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Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” and the Appeal of Escape

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A time-lapse photo of the highway, the perfect place to drive a fast car and a perennial symbol of escape.
Photo: Pxfuel via DMCA

Unless you live some sort of charmed fairy tale life, odds are you’ve experienced a time when you felt trapped by your circumstances. Sometimes, the freedom — or even just the idea — of driving seems like an appealing escape. That philosophy has been thoroughly explored in pop culture, but perhaps never more effectively than in Tracy Chapman’s 1988 song, “Fast Car.”

A word of warning: If you’ve never heard it before, “Fast Car” is wistful, mournful, and probably not something you should listen to if you’re feeling down.

Fast and fun: The 2021 Chevrolet Corvette

The story of “Fast Car”

The song comes from the perspective of Chapman’s unnamed character. She’s tired of living in a small town she doesn’t love and dreams of escaping to the city to finally “be someone.” Luckily, her significant other has — you guessed it — a fast car, which she sees as a ticket to freedom. Then, life starts to get in the way. Her father takes ill due to alcoholism, so she quits school to take care of him.

Still, she remains hopeful, now dreaming of a life in the suburbs instead of a shelter. Eventually, she gets a job that pays the bills, but by then, her partner spends more time at the bar than they do at home. She’s trapped in the exact situation she hoped to escape.

The significance of driving

Chapman’s lyrics are devastating, but the way the song is constructed shines a spotlight on the sense of escape that cars represent. Between verses that explain her current circumstances, a repeated chorus references the thrill and freedom of driving.

“So I remember when we were driving
Driving in your car
Speed so fast it felt like I was drunk
City lights lay out before us
And your arms felt nice wrapped around my shoulder
And I-I had a feeling that I belonged
I-I had a feeling I could be someone, be someone, be someone.”

Lyrics provided by Genius Lyrics.

This chorus occurs three times, even after she’s resigned herself to the reality that she’s never actually going to “cross the border and into the city” and “finally see what it means to be living.” That means, even in a life she never wanted, the titular “fast car” remains a symbol of hope and progress.

I think that idea applies to the car in general. It’s a roller coaster you can kick into high-gear to remember what it feels like to feel. It’s a vessel that — even when it’s not moving — always has the potential to get going again. It’s a time capsule for treasured memories. It’s an ever-present steed that you can mount up on a whim and ride to greener pastures.

Each vehicle is different, but within this context, they collectively represent the freedom and agency we all yearn for.

How should a truck feel?: Like the 2021 Chevy Silverado 1500

Lyrics provided by Genius Lyrics.