top of page
  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

"Fast Car" isn't the feel-good track some people think it is... or is it?

Tracy Chapman speaks of lost potential, but there might just be a light at the end of the tunnel.

In previous posts, I've discussed some of my numerous sources for inspiration when it came to selecting a song for my Senior Year Soundtrack. However, there was one source I didn't mention, mainly because it hadn't really become much of a source yet.

As part of my music studies at Cal, I'm taking an upper-division elective on popular music theory. The class lessons and readings are chock-full of examples that come from various parts of the popular music canon, from as early (so far) as 1937 and as recent as this year. I actually have already written about a song that came up in one of our readings, that being Nick Drake's haunting "Parasite." Today's song selection comes from a little under two decades after "Parasite," and it also happens to be by an artist who lives in the Bay Area, more specifically in Half Moon Bay.

Tracy Chapman's "Fast Car" (1988) is a fascinating folk rock tale of escapism and the challenges people face in attempting to break free from the shackles of their life. It's also a song that, despite being replete with restful-sounding chords in a couple clear-cut progressions, never quite feels like it's completely at home.

"Fast Car" is a calm-sounding track from its onset, with soft drums and Larry Klein's bass lying underneath Chapman's guitar playing. Klein and Chapman to present a pretty clear depiction of the song's tonic (A) and its relatively standard chord progression (D-A-F#-E). The thing is, even though the chords are on the stable side, there's something about its timing that makes reaching its tonic feel less impactful. For one, the tonic of A is present throughout the verses as a pedal tone. While such a technique does wonders for affirming the song's tonic, it also makes each chord voicing feel less relaxed or resolved. Then, focusing on a rhythmic level, the strongest chord enters at a very weak point — the upbeat of the second beat in a two-bar loop — giving the track some syncopation while also making the notes that enter there less prominent and ear-catching. To put the cherry on top of it all, when the tonic is heard it's often as part of a more dissonant chord voicing. As the lower guitar sounds an A, the higher one plays a G#, creating a major seventh that neither feels like it's resolved, nor feels like it's going anywhere.

However they came about, the above feelings match Chapman's lyrics very well. While "Fast Car" begins on a purely escapist note ("You got a fast car / I want a ticket to anywhere"), the song quickly takes a turn toward family ills that darken the picture and provide more reasoning. The third verse discusses the narrator's alcoholic father ("He lives with the bottle, that's the way it is"), for whom the narrator has had to care ever since their mother left him. In driving away in their partner's car, the narrator is ridding themself of a responsibility which has held them back. Therein lies the motivation to start a new life — the narrator wouldn't be held back by her deadbeat father. Chapman sings that the decision to get away is a binary one: "Leave tonight, or live and die this way." If the couple can't get away now, they'll be trapped in their responsibilities for other people, so they better take the chance now if they want true independence. The chorus implies that the decision to leave was made, and that the narrator finally felt "that [they] belonged" and "could be someone." The new chord progression adds to the feeling of freedom with a more open progression, including the first tonic major chord in the song. At least for that moment, things feel grounded, and the narrator is content with the future that lies ahead of them.

Alas, the most important phrase from that previous paragraph was "for that moment." While the narrator's optimism remains in the fourth verse ("I know things will get better / You'll find work and I'll get promoted"), the fifth and final verse is a stark reality check in which the narrator is closer to being back at square one than to making real progress. In a vicious twist of fate, the narrator's partner has wound up like her father, drunk and unemployed ("You stay out drinkin' late at the bar / See more of your friends than you do your kids"). The narrator has come this far, becoming a mother and being in good financial standing, only for the cycle to repeat into the next generation. It's rotten luck, that's what it is, and it's a bitter pill to swallow considering what they'd done to try and escape the past. As the chord progression that never feels quite like it's home continues in the background, the narrator is left alone with her thoughts after shunning her partner and telling him to "keep on driving." In this light the past tense of the chorus feels even more tragic: she had a feeling she could be someone, but that feeling seems like it's all but gone now.

Is there any way to turn such a scenario around into something positive? Actually, I do see one thing that Chapman's narrator has going for her. Through everything, across multiple generations and living spaces, the narrator has never lost her dignity or her sense of self. In continuing to maintain control over her own life, she displays immense strength, and I come to the song's end — on a clean tonic major chord — thinking that things will work out for the narrator and her children once her partner is out of the way. She'll likely have to take a bit to recover and realize that she can still be someone (future tense), but that's not something she hasn't done before. The "fast car" put her on a detour from the path of happiness and success, but she'll find a way to get that "ticket to anywhere" for her and her children's sake.

Recent Posts

See All

1 Comment

Kevin R
Kevin R
Jun 29, 2023

Hi. I love your analysis of Fast Car. It’s so interesting how some music can contain so much depth, that even a child with no life experiences can understand the message. Fast Car was released when I was around 8 years old and yet, somehow I felt her pain to the point where my eyes would tear up. I could have never dissected it and explained it so eloquently as you have here. well done

bottom of page