Cars have often represented freedom in pop music. That shouldn’t be a surprise when you consider that, in the early days of rock ‘n’ roll, the music was written by and for young people, who wanted to escape the conformity of their parents and claim some form of independence. Just about every teenager’s maturation involves gaining access to a car — learning how to drive one and getting an automobile of your own, or finding a buddy who will drive you around in his — so that you can start having your own unsupervised adventures.
The Beach Boys made a career out of writing songs about cruising around, the Beatles invited their honey to drive their car and the Rolling Stones turned “Start Me Up” into a fairly elaborate sex-drive-as-car-engine metaphor. Then there’s Bruce Springsteen, who filled his early records with tales of young guys and gals dreaming of hopping in an automobile and finding adventure, escape and purpose by driving out of their hellish small town. If you just have a car, everything opens up for you.
When Tracy Chapman was blowing up in the late 1980s, people would ask her what kind of car she was singing about in “Fast Car,” the Top 10 hit that launched her career and remains the most beautiful, heartbreaking thing she’s ever written. Sometimes she’d say it was a Toyota Corolla, which was probably her way of messing with people. Fiercely private and reluctant to talk about the inspiration for her songs, she no doubt had to contend with a fair amount of new fans who assumed “Fast Car” must be about her — and that, therefore, the car must be real, too. Journalists would ask jokingly, now that she was successful, if she planned on buying her own fast car. “I’ll just fix up my old car,” she said back then. “It’s a 1980 Tercel with, like, 99,000 miles on it.”
After all these years, no matter how many times you’ve heard it, “Fast Car” remains a shock. There was nothing like it on the radio in 1988, and there really isn’t anything like it now. Its spare, candid tone — in its musical arrangement, in its lyrics and Chapman’s vocal performance — always catches you off guard. You feel like you’re eavesdropping on a conversation between two lovers — actually, you’re just listening to the woman’s side of the exchange. But although 1980s pop wasn’t devoid of socially conscious songs, “Fast Car” felt like a bulletin from a world that rarely showed up on the charts. After decades of songs about cars as freedom, Chapman wrote perhaps the saddest. It’s a song about how a car can’t really take you anywhere.
The most you’ll get out of Chapman, who had just turned 24 when “Fast Car” hit radio, about the song’s origins was that it was kinda, sorta inspired by her upbringing. Talking about “Fast Car” in 2010, she said, “[I]t was something that turned out to take a significant role in shaping my first record and probably the public perception of me as a singer-songwriter who is writing about stories, songs which tell stories about peoples’ lives and very generally represents the world that I saw it when I was growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, coming from a working-class background.”
Her parents got divorced when she was young, and she lived with her mom and older sister, subsisting on welfare for a while. “There wasn’t much to work with,” Chapman told Rolling Stone. “We always had food to eat and a place to stay, but it was a fairly barebones kind of thing.” But even after she signed a recording contract and put out her debut album Tracy Chapman — such a seemingly impossible dream for someone who, just a few years earlier, had been busking in Harvard Square — she looked back at her Cleveland childhood without a whiff of nostalgia. When she played the city for the first time after Tracy Chapman dropped, she admitted to the crowd, “I have to say, honestly, I don’t have any fond memories of this place.”
It’s a cliché that stars just fall out of the sky — their talent so self-evident that it blows away everyone from the first moment — but that really is Chapman’s story. While she was in college at Tufts, she would play her plainspoken, folkie songs, and she came to the attention of Brian Koppelman, another Tufts student (and future co-creator of the acclaimed Showtime series Billions). “I was helping organize a boycott protest against apartheid at school,” Koppelman said in 1989, “and someone told me there was this great protest singer I should get to play at the rally.” After checking her out at a coffeehouse, he was convinced. “Tracy walked onstage, and it was like an epiphany. Her presence, her voice, her songs, her sincerity — it all came across.”
Koppelman told his dad Charles, a giant in the world of music publishing, and although it took some cajoling, Chapman eventually signed a record deal. She’d previously recorded a demo at the college radio station, and those tunes would represent the bulk of what would become Tracy Chapman. But when she met with her producer David Kershenbaum, who’d worked with everyone from Cat Stevens to Duran Duran, she played him something that hadn’t been on that initial tape. “I loved it the minute I heard it,” he would later say of “Fast Car.” “It was the most heartfelt song on the album, as far as people relating to it and visualizing what the songs were.”
As many times as you’ve heard “Fast Car,” it’s always surprising how its narrative evades your memory. It’s sung from the perspective of a young woman talking to her man. (Or, of course, it could be a woman: “Fast Car” never attaches a gender to the other party, and while Chapman doesn’t talk about her personal life, novelist Alice Walker claimed they had a relationship in the 1990s.) But the narrator doesn’t have romance on her mind — she’s focused more on practical matters. “You got a fast car,” she says, “I want a ticket to anywhere / Maybe we make a deal / Maybe together we can get somewhere / Any place is better.”
The woman’s plan is pretty simple: They hop in the car, drive off to the city, find jobs and “finally see what it means to be living.” Her life hasn’t been a happy one. Her father is an alcoholic, and after mom left, she had to step up and quit school to take care of him. Over the next few verses, we hear about how the narrator and her lover’s story advances — or, more accurately, doesn’t since she ultimately finds herself trapped in a different but similarly constricting life taking care of her own children while her partner is out drinking with friends.
Throughout “Fast Car,” the chorus is both a memory and a regret — it’s the happiest moment of this woman’s life and also something that now feels so far away:
So I remember when we were driving
Driving in your car
Speed so fast it felt like I was drunk
City lights lay out before us
And your arms felt nice wrapped around my shoulder
And I had a feeling that I belonged
I had a feeling I could be someone
Those lines spit in the eye of several decades’ worth of rock ‘n’ roll automotive dreams. In Springsteen’s songs, cars were always a romantic, liberating symbol of youthful abandon — maybe you could flee your problems in one, maybe you couldn’t — but in “Fast Car,” those fleeting, carefree moments driving around end up becoming a curse for the young woman. Forget freedom or escape: A fast car simply made her feel alive, like she mattered at all. It’s not just that the car is fast — it’s that it represents a lifestyle that’s more extravagant than her working-class existence. (At different points in the song, she mentions she works at a convenience store, is employed “in a market as a checkout girl” and lives in a shelter.) The car is a status symbol — the promise of a more upwardly-mobile life — that she’s desperately clinging onto as much as she’s clinging onto her partner.
When both “Fast Car” and Tracy Chapman came out in April 1988, the fact that she was an unknown greatly benefited her material. Bringing no previous baggage to her relationship with the listener, she could fully embody these stark songs. People could easily conflate the young woman of “Fast Car” with her, although Chapman pushed against that interpretation. But although the details of her upbringing didn’t match that of the “Fast Car” characters, it was easy to see how she absorbed certain lessons from how she grew up.
“I was very aware of all the struggles my mother was going through, being a single parent and a Black woman trying to raise two kids,” Chapman once said. “I guess there’s some people who can take all that in and not really look at the bigger picture, not see that there are all these forces in society making things more difficult than they ought to be.”
“Fast Car” was hardly the only song on Tracy Chapman that addressed social issues. In the defiant opener, “Talkin’ Bout a Revolution,” she sings bluntly, “Poor people gonna rise up / And get their share / Poor people gonna rise up / And take what’s theirs.” “Behind the Wall” told a story of domestic abuse from the P.O.V. of a woman hearing the screams through an apartment wall. (“Another sleepless night for me / It won’t do no good to call / The police / Always come late / If they come at all.”)
These songs were sung by a young Black woman who seemed to stand out from what were the traditional tropes of either Black or female pop artists of the time. The closest comparison might have been Suzanne Vega, whose “Luka” from the previous year was a first-person tale from a child-abuse survivor. And like Vega, Chapman was lumped into the folkie category, which gave Chapman pause.
“I guess the answer’s yes and no,” she said in 1988 when asked if she considered herself a folk singer. “I think what comes to people’s minds is the Anglo-American tradition of the folk singer, and they don’t think about the Black roots of folk music. So in that sense, no, I don’t. My influences and my background are different. In some ways, it’s a combination of the Black and white folk traditions.”
Indeed, while it’s easy to compare Chapman’s straightforward poetry and political leanings to the work of Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez, her musical DNA is as much intertwined with Odetta, a Black folk singer crucial to the shaping of the 1960s folk revival. And while journalists clearly meant no disrespect hailing her as a new Dylan, those accolades missed the crucial gender and racial differences between Chapman and Bob Dylan.
For years, “Fast Car” has been a popular cover song, inspiring remakes by Justin Bieber and Xiu Xiu. It’s sometimes been given a dance beat, and in 2011, it helped make a computer engineer, Michael Collings, a sensation on Britain’s Got Talent when he performed it during his audition.
No matter how “Fast Car” is redone, the performer always latches onto the sad vulnerability of Chapman’s original. Between the simple acoustic guitar melody and her plaintive singing, the track’s unassuming modesty is so gentle and fragile that it seems to inspire the cover artist not to overdo the dramatic fireworks. “Fast Car” is so inherently crushing that you don’t have to add much to it — like the song’s narrator, you fight against the raw emotions that get stirred up, which of course only makes that chorus all the more heartbreaking once those pent-up feelings come pouring out.
Notably, many of the artists who have covered “Fast Car” over the years are white, and while their versions are often heartfelt and lovely, Chapman’s original has more power simply because white listeners are forced to consider how race plays a factor in the character’s circumstance. Chapman isn’t overtly singing about racism, but from her childhood, where she grew up in a predominantly Black neighborhood, she’s had to think about how race and class come together in America. The song is incredibly pretty — anybody can sing along to it — but what’s not being said about the narrator’s plight is what makes it so devastating.
Much of this summer, which has been consumed with the rising Black Lives Matter movement, I’ve thought about “Fast Car,” if indirectly. In early June, an Austin duo, Black Pumas, put out their version of the Tracy Chapman song. Their frontman, Eric Burton, is Black, and while “Fast Car” isn’t topically political — like, for instance, Anderson Paak’s protests-inspired “Lockdown” most certainly is — it’s impossible not to think about BLM as Burton sings Chapman’s words.
“To me, ‘Fast Car’ is a song of hope, dreams and a relentless heart to go somewhere and be someone,” said Burton, whose band had played “Fast Car” in their live shows prior to this summer’s studio release. “I learned the song when I first began to busk, and of the covers that I knew, it garnered the most attention from the random passerby. As a musician and artist, I’m attracted to songs that make us reflect on our daily struggles for making life worth living for.”
Chapman has actually had bigger hits — well, one, 1995’s hummable “Give Me One Reason,” another kind of tense love song — but once you’ve heard “Fast Car,” there aren’t any others. Partly, it’s because it’s such a profoundly unresolved song. On a surface level, it’s simply the fact that Chapman leaves her main character’s narrative dangling. Near the start of “Fast Car,” she asks her lover if their car is fast enough so they can fly away together — but by the end, when it’s clear this person cares more about him or herself than the family, she wonders when the car will take her partner away from her. The separation hasn’t happened yet, but the narrator is waiting for that shoe to drop and for her to be abandoned.
But the lack of resolution cuts deeper than that. The simpleness of “Fast Car’s” skeletal storyline gives us a few glimpses of a relationship that has developed (and soured) over years. It doesn’t, however, speak directly about what’s really going on — poverty, classism, gender inequality, racism. Chapman doesn’t sing about that, because she wants you to think about it. (Or, put another way, she experienced it enough that it’s not her job to educate the rest of us on the matter.)
“Fast Car” always sounds new because its themes haven’t gone away and its problems haven’t been fixed. It’s a gorgeous song about people who have to choose between leaving tonight or having to die this way. Those are brutal options. The song is unresolved because most of us are lucky not to be in that position. But we sing along, and we’re reminded that others aren’t so lucky. And we wonder if we’re going to abandon the song’s narrator just like her lover eventually will.
In a sense, we already have.