Tracy Chapman's most famous song has a singular point of view, that of a Black woman filled with regret and a sense of longing for a life not lived.
Art by Laura Horstmann
For Black History Month, writer Britt Julious pens a weekly column examining pop culture moments that deepened her understanding of her self and identity.
I don’t remember when I heard "Fast Car" for the first time, but maybe that’s how some of the most important cultural artifacts of our lives manifest: not rooted in specificities, but in the memory of when we needed it most. And so, although I know for certain that I heard "Fast Car" long before I started listening to it obsessively in high school, those four years of my adolescence were when the song buried itself deep into my psyche.
Released in 1988 as the lead single from her self-titled debut album, Tracy Chapman’s "Fast Car" first gained prominence not through the radio or a music video, but during a television concert for Nelson Mandela’s 70th birthday. Although she already performed earlier in the day, Chapman retook the stage to fill in for Stevie Wonder and quickly won over the audience. I imagine they—like me, more than 15 years later—were mesmerized. Chapman’s voice washes over the listener, all warm and rich. Its lowest rumble wraps around you like a thick blanket or the soft coo of a lullaby. It is difficult to forget.
But it was Chapman’s lyrics that struck me deepest. In "Fast Car," Chapman gave voice to those often forgotten or pushed to the sidelines: women who worked hard for very little, who kept their heads down so as not to stand out, and who are still yearning for something better—more profound and more complete.
"Fast Car" is one of the first incidences in which I can recall this kind of distinct storytelling told from the perspective of a Black woman. That’s not to say that other artists hadn’t done so in the past, but Chapman’s song was the first that embedded itself in my mind as a story I could relate to, and one worth listening to on repeat. It was—and remains—special because of its singular point of view, that of a working class Black woman who is often misrepresented or flat-out ignored. "Any place is better / Starting from zero got nothing to lose / Maybe we'll make something / Me myself I've got nothing to prove," she sings.
I felt a kinship in the song’s lyrics, a connection to a lineage that felt true to what it means to be a Black woman navigating a limited world. I felt the history of my ancestors and relatives: They, too, felt a desire to escape their troubled lives. Not all of them found something better, but it was their decisions that led me to this place and time. In "Fast Car," I found gratitude for this history, for my ancestors who fought for a better future for themselves, and ultimately for me, too.
Chapman imbues "Fast Car" with a resounding familiarity not just in the plot of the lyrics, but in the emotions of its protagonist. Here is a woman reflecting on her life, examining her troubled past and hoping she doesn’t make the same mistakes that litter her lineage. Here is a woman filled with regret and a seemingly impermeable sense of longing for a life not lived.
It is no surprise, then, that her song continues to both delight and sober audiences across generations. "Fast Car" says something important about the humanity of women we often view as background matter instead of main characters. The song is like a memory we’ve each lived, resting deeply in the back of our minds. It settles deep within our gut, reminding us of the people we wanted to be and the things we wanted to do. We may exist in the present, but the weight of the past also shapes us. Our decisions in the present matter just as much, if not more, than the mistakes, false starts, and bad choices of our pasts.
"Fast Car" was not music simply defined by its vocals or melody or beats. For me, it was music with history and a warning. The sobering truth of "Fast Car" still strikes me in an instant. I listen to it now and what arises within me are the often buried fears and memories I’m forced to forget during the everyday: Don’t allow yourself to think too deeply about what is missing, for a mind dwelling on the past can never move forward and thrive in the present.
And as I’ve grown older, "Fast Car" only resonates more deeply.
It does not tell my story (I am a Black woman, but I grew up middle class)—but there’s a familiar sense of longing that stems from the memory of one’s hopes and dreams dashed by the relentless repercussions of a cruel and indifferent world. I think of the promises and resolutions made every New Year, and how the messiness of life—the realities of money, time, race, sex, and capability—keep me, keep all of us, tethered to the pasts we hoped to discard.
At some point in our lives, we must decide to leave behind the things that keep us shackled in order to finally be free. Things might not have worked out the way we wanted, but that doesn’t mean we can’t find a chance to change them—even if that choice is messy, complicated, and uncomfortable. That is "Fast Car" in the ear of its listener. Like Chapman sings in the outro, "You've got a fast car / Is it fast enough so you can fly away? / You've gotta make a decision / Leave tonight or live and die this way."