Personal History of Music

A Personal History of Music, Day 12: “Fast Car,” by Tracy Chapman

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A number of years ago, when Hurricane Katrina swamped New Orleans, killing a thousand people who had chosen to stay in the city when the storm hit, there were people who wondered why they didn’t just leave. The answer, I knew, was: because they were poor, and they couldn’t just go. But if I had said it like that, it wouldn’t have been useful, because people who have never been poor wouldn’t be able to grasp the “they couldn’t just go” part. So I wrote a piece about what it is like to be poor, based on my own experiences and the experiences of people I knew, one example after another of what it’s like to be poor in the United States, until the final line brought home why people didn’t leave.

Sometimes you can’t give the short answer. Sometimes you have to tell a story.

Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” is the story to the question of how it is people get trapped in the cycle of poverty. It’s one of the most beautiful and effective songs ever about running as fast as you can just to stay in place, in a place that is never enough for one’s life and soul. It’s sung simply and plainly and heartbreakingly, and anyone who has even been in that situation, or knows someone who has been in it, knows how perfectly observed it is, and how well it describes the ache of wanting, just for a moment, to have that feeling of breaking free.

In 1988, when I first heard this song, I heard some of my own life experience in it, and the life experience of many of the people I know. It’s not my own life experience any more, but I will note, because I must, that luck — for starters — is one of the reasons why. It continues to be the life experience of people I know. It’s not that they haven’t tried to change their lives. It’s that changing your life is harder than you know, if you haven’t known poverty.

That this song was ever one of the biggest songs in the world is a small miracle. That it is as current now as it was when it was released 34 years ago is a tragedy. There are people who, as you read this, are working to keep it relevant in the future. That is the sort of shame that not even a song like this can address.

— JS

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