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By now, you’ve probably heard that Tracy Chapman made a rare appearance at the Grammys on Sunday. Technically, it was a “surprise,” but we all suspected it would happen. Chapman’s “Fast Car” — already a folk-rock classic — enjoyed a whirlwind second life over the summer thanks to a popular cover by country music star Luke Combs. His rendition of “Fast Car” hit No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 and topped the Country Hot 100, making Chapman the first Black songwriter to do so. It then proceeded to win Song of the Year at the Country Music Association Awards in November, again achieving a first for Chapman. Following her unannounced appearance on Sunday night, Chapman’s original recording of “Fast Car” hit No. 1 on the iTunes Top Songs chart.
The success of Combs’ cover prompted some interesting discussions in the music world (or at least on the internet) about the racial dynamics at play. It was not lost on many that it’s virtually impossible for a queer Black woman like Chapman to top today’s country charts, even as her song does just that.
Less attention was paid to the politics of the song itself. “Fast Car” is about the hopeless grind of minimum wage work, the intractable cycles of poverty and alcohol abuse, and the near impossibility of escaping your circumstances in a country marked by depressed wages and a negligible safety net. But it’s also a song about young love, dreams, and the double-edged blade of nostalgia. That’s what makes “Fast Car” great — its finely-wrought details speak to a widely relatable human experience, regardless of politics or ideology. It’s the rare polemic that reads like poetry.
In fact, “Fast Car” is one of the least overtly political tracks on an album that wears its politics on its sleeve. The song was released in 1988 on Chapman’s self-titled debut album. “Tracy Chapman” opens with another classic, “Talkin’ ‘bout a Revolution,” which contains the lines “Poor people gonna rise up/ And get their share/ Poor people gonna rise up/ And take what’s theirs.” There are also songs about domestic abuse (“Behind the Wall”), racial violence (“Across the Lines”) and the vagaries of materialism (“Mountains o’ Things”).
Thirty-odd years later, and poor people have not gotten what’s theirs. We have a widening wealth gap, rising homelessness and an opioid epidemic. So perhaps it’s no surprise that “Fast Car” would resonate now, as then. And it’s not entirely surprising that it would be a hit on country radio, which fetishizes cars (well, trucks) and small town life. But it’s a little unsettling. Despite Combs’ faithful interpretation, the song’s radical undertones are buried even more deeply beneath its Nashville sheen. Do the people who sing along to “Fast Car” today recognize it for what it is? Did they ever?
When I hear Combs’ version of “Fast Car,” I think of the failed promise of progressive politics in this country. Across race, age and political affiliation, Americans suffer the same indignities in low wage work, soaring housing costs and a failing healthcare system. Yet we remain divided. Chapman’s song “Behind the Wall” remains sadly relevant today — “Little Black girl gets assaulted/ Don't no one know her name/ Lots of people hurt and angry/ She's the one to blame” — and impossible to imagine playing next to “Fast Car” on country radio, which remains steadfastly race blind, conservative and white.
I think it’s possible, now as then, that people hear the truth in Chapman’s song yet fail to understand it. We recognize the humanity in its story but miss its liberatory message. Now, more than ever, that’s something we need to hear.