Tracy Chapman has not been active in music for decades now. However, this Grammy-winning artist has produced some timeless classics. From singles such as “Give Me One Reason,” “Talkin’ ’bout a Revolution,” and “Crossroads” to name a few. However, her most famous song remains to be “Fast Car” from her debut studio album.
“Fast Car” was released as the lead single from Tracy Chapman’s self-titled debut studio album. The song was released on April 6, 1988. Although the song had a slow momentum in the beginning, Tracy’s performance of the song at the Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute in June of the same year, shined the much-deserved spotlight on the song. The newfound popularity propelled the song to peak at #6 on the US Billboard Hot 100 Chart. The song charted #1 in Canada, Belgium, and Ireland, and #5 in the UK.
MetroWeekly ranked “Fast Car” at #39 on their ’50 Greatest Pop Songs of the ’80s’ list. Rolling Stone magazine also inducted the song onto their coveted ‘The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time’ List at #167.
“Fast Car” won the ‘Best Pop Vocal Performance Female’ at the 1988 Grammy Awards and was nominated for the ‘Song of the Year’ at the same event.
AboutTracyChapman blog gives us an insight into what Tracy Chapman said about “Fast Car” in an interview with BBC in 2010;
“In United States, “Fast Car” was the song that was played on the radio, more than “Talkin’Bout A Revolution” so it was something that turned out to take a significant role in shaping my first record and probably the public perception of me as a singer-songwriter who is writing about stories, songs which tells stories about people lives and very generally represents the world that I saw it when I was growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, coming from a working-class background. I’ve raised by a single mom, I was just watching people, being in a community of people who were struggling. So everyone was really just 1. Working hard 2. hoping that things would get better.”
However, Tracy Chapman also added that the song is not a direct reflection of her life;
“In part everything that a person writes is autobiographical but the songs are directly so and most of them were not and Fast Car wasn’t one that was directly autobiographical. I never had a Fast Car, it’s just a story about a couple, how they are trying to make a life together and they face challenges.”
Listen to “Fast Car” by Tracy Chapman
“Fast Car” Lyrics Meaning and Song Review
In the first verse of the song, Tracy Chapman is heard talking to somebody–somebody with a car. Tracy herself has nothing to her name and she knows she is rotting in the same small village she is in unless she makes a move. So, for Tracy the ‘fast car’ represents her golden ticket out of this world she is stuck in. The fast car isn’t necessarily a real car. The fast car symbolizes an opportunity.
You got a fast car
I want a ticket to anywhere
Although Tracy Chapman said the song was not autobiographical, she lived through her fair share of struggles before recording her debut studio album. While she does not see herself as the protagonist of “Fast Car,” she probably can relate. It is quite ironic that her song titled “Fast Car” was her ticket out of her struggles after it won her a Grammy award.
Starting from zero, got nothing to lose
Maybe we’ll make something
The singer does not know for certain that she will find success where she is headed. But she knows for certain that she will not succeed from where she is now. She needs to make her move first. All she has for herself is “Me, myself, I.”
In the second verse, too, we hear Tracy Chapman dreaming about that car that represents her freedom from everything she is stuck in right now. But she is not without a plan. She was working at the local convenience store and managed to save a few hundred dollars. She can use that money to get them out of this dead town and drive just across the border into the city. Tracy believes the city will bring her more opportunities.
The dialogue converts more and more to a story between a couple. Tracy Chapman is the determined girlfriend and her boyfriend has a car.
Tracy is tired of her small town. Her job at the convenience store barely makes their ends meet. She knows she has no future with her music in this town. The city just next to their town seems to brim with opportunities. She just wants to give herself the opportunity.
In the third verse of “Fast Car,” we hear a little back story of the singer and why she is in her current situation. We also get to know where her thirst for ‘something more’ for life comes from. It comes from her mother who left her and her father both behind to leave for the city. She wanted more from life and the singer’s father could not provide her that in this small town. So, she left. She would have taken her daughter, but she refused. She could not leave her father behind.
But things did not turn out to be so smooth after her mother left. Her father turned into alcohol to cope up with the stresses of family life. Alcohol ages a person faster than anything else. Well, maybe, his mind aged faster than his body did. The singer had to quit school to take care of her dad. So, her life crumbles from bad to worse.
These stories represent typical lower-middle-class families in the United States. One could find a million stories similar to this all over the world even.
Watch Tracy Chapman Perform “Fast Car” Live
In these lyrics, we hear the singer laying it all on the table for her boyfriend; leave the city tonight or just die working at convenience stores and killing their dreams and goals.
Finally, in the chorus, we learn that the singer and her boyfriend packed up and left for the city. They drive fast down the highway and they can almost see the city lights in the distance.
The singer is ecstatic. She is drunk in emotions. The world is a blur around her, both because her head is filled with hope and happiness, and also because of the car cruising so fast.
And I-I had a feeling that I belonged
I-I had a feeling I could be someone, be someone, be someone
The singer felt like she was a nobody in her small town. But in the city, she feels like her destiny awaits. Big lights and big dreams.
After all, the United States was once called the ‘land of opportunity’ or referred to as ‘The American Dream.’
The BIG crash!
The singer talks about how she managed to get a job as a checkout girl at some store. A little better than her job back at home. But it is nowhere close to the dream she had. Her boyfriend has not found a job yet. Life is a little harder than she imagined it would be. They live in a shelter. City life is quite expensive. They plan to buy a house and move into the suburbs, but not yet.
However, this iron lady has not lost all hope. She believes that her boyfriend will find a job and she will be promoted. Only then, they can move into the suburbs to buy a house.
This verse goes onto show that the grass is not always greener on the other side. People usually do perceive so. But, sometimes, all the stars do not align perfectly.
By the fifth and final verse of “Fast Car,” the singer’s life has come full circle. She found a decent job that pays their bills. Maybe they bought that house and moved into the suburbs as well. However, her boyfriend is still on the search for a job. But every passing day, it looks like his effort to find a job is diminishing ever so slightly. And now it has been years since they moved to the city.
To make matters worse, the boyfriend or the husband has taken up drinking, just like the singer’s father did. He has a circle of friends who support him wholeheartedly in his alcoholic endeavors. So, he barely has any time for their kids. The singer manages her full-time job that pays all their bills and probably his alcohol bills as well.
I’d always hoped for better
Thought maybe together you and me’d find it
I got no plans, I ain’t going nowhere
So take your fast car and keep on driving
It’s a dream-crusher. The singer finds herself lost. She lost her mother, father, her husband, the life she dreamed of, and in the end, herself as well. A person without hope is a person with nothing to live for.
When the chorus repeats one final time and she sings “I-I had a feeling I could be someone, be someone, be someone,” it hits very differently at the end of the song. It’s pretty soul-crushing.
To anyone who needs to hear this, the hustle never ends until you decide it should end. So, keep grinding!
Let us hear what you think about this song in the comments below. Can you relate to these lyrics? Drop a comment below. Check out the complete lyrics on Genius.