First Worsts: Being Driven To The Brink By “Fast Car”


This month, to celebrate the Internet’s unbridled love for wallowing in nostalgia and even greater relishing of talking about why certain cultural artifacts are horrible, Sound of the City presents First Worsts, a series in which our writers remember the first time… they ever hated a song enough to call it The Worst. (And to be fair, we’re also going to see how these songs have stood the test of time.)

THE SONG: Tracy Chapman, “Fast Car”
THE YEAR: 1993(ish)
THE REASONS: Unbridled earnestness, childish gender fascism

Like many other suburban Houston families, mine had two (not necessarily fast) cars. Both were used Volvo sedans, one grey and one beige. (The peculiar bourgeois symmetry of this is not lost me.) It was there in the backseats of those NPR-mobiles that I stewed for years of my early childhood over the many aural offenses issuing forth from the speakers. A Prairie Home Companion was intolerably hokey; All Things Considered was such a bore; Car Talk was… actually, Car Talk was pretty funny. But when KUHF had finally exhausted its NPR programming budget for the day and switched over to classical music, things got really dicey.

My parents owned Tracy Chapman’s 1988 self-titled debut on vinyl and cassette so that they could pop it into the car tape deck and really get that authentic “Fast Car” experience. This seemingly innocuous and sweetly sincere song about the vicious cycle of poverty was, in my cranky little opinion, one of the most intolerable things to pass through the speakers and into my unwilling ears.

Tracy Chapman, “Fast Car”

It is commonly observed that children are fascists, and between the ages of about 4 and 12 I ranked somewhere in the ballpark of Generalissimo Francisco Franco on the rigidity scale. Ambiguity was unacceptable; Big Bird and Tracy Chapman were highly suspect figures. The husky tenor of Chapman’s voice perplexed and therefore irritated me. “Is this a boy or a girl?” I can recall asking, annoyed at having to sort out and strictly determine Chapman’s gender identity for her. After years of much needed mellowing and a helpful regimen of deprogramming in college I can look back at my reactionary and very binary-minded five-year-old self with embarrassment and more than a little amusement, but at the time it was a serious factor in my hatred for the song. If you’re a girl, sing like a girl! Sheesh!

More than that, however, my intolerance for “Fast Car” came from a very deep discomfort with straightforward emotions. This is something that lingers with me to this day and still makes me cringe—much as I hate to admit it—at Chapman’s pained, heartfelt narration of a girl grasping at straws (and ultimately failing) to escape a seemingly hopeless situation. Something about the tone of her voice makes me think that as soon as she’s done singing she’s going to invite me to a women-only discussion circle at a coffee shop, make me express my feelings, then read socially conscious poetry out loud to me (a nightmare scenario). Though I wasn’t cognizant of this at age five, I know now that what truly perturbed me about “Fast Car” was its earnest despair. I don’t recall truly understanding the story of the song, but I do remember being taken aback at the naked anguish of Chapman’s voice, especially in the chorus. Most songs express emotions, but Chapman’s greatest achievement is perhaps how urgently and intimately her vocal delivery alone conveys very personal and serious feelings without the comforting barriers of sarcasm and flippancy (two of my past and present trademarks, for better or worse). That brand of emotional honesty was (and to some extent still is) like nails on a chalkboard for me.

I’m proud and relieved to assure you that Chapman’s vocal androgyny is no longer a source of discomfort, so in that respect “Fast Car” is far, far less irritating to me now that I’ve shed my most rigid ideas about gender. In fact, I think her voice is a great asset to the song because it contrasts so nicely with the reedy, high pitched acoustic guitar hook that loops throughout the verses. But overall I find it musically inconsequential. It’s competently constructed, but could easily be a Goo Goo Dolls song (with different lyrics, of course). Though I still don’t particularly like the song, I find its lyrical content genuinely impressive. I’ve developed an amateur interest in American urban sociology (OK, one class in college and The Wire), so I’m prone to get behind any song that so beautifully and tragically narrates the cycle of poverty. And the fact that it reached the top 10 in 1988 is an admirable feat. I now possess a detached respect for “Fast Car,” though still mentally recoil a bit every time Chapman launches into her soulful “I-aaay I had a feeling that I belonged. I-aaay I had a feeling I could be someone! Be someone! Be someone!” The part of me that is very emotionally reticent and probably always will be wants to politely request that she please keep her feelings to herself.