I really like Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car,” and I realize I’m saying this as someone who’s around thirty years late to the party. Beyond its great musicality, there’s the poetry to it. It speaks to a wanting for a life that’s more than you have, one beyond your circumstances; but also to the dashing of that dream when reality ensues. All in all, it’s a beautiful, melancholic song.
Which I don’t really relate. Or more, can’t. See, I’ve lived a privileged life. I come from a home with functional parents in a healthy relationship; I never had to work to support my family or put my education on hold to care for my parents. The “I” of the song and I have little to nothing in common.
“Fast Car” speaks to something deeper than the surface it transcends circumstances. It’s not hard to relate to wanting something more than you have, to wanting to drive away from your lot in life. But Chapman doesn’t just try to paint the picture of those emotions; instead she describes the circumstances that create the feelings. Instead of telling us how to feel she crafts a narrative that elicits it. Specificity lends it empathy; by describing the events in such detail, Chapman is able to really dig into that wanting. It’s so vivid, it’s real. The fast car drives from metaphor into reality.
But it’s still a very particular narrative, that of a poor, black woman. It’s a story about her and her experiences. So what business do I, a half-white half-Asian man who’s not living in poverty, have listening to it?
Now there’s the universality of art. You don’t have to have lived on a boat to appreciate John Masefield’s poetry. Homegoing is still a brilliant piece of literature whether or not you have any relation to the African diaspora. Good works bring you into a world and state of mind, often through specifics. It’s how you make an unknown world known, how you spark a feeling that you can’t describe.
The stumbling block here, especially with something like “Fast Car,” is adopting a narrative or set of experiences as your own. “Fast Car” isn’t my story and it would be disingenuous of me to suggest otherwise. I love the song and I love singing along, but fundamentally I know it’s not my song. It’s the difference between appreciation and appropriation. If you were to make a video adaption of “Fast Car” and make the leads middle-class and white, you’d be completely missing the point.
This is something I’m thinking through, and a lot of this rant essay is me spitballing. I was introduced to “Fast Car” (and Tracy Chapman proper) when an indie band I love covered the song four-odd years ago. Now, they didn’t change the pronouns or the lyrics at all, but it’s still a white guy singing. Does that fundamentally affect the song? What about me and a friend singing it a karaoke? Am I thinking about this way too much?
In all honesty: I probably am. When Barcelona sings “Fast Car” they aren’t making any claims to the narrative. It’s a thirty year old song and a really good one at that; maybe a cover of it costs some of its subtext, but I don’t think there’s anything, well wrong with it. Maybe it’s like reading a good book, where you get to experience another life as your own for a bit. I don’t have a point to all this, more I’m curious about the way I interact with art, especially with narratives that aren’t about me.
In any case, “Fast Car” is a great song, and I do really like both Barcelona’s cover and Tracy Chapman’s original.