1988 Countdown #73: Tracy Chapman, “Fast Car”

(New to the countdown? Catch up here.)

I’m not a big fan of austerity in pop music: if I’m turning on a top-40 station, I want it to be shiny and glittery and loud. So I never cared much for Tracy Chapman back in 1988, when her debut album topped the charts (in the week between Steve Winwood’s Roll with It and Bon Jovi’s New Jersey)–she just seemed prim and schoolmarmish. If I was going to listen to a song about driving in Boston, I’d take the Modern Lovers’ “Roadrunner,” thank you.

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But hearing “Fast Car” today, after listening to the first quarter of the 1988 countdown, it’s a marvel that washes away the taste of overproduced dreck like Winwood. (Tracy Chapman brand mouthwash!) For me, that’s not so much because of the well-crafted lyric about escaping an oppressive life in the city. What grabs me is the sound: the yearning of the melody and the contrast between Chapman’s trebly acoustic guitar and her deep, husky voice–very few pop singles sound like that, then or now.

Chapman stays seated through the video, her face often in shadow. She has the posture of somebody hunched over a guitar, but she doesn’t actually seem to be playing it: probably a labor-saving move when you’re filming a video and the guitar’s out of frame anyway.

Between the chiaroscuro headshots, we get bleak little urban vignettes in cold winter light. The first group: a tracking shot of some shadows, followed by tightly clasped brown-skinned hands in front of a herringbone coat, and golden liquid in what looks like a really large moonshine bottle.

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Chapman sings in front of some silhouetted buildings, which are projected on a backdrop behind her, like she’s driving a car in a Hitchcock movie. The camera slowly pans around; the video clearly needs some movement, but Chapman wasn’t going to provide it herself. With all the black in the backdrop and her outfit, her head looks like a disembodied floating object, as if she’s getting ready to bellow “I am the great and powerful Chapman!”

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Cut back to the herringbone hands. The person connected to them is wringing them. Back to Chapman, back to the shadowy tracking shot, then a wider angle on the herringbone hands, which are clasped around a bottle, just in time for Chapman’s verse about her father’s drinking problem.

Back to Chapman, then over to a backlit guy in a baseball cap, pointing towards a wall and then straight at the camera. Behind him is a chain-link fence with razorwire and a tree, made barren by the winter. A little more light on Chapman lets us see her shoulders, her black turtleneck, her hair (mini-dreadlocks) and her earrings (a stud on the right ear, something dangly on the left).

Some more vignettes: the lock on a suitcase, tire treads, the lock again. And then the song hits the bridge–which oddly, is the catchiest part of the whole tune–and the power chords and the booming drums feel positively decadent.

More vignettes, intercut with Chapman: laundry dangling over a city street, green grass and leafless trees outside a city. When Chapman gets to the “buy a bigger house and live in the suburbs” verse, she actually starts moving her body. Look at her! She’s gently shimmying her shoulders! By her standards, that’s practically pole-dancing.

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We hit the bridge one more time, and the camera pulls back, letting Chapman disappear into darkness. The vignettes are now showing the dream of the suburbs: little clapboard houses with evergreen trees (but no people). Back in the city, we see footage of a little kid holding a lollipop. There’s a new backdrop for Chapman’s shots: it looks like one of Richard Serra’s rusting walls. Another sequence of vignettes: a hand against a chain-link fence, the shadows, a tire tread.

A final image: Chapman standing on top of the Statue of Liberty dressed in a glittery Bob Mackie dress while fireworks explode, jet planes fly overhead, and a line of dancing girls do high kicks behind her. Chapman smashes her acoustic guitar and then pulls a particularly fetching girl out of the chorus line for a long kiss.

My mistake; the final image is a silhouetted Chapman against a cold blue sky, most of her features obscured by shadow. Oh well.

“Fast Car” hit #6 on the Billboard singles chart; you can watch the video here. Chapman’s a classic two-hit wonder: the other hit was “Give Me One Reason,” which did even better, reaching #3 in 1996.

posted 29 January 2009 in 1988 and tagged . 4 comments

4 Comments on 1988 Countdown #73: Tracy Chapman, “Fast Car”

  1. Asher Says:

    You might enjoy, by contrast, Motley Crue’s “Primal Scream” video by the same director. Vince Neil and Tracy Chapman should be in the top 100 list of best rock hair. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M9GQweMmEQQ

  2. Asher Says:

    Oh, he was also responsible for the unforgivably overplayed video, “The Unforgiven.”

  3. Chris M. Says:

    When I got to Nadine around 1990 or so and flipped through some back issues, I remember being rather shocked at how down you all were on Chapman. I was an earnest little high-schooler, and Tracy Chapman and “Fast Car” rocked my world senior year.

    The song has aged remarkably well, not so much because of its earnestness but because it’s actually a sly pop song with a killer hook. No wonder it’s actually been sampled by rap acts in the 20 years since.

  4. Gavin Says:

    I remember Nadine actually ran a rave review of the Tracy Chapman album (not by one of our regular contributors) that began with something like “Please listen to Tracy Chapman. She’s important.” I don’t remember other writers taking pokes at her, but I would guess some took it upon themselves to provide critical correctives.

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