30 years ago this month, in April 1988, Fast Car was released by the legendary singer and songwriter Tracy Chapman. It took some time for the song to top the charts and catch on globally to become the iconic track it is today.
Released at a time before social media, smart phones and music apps and before the internet in general, the main media platforms at the time were pretty much the radio and TV. Music back then had to come a long way to make it into our record shops – most likely in the form of cassette tapes. It makes you appreciate the luxuries we are afforded today that we often take for granted.
“You got a fast car I want a ticket to anywhere Maybe we make a deal Maybe together we can get somewhere Any place is better Starting from zero got nothing to lose Maybe we’ll make something Me myself I got nothing to prove”
Fast Car was part of Tracy’s critically acclaimed self-titled debut album which went on to become a multi-platinum hit. However, it was her televised appearance at Nelson Mandela’s 70th birthday tribute concert in June that year where 24 year old Tracy and her music shot to prominence on the international stage.
She was scheduled for two separate solo performances at the concert and she made the most of her opportunity. She held her own, despite being a relative newcomer to the scene, among some of the greatest acts at the time, if not all time – the likes of Phil Collins, Bryan Adams, Sting, Dire Straits and many more.
“You got a fast car I got a plan to get us out of here I been working at the convenience store Managed to save just a little bit of money Won’t have to drive too far Just ‘cross the border and into the city You and I can both get jobs And finally, see what it means to be living”
On her first performance at Mandela’s tribute concert, she wooed the audience with Why, Behind the Wall and Talkin’ bout a Revolution – all wonderful songs in their own right. But it was her second outing onstage that fateful day when she performed the iconic Fast Car. Within days, the song began climbing up the charts, peaking at 6th spot on the Billboard Hot 100 and 4th on the UK Singles Chart.
In 2010, Rolling Stone ranked Fast Car at 167 on their list of 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, the highest-ranking song both written and performed by a female artist. I find it difficult to rank songs since they each have their own unique appeal, technical orchestration and message. It is very subjective, but we can at least identify and recognize quality music. In my view, being on the list of great songs is an accolade on its own without having to pay any heed to the ranking.
“See my old man’s got a problem He live with the bottle that’s the way it is He says his body’s too old for working His body’s too young to look like his My mama went off and left him She wanted more from life than he could give I said somebody’s got to take care of him So I quit school and that’s what I did”
Tracy Chapman went on to bag three awards at the 31st Annual Grammy Awards the following year, winning Best New Artist, Best Contemporary Folk Album and Best Female Pop vocals for Fast Car. Despite being nominated for the coveted Song of the Year, Record of the Year and Album of the Year, the awards went to another all-time classic Don’t Worry Be Happy by Bobby McFerrin and George Michaels’ album Faith respectively.
In the same year, Paula Abdul’s Straight Up snagged the award for Best Female Video ahead of Fast Car at the MTV Video Music Awards. Tracy did win Favorite Pop/Rock New Artist at the American Music Awards but lost out to the most awarded female act of all time, Whitney Houston for the Favorite Pop/Rock Female Artist award. Looking at all the great songs and big names, it was truly a great year for music indeed.
“You got a fast car Is it fast enough so we can fly away? We gotta make a decision Leave tonight or live and die this way”
It is funny looking back, to see musicians being categorized according to their gender. Even as a child, I always wondered why they had separate awards for the males and females. It took some time, but the Recording Academy eventually revamped their awards categories for the 54th Annual Grammy Awards in 2012, removing gender-specific categories.
The MTV Awards followed suit, albeit much later in 2017. Such awards have never influenced my appreciation for music, but it is interesting to see how far we have come since 1988.
Then again, it was at that period of time, under those circumstances, and in that environment that a song like Fast Car came to be. I struggle to imagine a song of a similar character being released today.
“So remember when we were driving driving in your car Speed so fast I felt like I was drunk City lights lay out before us And your arm felt nice wrapped ’round my shoulder And I had a feeling that I belonged I had a feeling I could be someone, be someone, be someone”
The song still strikes an emotional chord with me today just as it did when I first heard it all those years ago. In fact, more so as I got older and found the lyrics resonated with certain experiences in my life. To be fair, it is probably not the most lyrically complex song and one could grasp its context with relative ease. But there is an honesty and grit to it that gives it a unique appeal.
When I first heard it as a kid, it was not so much the lyrics but its musicality that got me hooked. The melancholic, almost depressing acoustic guitar arrangement that underscores the track sets the tone throughout the song. Its transition into a deceivingly uplifting chorus that descends into a somewhat pitiful reprise “I.. I had a feeling I could be someone.. be someone.. be someone.” Tracy’s deep, soulful vocals seem to express her emotions so vividly as she recounts her sad tale.
When I first heard it on the radio, I imagined a teary-eyed, despondent lady to be behind the microphone, at least that was the impression I had listening to her voice. Strangely enough despite her haunting vocals, I was drawn deeper into her seemingly unfortunate account, verse after verse.
It is a song that arose from the deepest recesses of a troubled heart, where despair and disappointment linger. At the same time, it is a song of strength and true femininity, of love and perseverance, of moving forward, cutting loose-ends and taking care of yourself because no one else will. A song of hope. To me, Fast Car is a work of musical and lyrical genius.
“You got a fast car We go cruising, entertain ourselves You still ain’t got a job And 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”
Having paid closer attention to the lyrics later in life, I experienced a newfound love for the song. In a nutshell, Tracy who just turned 54 on 30 March 2018, was essentially singing about escape from a life where she had a bleak future. She was speaking of her desire to make a better life elsewhere with the driver of the fast car, the apparent lover.
While things seemed optimistic at the start, her lover turned out to be an irresponsible parent and a jobless drunk who possibly reminded her of her father. In the end, she was prepared to cut ties with him just as she did with her father.
However, she gives him an ultimatum, to ‘leave tonight or live and die this way,’ which could mean several things. To me, she seemed to be implying that she had made up her mind to move on without him. She had worked too hard and gone too far to have him ruin the life she had built, or was still chasing.
“You got a fast car 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 find it I got no plans I ain’t going nowhere So take your fast car and keep on driving”
In a way, Fast Car reminds me of my mother’s journey and it seems to encapsulate aspects of her experiences rather fittingly. I have observed my mum go through a destructive marriage, riddled with heartache and pain. Then a divorce, having to muster the strength and determination to move on.
She made a decision and placed herself in the driver’s seat to strive to take care of her children and make a new life for all of us. My mother is a strong independent woman and she has done exceptionally well in her endeavour.
Sometimes in life, we have to make hard decisions as she had to at the time, to leave all the negativity behind, to work towards and hope for a better future – and that’s what Fast Car is all about to me.
So here’s to one of my favourite songs 30 years on, and a tribute to my mum, keep driving!
“You got a fast car Is it fast enough so you can fly away? You gotta make a decision Leave tonight or live and die this way”