Dissecting the lyrics of a song or poem and looking for meaning in it that I can relate to has always been enjoyable for me. I’ve always loved the song Fast Car by Tracy Chapman and heard it recently while at work, so I decided to do something a little different and talk about the song and what it means to me.
It may seem simple on the surface, but it has a well thought out and relatable story. This story really is the heart of the song and what makes it so popular in my opinion.
Nowadays, you see a big focus on electronic music production and crazy vocal runs. Don’t get me wrong, I am a big fan of today’s pop music. However, I think the most beautiful and touching songs I’ve heard are acoustic versions that are stripped down to just vocals and a piano or guitar.
First off, at the beginning, there is a subtle little cymbal sound you hear which in a way foreshadows the soft tone of the song. It has the same guitar loop throughout the song. This guitar gives me a feeling of nostalgia, a bit of sadness, yet is soothing as well. Maybe it’s because it sounds similar to the song Return to Pooh Corner by Kenny Loggins which brings me back to my childhood where I read/ watched Winnie the Pooh frequently. The nostalgia also comes from her reflecting on seemingly better times during the chorus.
Going along with the theme of simplicity, the vocals are soothing, yet not too complex. You don’t hear any attempts on Tracy’s part to do too much when she is singing. She is able to convey the same feelings of nostalgia and sadness the guitar does without “wowing” you with her vocals.
I am a big fan of songs that are able to have a narrative which evolves throughout. Fast Car does that really well. Woven into the song are tales of failed or strained relationships. A relationship between the narrator and someone who they are apparently dating is the central focus.
It begins with the narrator yearning for more out of life, something that everyone has experienced at some point.
“You got a fast car. I want a ticket to anywhere.”
When I hear those opening lyrics, I imagine a bright-eyed young kid who wants to get out of town. To the narrator of the song (the bright-eyed young kid), this fast car which is owned by someone they apparently are dating is a way to escape; the freedom they’re looking for.
It talks about driving in a fast car in the chorus and “speed so fast I felt like I was drunk.” A feeling of pure joy and bliss. Here, the narrator feels they could do anything and talks about feeling like they could be someone.
There is a struggle at the beginning where the narrator is trying to scrape together money for a better life essentially and hopes their partner will be able to pull their weight and get a job too. In the midst of that is a sad tale of her father having a drinking problem, her mom leaving him, and this main character having to take care of him.
The pre-chorus, which again is a foreshadowing of what’s to come, sings, “You got a fast car. Is it fast enough so we can fly away? We gotta make a decision. Leave tonight or live and die this way.” Here, the narrator realizes they can’t keep going the way they’re going; things have to change.
Throughout the song, the narrator seems to evolve, while the partner stays stagnant. Towards the end, they say how they have a job to pay the bills, while the partner is staying out late at the bars and getting drunk and neglecting their kids.
“I’d always hoped for better. Thought maybe together you and me would find it.”
It seems to me this fast car was a false sense of hope the narrator had placed in the owner of the fast car. Being in that car, driving with them and feeling like they could be someone tricked them into thinking they could build a life with this person. In some way, they associated the feeling they got from riding in the car with the person, when in reality, it was just the car. In other words, the car was just for show and the partner/ owner of the car apparently didn’t have much more to offer.
I like the subtle shift in the lyrics at the end. Instead of saying “we gotta make a decision” and “Is it fast enough so we can fly away?” like it did earlier, Chapman writes, “You gotta make a decision” and “Is it fast enough so you can fly away?” This is the narrator’s way of telling their partner it’s no longer about them being a team unless they’re able to hold up their end of the bargain.
In a sad yet clever way, the end of the song mirrors what the narrator’s mom went through. The narrator seems poised to leave their partner due to problems they have with alcohol and not working, just like their dad.
At the same time, I enjoy how the ending is a “cliffhanger”, one that is open to speculation. It may not seem like things will turn out too well in this relationship, but to the optimist, there is some lingering hope.