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Music / Tracy Chapman

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"You got a fast car
But is it fast enough so we can fly away?
We gotta make a decision
We leave tonight or live and die this way"

Tracy Chapman (born March 30, 1964) is an American singer/songwriter who first rose to fame in 1988 with the hit "Fast Car" from her self-titled debut album; the album also earned her the Best New Artist Grammy that year. Chapman was at first regarded as something of an oddity, in that she was a black woman who played guitar and wrote songs that were best classified as "alternative folk", but her strong, melodic voice, socially conscious lyrics, and solid musical talent made people sit up and take notice.

She largely avoided the "Best New Artist" curse, as her biggest hit, the bluesy "Give Me One Reason" reached #3 on the Billboard chart in 1997 and won the Grammy for Best Rock Song, but she has more or less remained a cult artist, with a small but extremely devoted fanbase.

Chapman is also known for her activism, supporting such causes as Amnesty International, Make Poverty History, and has long supported the city school system in her hometown of Cleveland, Ohio. In fact, her activism was part of what brought her to fame in the first place, with "Fast Car" becoming her first hit after she performed it at a charity concert held to protest The Apartheid Era and celebrate Nelson Mandela's 70th birthday.

You've got a fast trope, but is it fast enough so we can fly away?

  • Abuse Discretion Shot: "Behind the Wall" is about a neighbor having to listen to the loud voices of an ugly and abusive domestic situation going on next door and knowing that she can't do anything about it because "the police always come late if they come at all", and even when they come, they say they can't intervene with what's going on. The song ends with a horrible silence following the screaming one night, followed by an ambulance coming to the building, implying that the worst has happened.
  • A Cappella: "Behind the Wall".
  • Alcoholic Parent: The father of "Fast Car"'s narrator.
    ''See, my old man's got a problem
    Live with the bottle, that's the way it is
    He say his body's too old for working
    His body's too young to look like his."
  • Bookends: "Fast Car" begins with the narrator taking care of her alcoholic father, her mother having skipped out years before. By the end of the song, that's exactly what the narrator does with her deadbeat partner.
  • Break-Up Song: "Fast Car" reveals itself to be one in the last verse.
  • The Chain of Harm: The narrator of "Fast Car" remarks that her father is a broken-down alcoholic, and her mother subsequently left because she "wanted more from life than he could give." The singer hopes to break the chain with her boyfriend, but they ultimately end up stuck in the same situation, with the narrator taking on all of the financial and family responsibilities while her partner "stays out drinking late at the bars." At the end of the song, the narrator kicks him out, telling him to "take your fast car and keep on driving."
  • Domestic Abuse: The subject matter of "Behind the Wall". The violence itself is not described beyond "loud voices behind the wall," but it's bad enough that an ambulance comes to the scene after a horrible silence that chills the narrator's soul following the screaming one night, suggesting that the worst has happened.
    • Also referenced in "Why" with the line, "Why is a woman still not safe when she's in her home?"
  • Double Speak: Invoked in "Why", as Chapman calls out the contradiction of deadly missiles being called "Peace Keepers".
  • Downer Ending:
    • The narrator of "Fast Car" has, by the end, realized that her boyfriend and the father of her children is a deadbeat who will never help her or the kids, and she kicks him to the curb. Possibly more of a Bittersweet Ending, since the narrator seems to have escaped poverty (she says "I got a job that pays all our bills"), but her boyfriend isn't a good partner or parent. And instead of her leaving her family like her mother did, she gives her partner an ultimatum: he leave with his fast car, or get his act together.
    • "Behind the Wall" ends with an ambulance coming to the building following a horrible silence following the screaming one night, implying that the victim of the abuse that's been going on has either been seriously hurt or killed.
  • Dreadlock Rasta: For the 'rebelling against authority' reason.
  • Genre Roulette: Sometimes its folk, sometimes its pop, sometimes its blues, but it's always good.
  • Grass is Greener: "Fast Car" is basically about running away from your problems in the hope for a better life when in fact, the grass really isn't greener on the other side.
  • Never Accepted in Her Hometown: Her fan base is, or at least was initially, mostly white. She has been disparaged by other black musicians, such as Chuck D, for her choice of genre.
  • The One Who Made It Out: "Fast Car" uses this at least metaphorically if not literally in a narrative about escaping one's problems.
  • Performance Video: "Give Me One Reason", which is filmed as if it was in a blues club.
  • Police Are Useless: In "Behind The Wall", Tracy sings about how the police are useless when it comes to the horrible situation in the song — not only do they come late if they come at all, but they're disinclined to deal with domestic abuse situations.
  • Protest Song: A lot of 'em. "Talkin' Bout A Revolution", "Across The Lines" and "America" among others. "Fast Car" also counts, albeit in a Springsteen-esque tragic ballad style.
  • A Rare Sentence: "Fast Car" is a variation. It's easily Chapman's biggest hit and an extremely popular song, but its subject matter—generational poverty, an abandoned daughter dropping out of school to care for her alcoholic father, The Chain of Harm, and ultimately bittersweet liberation—aren't exactly common topics for mainstream radio.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech:
    • "Mountain O' Things" is this to people who have a lot of money and fancy things but don't do anything with them.
    • The narrator of "Fast Car" gives one to her alcoholic partner:
      You stay out drinking 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
      Take your fast car and keep on driving
  • Self-Titled Album: Her 1988 debut, Tracy Chapman.
  • Singer-Songwriter
  • Three Chords and the Truth: The genesis of her style, particularly evident on Tracy Chapman.
  • 12-Bar Blues: Is a big fan of the blues, and got her biggest hit with the classic blues "Give Me One Reason".


Video Example(s):


Fast Car

Tracy Chapman and Luke Combs together sing "Fast Car", presenting it as two people seeking escape with each other away from their small town and local problems.

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