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The story of Tracy Chapman’s ‘Fast Car’ and its timeless status

In celebration of Tracy Chapman, we’re taking a look over her single Fast Car and why no one’s forgotten about it.

The honest grit of Fast Car by Tracy Chapman has earned cultural longevity for all the right reasons.

Sung with Chapman’s rare and rich contralto range, the ’80s folk-rock ballad is “not really about a car at all”. What the song explores is much deeper and well-worth discussing.

Tracy Chapman
Photo: Getty

A bit of background

First, a little history. Chapman was born in Ohio in 1964 and grew up during the fast and relentless growth of capitalism and moral myopia. In her wisdom, she wasn’t having a bar of it; instead, going to university to study anthropology and African studies. The artist began her musical journey performing in Boston for a local radio station, eventually earning the opportunity to record an album with Elektra Records. The self-titled debut won three Grammys, went no. 1 in the UK and US, and essentially revived the singer-songwriter movement. For a debut, it doesn’t get much more successful than this.

When Stevie Wonder was sick, Tracy covered for him at Nelson Mandella’s 70th Birthday Tribute Concert. She flawed the audience with her honest and refreshingly unpretentious songwriting. However, one song especially struck a chord. That song was Fast Car.

Tracy Chapman

Releasing Fast Car

Believe it or not, Fast Car didn’t win over everyone. In fact, the song was almost altered before its release. Its journey to release went like this: Tracy Chapman’s producer, David Kershembaum, heard a demo and it floored him – thank god. Kershembaum knew it had to make the debut album and got to work quickly. In only a few takes, Chapman’s vocals and guitar were tracked, the unobtrusive rhythm section was added, and the track was complete. Then came the challenge of getting the label’s approval, Elektra. They thought the coffeehouse song was totally out of trend for the ’80s (which was more or less true) and that the chorus needed to hit sooner.

That’s right; Fast Car received the “trim it down” treatment. Kershembaum attempted to cut it down for the label but ultimately discovered that removing the long buildup to the chorus was a terrible idea. Chapman’s story had to be told in full for the chorus to hit as hard as it does. Tiny Dancer from Elton John is another track that thrives from the same technique. Thankfully, the track was released without being cut down, and the rest is history.

The story of Fast Car

If you’re not familiar with Fast Car’s lyrics, maybe grab some tissues and a couch to sit on. It’s pretty heavy and grounded in realism. The first verse details a yearning from the protagonist to escape poverty and live freely. Devastatingly, it’s an uphill battle from the start. She works “at the convenience store” for a little bit of money and has to “quit school” to look after her alcoholic father. The situation is bleak, but the protagonist believes things will get better. The girl and her love interest can “fly away” in his “fast car”.

By verse two, the pair are living in a shelter, but things aren’t much better. She “works in the market as a checkout girl” and her lover “still ain’t got a job”. Then comes verse three, which will leave your heart aching for the protagonist. She is paying all their bills, he’s become an alcoholic like her father and doesn’t make time to see their kids. It’s crushing. When Chapman declares, “take your fast car and keep on driving”, you know she’s making the right decision. The brutal takeaway from Fast Car is that placing hope in another is futile and that you have to look after yourself first.

There’s also a clear political element to the track, highlighting the issue of alcoholism in low-socioeconomic areas, and the real-life implications of a low minimum wage. Another famous track of hers with political pull is Talkin’ Bout A Revolution. Watch her rare performance of the track on Seth Meyers.

Tracy Chapman really did what she had to do on “Fast Car”

How Fast Car has remained so relevant

I believe there are two main reasons for Fast Cars‘ continued relevancy. The first is its astounding storytelling. While the story is of an individual’s unique situation, the emotions of the song are universal. We’ve all been let down by the people we love, and sometimes, driving away in the night to escape all the bullshit feels imperative.

The second reason is a little more grounded. Fast Car has been remixed, covered, and performed a ridiculous amount of time. High-profilers such as Justin Bieber, Khalid, and Passenger (to name a few), have all performed the iconic track. Let’s take a look at these covers; what they do right, and where they fall short.

Justin Bieber

Justin clearly loves Fast Car, and fully invests himself into quite an impressive and unique cover. Sadly, there’s an unbearable amount of live pitch correction on his mic which murders any ounce of rawness.

Khalid

Khalid’s soulful baritenor is ideal for a song like Fast Car. His accompanying guitarist also manages to capture the percussive nuances of the song, making for a respectable cover.

Passenger

Passenger makes the bold choice to utilise a full band when covering the folk song. His voice is worn-in and comfortable for the track, but it’s possible the band was mixed a little too loud, distracting from the lyrical substance. Also, the guitar solo is lacklustre and totally unnecessary.

Up next: Tracy Chapman wins big in copyright lawsuit against Nicki Minaj.