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‘Fast Car’: The Rebirth of Tracy Chapman’s Hard-Luck Anthem

How one of the most socially conscious hits of the Eighties made a comeback, just in time for a pandemic and social upheaval

Tracy Chapman's "Fast Car" has been covered by everyone from Khalid to Luke Combs. These and other artists reflect on the song's timeless power.

Frans Schellekens/Redferns/Getty Images

Black Pumas needed one more song. At a festival in Austin a few years ago, the then-new soul-rock band had plowed through every number in its repertoire and had been called back for an encore. Desperate for anything to play, lead singer Eric Burton grabbed his guitar and began performing an older tune he’d learned in his youth. “The reaction I got from the crowd was very deep,” he recalls. “And it made me think, ‘I can’t ignore the power of this song and the way it connects with what’s going on.’”

The song was Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car,” the 1988 hit that established Chapman as one of her era’s leading troubadours and helped her win three Grammys (including Best New Artist) the following year. Narrated by a young woman who drops out of school to help her alcoholic father — and dreams of escaping it all in the automobile of her equally destitute partner — “Fast Car” was understated but gripping, one of the most riveting singles of that year.

Chapman hasn’t released any new music since 2008, but “Fast Car” has grown into one of the most beloved and covered songs of the past decade. Khalid, Sam Smith, and Justin Bieber have sung it live. It’s been remade by EDM and reggae acts, and been the subject of a faithful cover by Passenger. Two fresh versions arrived this spring alone: Luke Combs posted an acoustic version online, and Black Pumas released a studio-recorded version as their new single. “The guitar part on that song is super iconic, and everyone knows the song as soon as you start playing it,” says Combs. “They know it, and they sing along. It’s like ‘Free Bird’ or ‘Jolene.’”

But in an era wracked by unrest, a pandemic, and a sudden, massive wave of unemployment, a song rooted in the social and economic upheaval of 30 years ago is also speaking to a new generation of musicians and listeners. “’Fast Car’ is such a timeless record,” Khalid tells RS. “It sounds like it could have come out last week.”

The idea that “Fast Car” has become a new standard is striking given the hurdles it had to overcome. David Kershenbaum, who produced Chapman’s self-titled debut, first heard the song during an initial meeting with Chapman in a conference room; she told him she had a new song he hadn’t yet heard and played him a cassette of her demo. Immediately knocked out by the song, Kershenbaum made sure it was included on Chapman’s album. The track, centered around Chapman’s quietly emotive voice and delicate guitar figure — with a small rhythm section accompanying but not overwhelming her — was cut in just a few takes.

But in 1988, the heyday of hair metal and East Coast hip-hop icons like Public Enemy, the last thing radio wanted was a song reminiscent of Sixties coffeehouses, despite Suzanne Vega’s “Luka” being a surprise hit the year before. Kershenbaum recalls Chapman’s label, Elektra, asking him to trim “Fast Car,” since the chorus was preceded by a longer-than-usual three verses. “The song was going against the grain of everything happening at the time on pop radio, so they wanted to get to the chorus sooner,” says Kershenbaum. “I spent two weeks on it, but it just didn’t work. You had to build the story and let it explode. The chorus does come late, but when it finally arrives and the drums come in, it makes a giant impact.”

In the end, the song triumphed, moving into the Top 10 that summer — its stark feel and arrangement abetted by its moody, Matt Mahurin–directed video. “It sounded different from anything else on the radio at that time,” recalls British DJ and producer Jonas Blue, who first heard it in the Nineties and remade the song in 2015. “You had all these heavily produced songs on the radio, but here was this amazing single coming forth around a guitar and a vocal.”

The timing was also right in broader terms: That year, the Bureau of Labor reported that unemployment among African Americans was at nearly 10 percent, double the amount for whites. So lines like “You still ain’t got a job/I work in a market as a checkout girl” — not autobiographical, as the Tufts-educated Chapman made clear at the time — mirrored the economic devastation wrought on many communities by the end of the Reagan years. “It was very listenable, melodically, but everyone had a situation in their lives when they wanted to get in a car and get away from it all,” says Kershenbaum. “Everyone wanted to escape some sort of situation in their life, and that song really hit home, from an emotional standpoint.”

After its peak moment in the culture, “Fast Car” lived on. East Coast rap duo Nice and Smooth used a sample of Chapman’s guitar in “Sometimes I Rhyme Slow” in 1991, and Jamaican artist Wayne Wonder remade it as a reggae track around the same time. Many years later, Chris Daughtry and Kelly Clarkson sang the song onstage in 2010.

But the recent rebirth of the song largely began with people who weren’t alive when it was first released. Combs, who was born in 1990, first heard it in the family car; it was one of the cassettes in his dad’s collection (Combs still has the original tape), and he and his father bonded over the song and the entire Tracy Chapman album. Khalid was born a full decade after Chapman’s version and first heard it, he says, in ninth grade. “Not sure who played it, but I remember that when I did hear it, it made me feel safe,” he says. “It has such a feel-good melody.”

Black Pumas’ Burton was himself born two years after “Fast Car” arrived and was first introduced to Chapman’s music by way of her later, blues-based hit “Give Me One Reason.” Looking for songs to sing and realizing that his vocal tone was similar to Chapman’s, Burton dug into her back catalog and discovered “Fast Car,” which he decided to add to his fledgling repertoire. “I was learning the song and living that life as I was learning it,” he recalls. “I connected to the plight of the person in the song, in that I wanted to go somewhere and be someone and wanted to create something out of thin air. Singing that song was like discovering part of myself I didn’t know or was unfamiliar with.”

Burton had hoped to sing “Fast Car” during an audition for American Idol but was eliminated before he could. In the meantime, he began performing it during his busking days on the Santa Monica pier, where he sensed its impact. “If you go anywhere where people are busking, chances are you’re going to hear that song, he says. “People see themselves as the person on the street corner busking for dollar bills and opportunities, so that it hit home for a lot of people passing by.”

Blue, born the year after “Fast Car,” grew up hearing Chapman’s single on the radio and in his mother’s record collection, and the song had stayed with him. After vacationing in Ibiza around 2015, he had the idea to remake the song, and to his surprise, “Fast Car” proved a natural fit for a tropical-house remake. Coincidentally, Swedish EDM producer Tobtok had the same idea at the same time, and both versions were released almost simultaneously.

Blue’s version became a crossover dance hit and, according to Alpha Data — the data-analytics provider that powers the Rolling Stone Charts — has streamed 177 million times, just behind Chapman’s original (which has streamed 204 million times). “A lot of my fan base is younger people, and they’d never heard the original and thought it was essentially my song,” Blue says. “Everyone hears it different, but it’s a song that will always help people get through hard and difficult times.”

With the times rarely as difficult as they are now, “Fast Car” seems ready for yet another comeback. About two years ago, Combs posted a snippet of himself playing the song backstage at the Ryman. His fans began demanding a full rendition, which he finally filmed and posted this March, just after the virus lockdown was put in place. It’s since been viewed nearly 3 million times on YouTube and 1.2 million times on his Instagram account. “I definitely was surprised,” he says. “I didn’t realize to what extent my fan base would be so aware of it, and love it so much. It’s so interesting that a song from 32 years ago can be so relevant and impactful in a moment in time.” (Chapman, who currently lives in Northern California, declined to comment for this story.)

Whenever he resumes a tour that was postponed until after the lockdown, Combs says he’s considering adding the song to his set, and Black Pumas had made it a regular part of their own show before their own touring was shut down. Now, performing the song feels even more fitting, even if it doesn’t fit the rigid definition of a protest tune. “To me, in a subtle way, it is a protest song,” says Burton. “It’s a song that says it’s not OK to be complacent. It’s a song that says it’s not OK to be OK with things that hold us back from living our best lives. It’s still relevant.”