45 Comments
May 30·edited May 31Liked by Stephen Robinson

Nothing feels more alienating than witnessing millions of people misunderstand a song's lyrics. I think to myself, 'morons!', whenever people grin and clap their hands to a song about a woman who's trapped in a cycle of poverty and toxic relationships (Tracy Chapman's 'Fast Car') or when people gush about a 'beautiful love song' that is in fact a song about a woman who's in love with someone who doesn't reciprocate and is using her ('Tracy Chapman's 'Baby Can I Hold You').

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Feb 13Liked by Stephen Robinson

This was great commentary.

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author

Thank you!

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Feb 13·edited Feb 13Liked by Stephen Robinson

SER,

Thank you so much for this column! I'll be 59 this year, so remember when the song came out. Even back then, I never thought it was a happy song, or a folk anthem, or anything like that. It's a song about a woman who has nothing left. The decision point is on them: "leave tonight or live and die this way."

And then, that last verse:

You got a fast car

I got a job that pays all our bills

You stay out drinkin' late at the bar

See more of your friends than you do of your kids

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 drivin'

She made it; except she didn't. She grew and her partner just stayed the same (maybe because he didn't have to since she took care of everything). Now she's right where her mother was. I'm a white male with all the privilege that implies, and I cry when I hear this song. I might not have when I was 23, but I was also callow and stupid back then. I've always read the song the way you describe, but sometimes I thought I was the only one.

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author

Thank you for sharing! It’s such a moving song, a true classic.

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I was 11 or so when "Fast Car" was first released. I think I heard it a time or two but don't remember any real reaction (because 11).

Listening with 2024 ears, though, everything already mentioned here about how it's a portrait of Reagan-era decay rings true, but: am I imagining the possibility that the relationship the song outlines could be a gay one? As far as I can tell, there are no overt references to the "you" being mentioned is specifically male or female. Listening that way adds yet another layer of pathos to the whole thing.

I dunno. I could be wrong.

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Yes, all that that but the hopeful lines “ I had a feeling that I belonged…and I could be someone be someone “ is so universal it stabs the heart of every person of any color.

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Feb 8Liked by Stephen Robinson

I mentioned this on the Wonkette post, but Tracy Chapman walking onto the stage at Wemberley Stadium with just her guitar and playing Fast Car moved me to tears then, and every time I rewatch it. I am not understanding how anybody perceived it as fun, uplifting, or a party anthem… it’s a brilliant song and her performance crushes my heart every tome.

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“As of March of 2023, Chapman had already netted over $500,000 in residuals off the back of Combs’s success.”

Are you fucking kidding me? It’s the other way around.

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Feb 13Liked by Stephen Robinson

“As of March 1971, John Fogerty had already netted over $500,000 in residuals off the back of Ike & Tina Turner’s success.”

—sentence that would never appear in any publication, ever (unless it was the other way around, and CCR covered a Tina Turner song).

That’s how music publishing works! She’s the songwriter, and she/her publishing company retained the rights to royalties (her record label probably got a huge chunk of that, or as much as the same amount, idk how they got that number).

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Feb 8Liked by Stephen Robinson

I remember my aunt playing this for my mom.

Aunt thought it was a hopeful song and couldn't understand why my mom was crying.

Mom said: she knows it's not going to get better.

Mom knew that real well.

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Feb 8·edited Feb 8Liked by Stephen Robinson

Thank you, SER!

ALSO, there's something about the lyrics, Chapman's voice, and the music that can swallow anyone with a little empathy and imagination into a whole production. The story she tells is very different from my own, but sometimes when the song comes on the radio in the car I have to pull over because I get so immersed. Plus, though I'm no singer, I can keep up.

Is there anything like singing out alongside her "And I had a feeling that I belonged" that pulls us back from the chorus? "Be someone, be someone" that slows us down to the measured, slow, podding life of the next verse?

Anyone who thinks that this is a rah-rah song is not listening. She spends the whole thing trying to talk this man, who used to make her so happy and hopeful, into doing something NOW, as we see her hope in the present slipping away bit by bit.

And the end? The absolute crushed anger of "I got no plans I ain't going nowhere". Even if you didn't understand the words, the different tone of voice that happens nowhere else in the song. She's given up. She's done. She realizes none of those dreams are coming true, and the rest of her life is going to be the steady plod (the sound of the guitar, almost like a ticking clock) it's always been.

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Feb 8Liked by Stephen Robinson

Only a couple songs in my life where I clearly remember where I was when I first heard it. This is one of them.

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Feb 8Liked by Stephen Robinson

“Folk anthem”? No. It’s an elegy. The chorus brilliantly uses the fast car trope to play against the sadder reality in the final verse, when the narrator realizes she’s back where she started.

And this might just be a very me complaint, but could we not have gotten a bit of harmonizing on the chorus since there were two voices? A country singer should be able to do a simple harmony, no?

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Fast car is one of the saddest songs ever written. I still tear up whenever I hear it. Just because it mentions a fast car doesn't make it joyous!

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Feb 7Liked by Stephen Robinson

I’m really not sure how it’s possible to misunderstand this song except by not paying any attention to the lyrics or actively trying to misread them.

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Feb 7·edited Feb 7Liked by Stephen Robinson

I was a 20 year old WW when Fast Car came out. As a poor kid whose parents both "lived with a bottle" and who started working at 14 to pay the bills, that song was catharsis and recognition. It always made me cry because she keeps hoping things will get better. Subcity also resonated, its truth made me angry because so many were disregarded, while Talkin 'bout a Revolution gave me some hope things could change if poor folks rose up together . . . that album meant so much, . . . I felt seen and less alone.

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Feb 7Liked by Stephen Robinson

<Some have commented that his cover lacks resonance because he can’t truly identify with Chapman’s narrator.>

Why can’t he? Who is to say how he identifies with the song or its author?

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author

I think the argument is that it’s *highly unusual* for a white heterosexual male to have the sort of relationship Chapman sings about with the “fast car” owner. This is not to say that there’s no instance where a woman blows money on a “fast car” while her male partner works at a convenience store (a gender-coded job, as well).

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Feb 7Liked by Stephen Robinson

I had not considered it from that point of view. How Combs views a piece of art is highly personal for him and his reasons for his choice to cover the song are most likely his own (possibly a suggestion from someone but who knows). One doesn't have to imagine his or herself as the character in the song to understand what is happening with the character. I heard a cover of Streisand's "Woman in Love" by another woman and I remembered how good it was and that maybe I could give it a crack, semi-baritone or not.

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I think it was a song he grew up loving, which is reason enough for me! I’ve seen men deliver great versions of Alicia Key’s “Fallin’”

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Feb 7Liked by Stephen Robinson

I don't think I'd ever heard the whole song, but I can easily see people completely misreading the entire point of a song ("Every Breath You Take" as a love song, "Born in the USA" as a patriotic anthem, etc.). And late '80s nostalgia? Could be because the people nostalgic for it remember a time when they didn't have grown up stresses because they were just kids! (Reminds me of a friend who once said that apple juice was "so '80s" and I pointed out that that was because HE WAS A SMALL CHILD AT THE TIME AND SMALL CHILDREN DRINK APPLE JUICE).

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author

Yeah, I have my share of nostalgia for the 1980s, specifically the pop culture, and when you’re a child, the larger politics don’t hit you in the same way.

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Feb 7Liked by Stephen Robinson

Yep--I wasn't the one worry about bills, or grocery prices, or whether my dad's job would get downsized--being a kid you're usually insulated from that! Only later do you realize what parents had to deal with on a regular basis.

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