The multiplatinum singer’s Grammys performance has brought out songwriting “experts” online.
Did you know Tracy Chapman’s song “Fast Car” isn’t about an automobile traveling at a heightened velocity? Did you need someone to explain it to you? Did you want someone to?
Thanks to Chapman’s fantastic Grammys performance alongside cover artist Luke Combs, people — mainly dudes — have, unasked, taken it upon themselves to be extremely weird about both the song and the original singer. From interpretations about how the lyrics that cite living in poverty and alcoholism are actually hopeful to explanations of how upward mobility was actually possible when it was written in 1988 to soliloquies about how Chapman is actually an unknown figure — it seems that no one online can be normal about this song.
For those of us who have, until this point, avoided bad opinions and poor explanations about “Fast Car” for over 30 years, it can feel a bit surreal, like we’re suddenly stuck listening to the children of the men who brought out acoustic guitars during college dorm parties. Unfortunately, pedantic, ill-informed, “it’s new to me so it must be new to you” internet discourse is the norm now.
What Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” is about
It’s a testament to Chapman’s Grammy’s performance that “Fast Car” has become a conversation again. She sounded great, and critics and seemingly everyone else who was watching Sunday night praised Chapman as one of the best acts of the evening. But there’s another factor too. Chapman, who came onto the scene in the late 1980s, doesn’t occupy headlines the way star musicians do now. She’s not on splashy world tours or doing massive promotion. She’s living a relatively low-profile life. Her performance on one of the music industry’s biggest occasions felt special, like we were being treated to something rare.
When we see something rare these days, the natural inclination is to gush on social media platforms like X in real time. Shortly after, users flooded TikTok with videos paying tribute to how fantastic Chapman is and how fantastic she sounded.
But there’s another type of reaction that exists, in which the same spirit moves people to grasp for expertise about someone or something they’re just learning about, or to contextualize that thing or person for modern listeners when the modern context isn’t necessarily useful or relevant. It resulted in often strange proclamations: One verified X user proclaimed that “there isn’t really a lot of info” on Chapman as if she were a mysterious figure or some kind of developing news story.
Chapman is a singer with four Grammys. Chapman has four platinum albums in the US, one of which is 5x platinum and the other 6x platinum — platinum status means one million copies sold. While Chapman has kept a relatively quiet profile since 2008, when she released her last album, she’s been the subject of news stories, interviews, and profiles throughout her career.
Chapman’s life has also been written about over and over in conjunction with the success of Combs’s cover, which came out in 2023. In late 2023, Chapman won the CMA award for song of the year and was nominated to join the 2024 Songwriters Hall of Fame — news that is almost always accompanied by a short biography recapping Chapman’s heady list of achievements.
Chapman also has a Wikipedia page.
Nevertheless, that user proceeded to give the internet an eight-part thread on Chapman, a person there supposedly wasn’t a lot of information about. He then plugged his own previous threads on different subjects and his wife’s baking company.
In addition to the Chapman investigator, there were also users who decided to give their unsolicited thoughts on “Fast Car,” a song that has been around for 36 years. One user called the song optimistic, adding that (in a deleted tweet): “Fast Car is one of the best working class songs ever. It’s extremely hopeful. But that hopeful spirit is so much more distant today.” People replied that the song was actually about being locked in a system of poverty.
They nixed the original post but doubled down on the song being “hopeful” in replies.
Another poster explained that though the song was sad, it was actually not that sad, because the economic reality of 1988 would have meant more of a chance for upward mobility than one might see today. Many pointed out that the reality of living on a grocery store checkout clerk salary, in any era, was actually unsustainable, and that the song has specific lyrics about living in a shelter. Responders also joked that you could apply this type of self-serious read on songs like The Beach Boys’ “Kokomo.”
The takes got weirder and weirder, ranging from bizarrely fawning over Chapman’s relatively dressed-down appearance (and how she is ostensibly better for it) to how a few lines from “Fast Car” have more depth than some novels. Everyone is, of course, entitled to feel anything they want about how Chapman presents herself and the song’s depth versus literature they read! Still, I’d venture that these opinions reveal more about the poster’s mentality than they do Chapman or her popular song.
Being normal about “Fast Car” is impossible with the way the internet is structured
Faced with the audacity of some of these interpretations, the natural question that came about was why people were being so out-of-pocket (and even embarrassing) about a song that’s been around for so long.
Maybe it was that something was lost in translation when Luke Combs, who isn’t a Black queer female artist, covered a song from a Black queer female artist? Maybe the lack of media literacy is to blame? Perhaps bad, online “Fast Car” takes are what happens when you cut culture journalism? Maybe whoever said that art is open to all kinds of interpretation did not ever have to read Twitter? It could be that “analytical” tweets are better when they come from people who have paid attention to the literal text of the song? Perhaps some people have humiliation kinks and being ratioed feeds into that?
Those are all factors at play, no doubt. But there’s also one big factor: social media platforms are structured in a way to drive engagement — and being annoying is unfortunately extremely engaging.
Social media, particularly X, allows people to be extremely wrong and extremely loud at the same time. Couple that with structural issues like posters getting paid for engagement — regardless if they’re good or bad — and you get tweets espousing the obscurity of one of America’s best and most honored songwriters or misanalyzing lyrics about how impossible it is for many Americans to escape poverty as hope for a brighter day. Maybe it’s just that bad “Fast Car” takes have always existed, but back in 1988 it was exponentially easier to avoid them.