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

John Scalzi

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

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

  1. My sister gave me this album when I was a kid and it kind of blew my mind. It was unlike anything I’d ever heard before. Still one of my favorites. The whole album.

    I’m very much enjoying this series. Most of it I’ve heard before but some not. I bought a couple albums, Aimee Mann and Yaz.

  2. I didn’t like this song in 1988. I was working in the electronics department of a department store at the time, and the TVs were tuned to MTV a lot. This song was on heavy rotation for part of that. It didn’t make sense to me as a working-class seventeen-year-old white boy in semi-rural Maine. It talked of things I didn’t know enough to understand.

    I heard it again, years later, after I’d gone into a wider world. This song brings me to tears now – the soaring vision of the city lights, of being with someone, of being someone, and then the heartbreak that that vision is not enough. The child, tasked with parenting their parent, and then realizing they’re trapped in the same story from the other side.

    I have no idea how this song hit it big, when there were so many like me in 1988, but I am incredibly glad it did.

  3. I worked as on-air talent on the radio when this song was new, and it was heartbreaking then. The town I lived in was rural, about as white as a Klan convention other than the GIs at the military bases, and was mired in generational poverty, to the point where one of the best “plans” to get out was to get pregnant by a GI and get married and go wherever the hell his next deployment went.

    I went on a Tracy Chapman binge when CyberPunk 2077 came out.

    If your CyberPunk game can’t use this in the background, you don’t understand the genre.

    Were it up to me, I’d make every candidate for national office have to spend 10 days in a homeless shelter with them and their staffers wearing ankle monitors. They get $60 in their wallet, no credit cards, no driver’s license, no car, and two outfits.

    While they’re campaigning for the primary, having to make their events on public transit.

  4. She’s one of those musicians I listened to a lot back in the day and then, as so often happens, new music captured my attention. I’m glad she’s part of your personal music history so I have been reminded she’s part of mine, too. Thanks!

  5. I think if I had the opportunity to listen to all of this music willingly as they came out, I might feel differently. However, all of of this as I collectively call ‘vagina music’ (and hey, I have one) I heard during a very bad marriage to a very controlling man. Thank god for my 20 minute drive to work, where I blasted The Stones, Allman’s and any other loud R&R out there. I have held off with this totally personal agenda comment as long as I could, and even listened to every single song (again). This one was the deal breaker. Lol. I’m still waiting for Shawn Colvin, Allison Kraus and Suzanne Vega. Sorry for the PTSD, I actually rarely think of him. I thought after a $40K divorce where one of my kids went to live with this psychotic narcissist, I earned the rant. Even if I get the hammer, you will have read this. And to anyone out there in an abusive marriage, get out of it! I will still listen every day, since this is about you, not me, and it is a fascinating look into who you are.

  6. Ken Burnside: As a single 2LT/1LT I was stationed at a few military bases in areas such as you described. When I’ve told more privileged people I’ve known that in large swaths of the country the Richard Gere/Debra Winger movie “An Officer and A Gentleman” can beconsidered a documentary they’ve looked puzzled and just didn’t understand.

  7. OMG. Haven’t heard this song in ages. Cried as hard today as I did back then.

    I consider myself blessed that I finally qualified for disability & housing & Medicare. Being diagnosed autistic in your 50’s is weird, but it does explain much.

  8. When that song came out I was leaning towards Americana music. Rock had turned glam and I didn’t.

    This song set me on my ear. When my eyes refocused, the world looked different. The things that had seemed clear now looked blurred and other things looked crystalline.

    Thank you Mr. Scalzi for stating it so well.

  9. You nailed it, sir. It was selling hubby’s family house in SF and moving to SoCal that ended our debt and has us owning a house free and clear. It’s a very nice house. We made it disability-accessible for me.

  10. @FL Transplant

    An Officer And a Gentleman isn’t so much a documentary as it’s the fairy tale version of that environment.

    It never turns out that well in real life. And the “Marry my GI and cling to him like a fucking barnacle” results in marriages with half-lives comparable to Americium.

    Because the flip side of “Marry my GI and get out of here…” is “I’m gonna divorce that motherfucking son of a bitch, after ripping his new teeny-bopper’s tits off. And I’m going to make him pay.”

    And we had those people in town, too…

  11. Cindy F, the “male-feminist” toxic narcissist with unfortunately excellent taste in music is a type for sure. I’ve had experience with that one. It’s too bad it has to poison all this music for you, but I definitely hear where you’re coming from!

  12. Still vividly remember the first time I saw and heard this, in a sleazy motel on a hardscrabble road trip.

    I got better, but…

  13. It’s also a song about a woman trapped in a relationship with a man who isn’t worth it, and how she eventually gets the courage to throw him out.

  14. When I was in grad school, I was introduced to Tracy Chapman by one of my profs. It’s a powerful song.

  15. I’ve seen Fast Car described as a sequel toThunder Road, a few years later and from Mary’s POV

  16. Fast Car still astounds. How did it become a smash hit? I’m grateful it did and that Tracy Chapman only grew from there. Her body of work is incredible. Seeing her live is a delight.

    Like Fast Car, I think of some of the songs John Mellencamp got on the charts in the mid-80’s. “Rain on the Scarecrow” was a legitimate everywhere pop hit. The lyrics were about farm foreclosures and folks wanting to just give up. How did that become a hit? Could it even make a dent today? Could Fast Car?

    What even comes close these days?

  17. John,
    I didn’t even need to listen to this song again, It’s burned into my soul. Read your essay “Being Poor” again for the first time in ten years. $15 minimum wage and Coronavirus and shit STILL doesn’t change. The wheel just keeps on spinning,,,

  18. I was young when the song came out, and some of the deeper meanings in it were over my head. I only knew that I liked it. It does resonate today, for good and bad reasons.

    Songs and art are wonderful, but when will we collectively learn something?

  19. @Tim,

    Both were helped by other factors. “Fast Car” was ‘introduced’ to a wide audience during the Mandela birthday concert in the late 80s and “Rain on the Scarecrow” was sung during the first Farm Aid concert – and being on an album with 3 top-10 songs didn’t hurt.

    Why they stuck? Great sounds. Even without lyrics, “Fast Car” is a wonderful instrumental. The lyrics fit the late 80s topically when you are looking at trying to figure out urban poverty and crime.
    “Rain on the Scarecrow” has a interesting driving beat to it, different than others on the album. And the lyrics during the farming ‘crisis’ helped as that was news… and news during a polarized but less polarized time (when you could disagree without being disagreeable).

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