Taking That Ride to Anyplace Better
"Fast Car," the song that first brought Tracy Chapman national attention, belongs alongside "We Gotta Get Out of This Place" and "Born to Run" on the short list of great escape songs. Its narrative follows the conventions of the form: Singing in the voice of a convenience store worker, Chapman longs to get away from the mundane and actually begin living. "You got a fast car, I want a ticket to anywhere," she sings. "Maybe we can make a deal, maybe together we can get somewhere." By the last verse, a sense of urgency grips her. She gives her coconspirator an ultimatum: "Leave tonight or live and die this way."
"Fast Car" proved the perfect entrée for a student of Tufts University who was in almost every way going against type. At a time when most African American women in music set out to be R&B divas, the Cleveland-born Chapman sang quietly and thoughtfully about the lives of the disadvantaged. Her songs portrayed poverty in human terms, telling about dignified people pushed to the breaking point. (One song, "Mountains o' Things," was an inventory of a poor girl's materialistic dreams.) Without raising her voice or sounding alarms, she found ways to address long-deferred issues of race and class; track one, "Talkin' 'bout a Revolution," envisions a time in the near future when the long oppressed seize a moment to change the world.
Chapman doesn't overload her straightforward songs with "message" either: All she has to do is put some heat into her urgent, almost trembling voice and a despairing situation sprouts possibilities.
Released: 1988, Elektra
Key Tracks: "Fast Cars," "For My Lover," "Mountains o' Things."
Catalog Choice: New Beginning
Next Stop: Odetta: At Carnegie Hall
After That: Ani DiFranco: Dilate
Book Pages: 155–156