be peachy, but that never happens; he never gets a job, she's stuck working drudge jobs to support the partner instead of her father, and it's the same old thing.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 3:07 PM on June 17 [15 favorites]


Here's a YouTube playlist with official audio and video for Tracy Champan's self-titled debut album. YouTube has more album playlists, too, so I'd assume they're on other streaming platforms, too.

lilac girl: This is such a perfect song. Every one of those covers in that article still capture that warm familiar blanket of Chapman’s original to me. That speaks highly of the song’s perfection, that everything from a faithful cover to an EDM remix both feel authentic.

Xiu Xiu's cover is the bleakest version I've heard (Bandcamp, NSFW cover art; SFW art on YouTube). I'm not sure if it's so much a warm blanket as it is company in solitude. The most recent comment from the YT video: "I feel like this is a version someone would sing to themselves after being in the situation described in the song."
posted by filthy light thief at 3:07 PM on June 17 [4 favorites]


It doesn't. There's a lot of room for queer interpretation of the album, I think.
posted by praemunire at 3:09 PM on June 17 [3 favorites]


Xiu Xiu has form with bleakness; dysphoria is his stock in trade.
posted by acb at 3:10 PM on June 17 [1 favorite]


I think time passes between each verse, such that the narrator has found a somewhat better-paying job by the end of the song (beyond "checkout girl"), but the partner has still made no progress at all.
posted by praemunire at 3:11 PM on June 17 [19 favorites]


I love this song, and have always assumed it was a song written about a same-sex relationship, even when hearing it back in the 80s. For me, it added to the poignancy and struggle and was an important part of the story for me.
posted by nanook at 3:13 PM on June 17 [9 favorites]


I love this album and I love this song, but I discovered it a few months before a really painful life event, and Fast Car was the song I played over and over to cry to, and now I still can't hear it without getting crushingly sad, even when things are good.
posted by Mchelly at 3:21 PM on June 17 [5 favorites]


The thing that amazes me every single time about this song is how it shifts.

It shifts, into higher and lower gears. Like a car.
posted by jeffehobbs at 4:09 PM on June 17 [17 favorites]


I remember that cassette, not sure who bought it, my mother or my sister, but I listened to it a lot as a kid. As astounding as Fast Car is, Behind the Wall was always the song that made me pause whatever I was doing and listen.

I'd like to think that I've grown to be a decent human being, and I know that the lion's share of who I am is because of the people, mostly my mother and sister, who raised me, but I don't doubt hearing this album as a junior high kid had something to do with it, too.
posted by Ghidorah at 4:25 PM on June 17 [7 favorites]


Legit one of the all-time greats.
posted by jameaterblues at 5:27 PM on June 17 [1 favorite]


Yes, Tracy Chapman, and Joan Armatrading, these two artists kept me company. Fast car particularly, stuck with me, via Chapman's vibrato and the richness of her voice.
posted by Oyéah at 5:44 PM on June 17 [3 favorites]


Good song. Coincidentally my wife suddenly got really into this song a few months before the pandemic suddenly after not hearing it for many years.
posted by Liquidwolf at 5:54 PM on June 17


I used to play this in the car when I took my teenage daughter to school back in the day. It, along with Carol King's, "So Far Away" were our favourites. The "soundtrack of our lives" may be a cliché, but "Fast Car" is a treasured memory of happy father/daughter times.

And her "Talkin' About a Revolution" is another great track, sadly, as relevant today as ever.
posted by vac2003 at 5:56 PM on June 17 [7 favorites]


Yes, Fast Car is fantastic, but it is surprising that Talkin’ ‘Bout a Revolution isn’t more of a standard. Living Colour covered it as a b-side to Open Letter (to a Landlord), but it strikes me as one of those timeless songs that should have been written decades earlier, like Here Comes Your Man or Seven Nation Army.
posted by snofoam at 6:22 PM on June 17 [11 favorites]


I think it's also a credible interpretation that the "you" in the last lines are not a question to the singer's partner, but the singer's rhetorical questions to herself.

filthy light thief: Xiu Xiu's cover is the bleakest version I've heard (Bandcamp, NSFW cover art; SFW art on YouTube). I'm not sure if it's so much a warm blanket as it is company in solitude. The most recent comment from the YT video: "I feel like this is a version someone would sing to themselves after being in the situation described in the song."

This is the content I needed today. I appreciate the tonal shift.
posted by lilac girl at 6:32 PM on June 17 [2 favorites]


NSFW, Fast Dick has some moments.
posted by snofoam at 6:48 PM on June 17


This song came out when I was a little girl and had just experienced my first family funeral. On the way home—a long drive—this song came on twice, and I was just weeping and weeping because it was so sad and I was so sad and everything was so, so sad. I respect it and I appreciate listening to it now, but it still brings a strong sense memory of pure sadness.
posted by Countess Elena at 7:40 PM on June 17 [5 favorites]


As a queer woman I remain confident that Chapman is singing about a fuckboy of the cishet man variety.
posted by asteria at 7:49 PM on June 17 [24 favorites]


I was 13 when this song came out. I remember that every girl I liked was REALLY into it, so I put it on every mixtape I made for years. It was only later that I started listening to the lyrics and realized what it was about. Shame on Younger Me.

If you adore Tracy’s voice, you owe it to yourself to listen to the cover of “Stand By Me” she performed on Letterman in 2015. Achingly beautiful doesn’t even begin to describe it.
posted by zooropa at 8:01 PM on June 17 [10 favorites]


I'm kind of shocked that all of the covers listed in the article are by men. That misses one of the important points of the song, which is the intersection of patriarchy, structural racism, and poverty.

they eventually become economically stable

Definitely not my interpretation. I love this song, but it is very bleak. The singer has lost hope by the end of the song. It's an elegy for the singer's dreams of a better life, worn away over years of structural obstacles.
posted by eviemath at 8:42 PM on June 17 [20 favorites]


It makes a nice pairing with Springsteen's "The River" in that respect.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 9:07 PM on June 17 [5 favorites]


Almost certainly non-canonical, but my interpretation of the last verse was always that you has shifted to the singer talking to themselves and saying it's time they need to take the car and leave the dead-end relationship.
posted by Candleman at 9:38 PM on June 17 [10 favorites]


The last verse also puts me in mind of the Arna Bontemps short story "A Summer Tragedy", in other potential interpretations.
posted by eviemath at 4:27 AM on June 18


Great song. But I think this song had a "revival" a few years back. I remember suddenly hearing it places, but this was at least five years ago—maybe more. Not sure its revival was so recent?
posted by SoberHighland at 5:06 AM on June 18


Perhaps saddest to me is that she's ultimately willing to let him/her make the decision to "leave tonight or live and die this way" as opposed to making it herself like her mother - because those seem the choices her life has taught her, run (to uncertain and perhaps worse but at least momentarily different circumstances) or resign yourself to the dispiriting downward spiral of life on the margins.
posted by thecincinnatikid at 5:22 AM on June 18


I've never interpreted it as a break-up song. She's asking her partner to decide what he/she/they wants, but either they're both going to leave in the partner's fast car or their both going to "live and die this way". Where "leave tonight" is probably in the Bontemps short story sense, as I mentioned above.
posted by eviemath at 5:36 AM on June 18


I thought this was clearly about a queer lover but then in the 1990s it was illegal for a lesbian Not to own this album.
posted by kanata at 5:38 AM on June 18 [6 favorites]


Great song. But I think this song had a "revival" a few years back. I remember suddenly hearing it places, but this was at least five years ago—maybe more. Not sure its revival was so recent?

I think Jonas Blue's cover was from 2015. I first encountered it in a jazzbro vlog from 2017.
posted by thelonius at 5:49 AM on June 18


I've never interpreted it as a break-up song. She's asking her partner to decide what he/she/they wants, but either they're both going to leave in the partner's fast car or their both going to "live and die this way". Where "leave tonight" is probably in the Bontemps short story sense, as I mentioned above.

And what about the kids ? They're gonna be in the back seat ? Nope... I don't agree with your interpretation...
posted by Pendragon at 5:58 AM on June 18 [1 favorite]


If you adore Tracy’s voice, you owe it to yourself to listen to the cover of “Stand By Me” she performed on Letterman in 2015. yt Achingly beautiful doesn’t even begin to describe it.

Holy socks.

Stand By Me is a unique song for me because I love (love, love) covers generally, but I have never heard a cover of Stand By Me before where half-way through I didn't get the urge to turn it off and listen to the Ben E. King version*.

So I guess this'll be today's remarkable thing that happens to me.

* This is not to say the covers are bad; they're often very good but they still somehow only serve to remind me I'd rather be listening to the King version.
posted by Parasite Unseen at 8:01 AM on June 18 [3 favorites]


I was an early teen when it came out. Chapman's deep voice and folk production sound stood out from the pop hits of the time.* I was a bit clueless about the Black folk tradition so didn't recognize her as part of a lineage that included Richie Havens or Odetta. She seemed out of the blue to my uneducated ear. But even more what stood out was the video. It was arresting to see someone on MTV who was so outside that moment's accepted parameters of identity. She was so gay, so black, so un-touched up. I distinctly remember my first hearing the song and seeing the video when it was on in the background at a friend's house. I was captivated.

*the article points out Luka came out the year before - so some recent precedent for aspects of this including thematically with the domestic violence subject matter.
posted by latkes at 8:11 AM on June 18 [6 favorites]


I was in 6th grade when her album came out. Fast Car is definitely one of the first radio songs where I remember hearing it (and Luka) and feeling like "This is my music" instead of "This is my parents' music". I bought the album on CD in high school, I think, and I come back to it from time to time. I remember one day in grad school feeling like I needed to go home right then and rip that album to my computer. It's still there for when I need it.

Now, this song reminds me of my students. The story of the woman in Fast Car is the story of so many of my students who struggle to find their way towards their dreams while working dead-end jobs and trying to find their way through the ties of family and (not great) relationships. I certainly understand why it continues to resonate with young people today.
posted by hydropsyche at 8:24 AM on June 18 [5 favorites]


One of the neat things about the football (soccer) podcast and television show "Men in Blazers" is how co-host Roger Bennett has gotten soccer fans across America to come to appreciate "Fast Car". He references the song regularly. For example, on the 30th anniversary of the release of the song -- he tweeted "To this day, whenever Everton lose, I play Fast Car. Listening to those teen dreams, shattered realities, parental alcoholism, deadbeat dads, and bleak futures is a reminder even though the team I love just dropped 3 points, nothing in life is sadder than a Tracy Chapman song".

Bennett recently talked about watching the Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute Concert, held at Wembley Stadium in June 1988, when Tracy Chapman, who had played earlier in the concert, came out a second time to cover a time gap caused a delayed Stevie Wonder. A 2016 Financial Times article "The Life of a Song: ‘Fast Car’" stated "The two songs she gave then, “Fast Car” and “Across the Lines”, made her name. Being a young black woman — shy yet resolute, tender yet flinty — at an anti-apartheid event, Chapman briefly became the face of a new kind of protest movement."
posted by Ranucci at 8:25 AM on June 18 [1 favorite]


Whenever I listen to Fast Car I end up framing it in my head as an AskMe question from the narrator. "I've been with my partner for five years, we love each other and we have children, but ever since I read the emotional labor thread I've noticed how I have to arrange all the childcare while he's out drinking with his friends. He says he's looking for a job, but he doesn't have any interviews yet and I'm having trouble staying on top of everything in the house when he's not pulling his weight. Can we make this work, or do I tell him to leave tonight or live or die this way?"

The more inside would go into detail about narrator's role as a caretaker for her alcoholic father. Commenters would bring up the ways in which she's replicating the pattern of caretaking and suggest al-anon, many encouragements to DTMFA. I suspect from the ending of the song that she would end up being a person who asks repeated questions about the relationship--grinding generational poverty and caretaking patterns are hard as hell to break free from.



Unrelated, I also remember my horror a few years ago, being at my cousins' wedding reception and hearing 'Fast Car' on the background playlist. What kind of horrible precedent does that set for your marriage?
posted by ActionPopulated at 9:29 AM on June 18 [14 favorites]


Also, to fill in the covers keeping it from fading from the pubic consciousness, Vertical Horizon covered it in concert in the mid 2000s.
posted by Candleman at 9:33 AM on June 18


I would have bet money that was an iconic 90s song

Yup, it was in the process of making an "ultimate 90s playlist" on Spotify a few years ago that I discovered that, although I deeply associated the song with my middle and high school years (and I had finally gotten into the rest of the album in college), it had actually come out when I was four.

I also feel like there was a major resurgence a few years back, sort of around the time of Justin Bieber's surprisingly acceptable live cover (is this song just unruinable?) and the dance remixes, which I remember discovering while in an H&M dressing room or similar (the song might be a little ruinable, it turns out).

I am very much here for wave 3...? 4...? of Fast Car.
posted by naoko at 10:37 AM on June 18


As a queer woman I remain confident that Chapman is singing about a fuckboy of the cishet man variety.

And I remain confident that queer readings of this song are valid. I get that you're making a point about "fuckboys" but can I gently push back on the implication that this song describes an experience exclusive to women in relationships with cishet men, especially when a lot of other queer women are talking about how they relate...?
posted by Emily's Fist at 4:42 PM on June 18 [1 favorite]


This song came out the year I graduated high school, but I associate it more with my marriage that started Jan 1990, when both my husband and I played the album again and again. She was the only "girl with guitar" he wouldn't sneer at and actually respected as a musician, while I was digging the whole folk rock revival. Aong with Chapman and Vega, there were the Indigo Girls, some of Melissa Etheridge's songs, Sarah McLachlan, and for us Atlantans, Michelle Malone and Caroline Aiken, and various others. The folk rock artists and the grunge bands got us away from the overwhelmingly electronic music pop scene of the 80s, and Chapman deserves some of the credit for that with her incredible voice that even record company execs couldn't ignore.
posted by notashroom at 9:03 PM on June 18 [3 favorites]


My extremely fond memory of the first Lilith Fair centers heavily around Tracy's role as the next-to-last performer. She blew everyone away, obviously, and then Sarah McLachlan came on last. Which was supposed to be the big highlight of the evening, of course, the big shiny star at the top of the whole thing. And it was great! Sarah was great! But there was a palpable sense of "...holy shit, though, can we have TRACY back, because that was fucking revelatory" throughout the audience.

(And then of course everyone came to sing for the very end so it was fine and perfect and a warm and nostalgic memory, but like...everyone knew Tracy was the star of that night of music.)
posted by Stacey at 4:40 AM on June 19 [1 favorite]


Please correct me if I'm wrong, or biased, or unfair, but I feel like the singer's mother is the real villain of "Fast Car." I don't begrudge her decision to leave the singer's father, and I acknowledge that the alcoholic father and the unproductive partner are both problems in their own rights who don't take responsibility for their choices. But to abandon your child altogether, to leave her as sole uncompensated caretaker of a man you refuse to live with? That's a special kind of evil.
posted by Faint of Butt at 1:02 PM on June 19 [1 favorite]


After reading this thread and mulling over the thoughts expressed here, what should come on the radio at work today but "Fast Car". And as I've done over the decades, I sang along with it and listened to it and to me, it's not a depressing song. (Note: I am a grocery worker. I started as a "check out girl" and now work in the meat room, which is the "I'll get promoted" she sings in the lyrics. I had a terrible first marriage with two small kids when I left my husband and never looked back. My life is great now; I have a job that pays all my bills and two great (now grown) kids).

I take this song in that she had a rough beginning; she found someone she thought would be the perfect life partner. She worked her way up out of a shelter (we don't really know what happened to her father). And eventually, she knows she doesn't need the man who has become a chain around her neck and she can stand on her own two feet.

I guess, with how my own life has turned out, I find this to be a song of strength. Her life may not have turned out the way she hoped, but she found her own strength and drive.
posted by annieb at 2:36 PM on June 19 [12 favorites]


> And what about the kids ? They're gonna be in the back seat ?

They're the partner's kids, not the singer's, in my interpretation. I always felt the partner was older.
posted by The corpse in the library at 8:53 AM on June 22


Maybe it's because I've ~always paired this up with "The River" but I've always seen this as her looking around at her life, knowing that she (or they) didn't leave that night, knowing that she's going to live and die this way, and thinking back to that time when things were hard but there was still promise and hope everywhere. When the city lights were laid out before her and she felt like she belonged... not like now, when she's done everything right and the world just keeps punishing her for it.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 9:55 AM on June 22 [1 favorite]


But to abandon your child altogether, to leave her as sole uncompensated caretaker of a man you refuse to live with? That's a special kind of evil.

The protagonist is old enough to drop out of school, which suggests they are at least sixteen. You can't really make a kid of that age leave with you if they don't want to, and the fact that they then dropped out of school to take care of the father suggest they would not have. It's possible that the mother did not offer leaving with her as an option, of course, but the song does not specify.
posted by tavella at 10:45 AM on June 22


Plenty of people drop out of school before they're 16.
posted by The corpse in the library at 2:28 PM on June 22 [1 favorite]


It does happen, but at that point you get chased by truancy officers in nearly every state. Obviously, the song is a sketch, but the casual phrasing suggests a straightforward choice rather than a struggle with juvenile court, and there weren't many states that allowed that before 16 even in the 80s.
posted by tavella at 2:42 PM on June 22


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