Songs of the 80's: Tracy Chapman's "Fast Car"

Songs of the 80's: Tracy Chapman's "Fast Car"

 

Tracy Chapman's "Fast Car" got a dusting-off and a surprise boost up the charts earlier this year, thanks to an amazingly talented young man named Michael Collings who blew away the judges in "Britain's Got Talent" with his version of the song. I don't actually know how he did in the competition, I don't watch the show, I just happened to catch the YouTube video of his performance, which is pretty amazing.
 
Listening to the original song now, as a much older person, what strikes me most about it is how damned sad it is. Everyone's making plans to escape, but no one ever does. The narrator of the song dreams of driving away from her life in someone else's fast car. She doesn't even have a fast car of her own. 
 
"Is it fast enough that we can fly away?" she asks.


 
The most hopeful part of the song is just a reminiscence about a time in the past when she flew along, passenger in yet another fast car belonging to someone else. Is there anything more poignant than optimism from someone whose situation is completely hopeless? 

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This optimism is what distinguishes "Fast Car" from a similar song, Suzanne Vega's "My Name Is Luka." The later is emotionally simplistic, heavy-handed, and full of implied finger-wagging - at Luka's parents, at his neighbors, and at everyone who doesn't speak up on his behalf. "Fast Car" handles its situation more deftly, and refuses to point the finger of blame. 
 
"Fast Car" debuted in 1988, at the end of the materialistic, "Greed is Good" era of yuppie ascendancy. But the 80's were also the era of trickle-down economics, Reaganomics, Voodoo Economics, and an astonishing rise in the level of poverty and unemployment. Until recently, the 80's were the worst years for our country economically since the Great Depression. And yet no one seemed to care.
 
By the end of the 80's, a lot of artists were speaking out against poverty and other social ills. Their works, including songs like Bruce Springsteen's entire oeuvre and John Cougar Mellencamp's "Little Pink Houses," were as earnest as they were counter-cultural. 
 
"Fast Car" in particular appealed to a certain sort of earnest young female audience. I sneered at it at the time, but looking back, I feel a sort of affection for the girls who loved Tracy Chapman. They wanted to make the world a better place, and even if they were pushing against the materialistic tide and wearing their hearts on their sleeves, at least they meant well. 
 
I didn't enjoy the song when it came out, but I do now.