By: Wesley Cheek
There is no shortage of great American songs about class. From Bruce Springsteen’s driven anthem of escape “Born to Run” to Scarface’s ode to his 5th Ward neighborhood in ‘My Block’ musicians have chronicled what it feels like to be working class in America. Bluegrass standards like The Dillards ‘Old Home Place’ detail the effects of urbanization and the collapse of the post-war economy throughout rural America. While rhythm and blues artists like Anthony Hamilton in “Comin’ From Where I’m From” have laid out how one’s economic class worms its way into the most basic of human relationships.
Tracy Chapman’s ‘Fast Car’ is in league with American songs about class struggle, but it is more. It pushes beyond the boundaries of these other songs and offers us something different, disturbing, and touching. ‘Fast Car’ can be heard and understood as a simple parable about the circle of poverty much like Elvis Presley’s moving but paternalistic “In the Ghetto.” It can be read as a chronicle of individuals’ personal failings. Maybe they grew up hard, but they made bad choices. The world they came from just sucked them back in. The car just wasn’t fast enough. But ‘Fast Car’ is more than that. It is a song that details both what it feels like to be one of the working poor in America while at the same time describing the mechanisms by which class in America is maintained. The narrator of the song is not ignorant of their situation. It is not a morality play. It is an indictment. An indictment of her partner, yes, but much more so an indictment of the class structure of the society that is pressing in on them from all sides.
‘Fast Car’ can stand on its own as an undisputed classic. Tracy Chapman would be well remembered as a songwriter even if it was her only hit. However, it is worth noting that the first track on her debut album Tracy Chapman, the track immediately preceding ‘Fast Car’, is another classic, ‘Talkin’ Bout a Revolution.’ The lyrics to ‘Talkin’ Bout a Revolution’ does not beat around the bush in their prescription for what ails the class structure of American Society. “Poor people gonna rise up and take what’s theirs. Don’t you know you better run, run, run, run, run, run, run, run. Finally, the tables are starting to run.” In this vision of what is soon to come, it is not those suffering in poverty in America who will need to make a speedy getaway.
A car is the stand in for American freedom. A very particular kind of American freedom. The kind that is more easily available than the real kind. America is gigantic, but with a somewhat functional automobile and some gas money, you can make it from one side to another. The car in Fast Car is that metaphor for freedom, but it is also something else. It is the daunting physical reminder of what is possible and what is not possible. True it is a Fast Car, and we assume it looks nice— at the beginning anyway. But no matter how far they drive in that Fast Car they cannot outrun the larger forces that are pressing down on them; of being Black in America, of being poor, and, for our narrator, being a woman.
Have you not found yourself at some point listening to ‘Fast Car’, fighting back tears as you think what it would be to have someone’s arm feel nice, wrapped round your shoulder as the only, momentary relief from the grinding insistency of American capitalism? Chapman’s narrative works across scales in a way that is difficult. It maintains complexity while hitting home in a very basic way. Have you not pictured the car? Have you not contemplated her father who is too old for working, but still too young to look like this? You can see this world depicted vividly in your mind, but you can also realize it as the world that you to encounter daily. A world in which hard work is not rewarded with success. A world where the economic peril of everyday life seeps into relationships and family. A world where Black women are rendered the most vulnerable of us, living at the intersection of race, class, and gender. And did you not—for a moment— have a feeling that you belonged? Did it not seem— for at least some brief amount of time— that this society would allow you to be someone?
Wesley Cheek is originally from Destin, Fl. He is currently a post-doctoral fellow at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto, Japan. While Wesley mainly does academic writing these days, he has been published in outlets such as Current Affairs. He is currently working on a book about the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami. Wesley has played bass in a lot of punk rock bands over the years, but he likes music in general.
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