tracy chapman's fast car: 32 years later

april 2020

Early April marks the anniversary of the release of Fast Car, the leading single on Tracy Chapman’s self-titled debut album.

This year, the beautifully simple song, along with the rest of the socioeconomically charged album, turns thirty-two. Despite over three decades since its release, Fast Car still holds relevance in today's social and political realms.  Upon each listen, the story transports the listener, not to the past, but to a present society that continues to possess many of the same issues. The similarities only strengthen the song’s message.

The lyrics are preserved in amber. They tell of the all too common struggle of people in the United States that has existed for ages: family dysfunction caused by financial strain, being passed down through generations like a curse.  Society suggests a solution in the concept of “mobility”, the hollow promise that everything will be well if you just work hard enough. The problem, though, is that this system is a paradox—especially for minority groups. Mobility is not a reality, and the pressure to reach an unreachable goal only contributes to uneasy family relationships.  Chapman suggests that true happiness lies in embracing shared moments with the people you love, even in the most modest ways. Cruising through the city at night, spending time with each other, moving in together. These are the ways that people succeed in life.

By the end of Fast Car, Chapman reaches the realization that the “American Dream”, especially for underprivileged populations, is unconcerned with people's true happiness and the happiness of their loved ones. Instead, it functions as a distraction from those values. She sings that even though she has a job that pays all the bills, she can’t stop her husband from drinking and neglecting his children.  Mobility doesn’t have an answer to these problems—even if it claims to. What is most unsettling is that, thirty-two years after Fast Car’s release, these struggles still exist for millions of American citizens in a similar, if not identical or even intensified, way. Chapman’s repetitive melody and lyrics put into perspective intergenerational struggles—hardships that parents experience, pass on to their children, and are perpetuated throughout time.  The instantly recognizable guitar melody of Fast Car represents a cycle that never ends—a cycle present both in Chapman’s song and modern day society, thirty-two years after the song was written. 

The irony of Tracy Chapman’s song and self-titled album lies in its recognition. With millions of copies sold worldwide, and awards such as Best Female Pop Vocal Performance, Best Contemporary Folk Album, and Best New Artist, it would seem that society had recognized Chapman’s representation of the frustration and stagnation of millions of people living in a country that doesn’t take care of them.  But though people may have listened to her words, it’s becoming increasingly apparent they never actually heard what she was saying. Like the repetitive guitar riff, our intergenerational problems have continued to cycle, affecting more and more generations.

At least, however, as the song suggests—we still have each other to rely on.