How “Fast Car,” a 1988 hit, became the vehicle that travels between cultural divides in 2024

 John Shearer/Getty Images for The Recording Academy
John Shearer/Getty Images for The Recording Academy
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Consensus is the rarest gem in a time defined by division. If Tracy Chapman’s recent Grammys rendition of “Fast Car” struck an uncharacteristically harmonious chord across our culture, that alone explains why. “Fast Car” is one of those songs most of us not only know but associate with a cherished memory.

The 1988 original came out in April of that year, setting it up to be a summertime driving anthem – which it became in August, hitting sixth place on the Billboard Top 100 and retaining a place in playlist rotations for many warm seasons after that. That is how country music star Luke Combs fell in love with it, he told his Charlotte, N.C., audience in July.

His recollection involves riding in a brown 1989 Ford F-150 with a camper top and his father playing Chapman’s self-titled debut album. “Listening to that album with my dad meant a lot to me and kind of sparked my love for music and kind of landed me where I am today,” Billboard quoted him as saying.

Combs’ "Fast Car" tribute has been a mainstay of his live sets for years, making its inclusion a natural for his fourth album “Getting’ Old.” But he may not have predicted the extent to which his faithful version would cross over. His cover rocketed to the top of Billboard’s Country Airplay charts in July 2023, peaking at No. 2 on Billboard’s Hot 100 and hitting No. 1 on the U.S. Adult Top 40 charts.

The success of Combs’ version also made history, with Chapman becoming the first Black woman to top the country charts as a solo songwriter. “Fast Car” went on to win single of the year at the 57th annual Country Music Association’s awards ceremony, along with song of the year, which made Chapman the first ever Black woman to earn that accolade. But she didn’t show up to the CMAs or make any appearances with Combs before Sunday’s duet.

At the 66th annual Grammy Awards, where Combs’ version of the song was nominated for best country solo performance, it could not be clearer who was driving as those telltale chords rang through the initial dimness. Microphones picked up the cheering and applause that swelled as the lights came up, showing Chapman strumming her acoustic guitar, her face brightened by a wide, unforced smile. Combs, standing nearby left his guitar offstage. He looked to Chapman for cues, mouthing the lyrics he knew by heart, trying to match her intonation, never seeking to draw focus.

This was Chapman’s first TV appearance in nearly a decade, and her fellow musicians in that room recognized what a gift they were witnessing. Taylor Swift stood up and sang along, eventually joined by other attendees with the best seats at Los Angeles’ Arena. When the two finished, Combs bowed to Chapman, a singer who doesn’t tour or play live much due to her discomfort with the spotlight. That probably won’t change after this, although demand to see more from her likely will.

We may never know whether Chapman suspected this performance would hold weight beyond reasons related to scarcity. Combs’ “Fast Car” became a hit during the same summer in which Jason Aldean’s “Try That in a Small Town” debuted at No. 2 on Billboard’s Top 100 and right-wing conservatives rushed to declare Oliver Anthony’s “Rich Men of North Richmond” as their resentment anthem.

“Fast Car” speaks to and for anyone who can relate to its protagonist, a young woman "starting from zero, got nothing to lose," hence its multigenerational staying power. At the same time, the song’s revival through Combs highlights a longstanding feature of the music industry: white artists have a long track record of re-recording songs first popularized by Black artists to greater success than the songs' originators. Often when that happens, the first performer’s contributions are downplayed if not entirely erased.

Another ‘80s hit that predates Chapman’s album debut by seven years serves as a prime example of that – Soft Cell’s cover of “Tainted Love.” The fact that “Tainted Love” is a cover is still news to many people who never heard the original 1964 B-side soul recording by Gloria Jones.

Jones didn’t compose “Tainted Love,” which means she doesn’t receive songwriting royalties from the single that inspired Soft Cell.

Chapman, though, owns the writer's and publisher’s share of “Fast Car” which means she receives most of the hundreds of thousands of dollars in royalties Combs’ version has generated. (Chapman also won Grammys for best new artist, and best contemporary folk album in 1989, while “Fast Car” earned her a Grammy for best female pop vocal performance that same year.)

Receiving one’s due financially is one way of considering a cultural debt settled. Chapman’s success also highlights other debts still owed to Black artists largely sidelined in the country music industry. Chapman is categorized as a folk artist although the appeal of “Fast Car” is malleable. But it hasn’t been lost on Black fans and musicians that the firsts Chapman secured in the country music genre as a Black queer woman resulted from a white man expressing her work with few stylistic changes – not even altering Chapman’s line about “[working] in a market as a checkout girl.”

Combs, one of country music's biggest stars, reverently explained that he did not wish to revise Chapman’s flawless art. His marveling at sharing the Grammys stage with Chapman, a superior and underappreciated musician, reflected that view. That itself may have been healing to witness and explains why so many of us were moved by these five minutes of sublime TV.

We shouldn’t discount the way that image melds with the meaning of “Fast Car” and its story about naïve dreams smashing against indifferent reality. In 1988 “Fast Car” plaintively voiced one woman’s lament at being unable to break the cycle of poverty, while speaking to widespread disillusionment at watching the so-called American dream slip away. In 2023 and 2024 those same lyrics speak to our frustration with being unable to escape debt and better our financial circumstances, contributing to a society that's fraying the seams.

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But Chapman’s chorus is the perfect intersection of dream and remembrance, descending from aspiration into a litany of disappointments before stubbornly flashing back to a youthful aura of invincibility: “So I remember when we were driving, driving in your car/ Speed so fast, I felt like I was drunk/City lights lay out before us/ And your arm felt nice wrapped 'round my shoulder . . .”

Then comes the iconic and universally heartbreaking line. “And I-I had a feeling that I belonged/I-I had a feeling I could be someone, be someone, be someone. . .”

If we were and are moved by that Grammy moment, those words hold a clue as to why. On that stage, Chapman received her flowers from Combs, from the onlookers seated close to the stage and the tens of millions watching at home. Two artists who move in disparate circles reminded us of what it means for a song to capture a common forlornness.

Reality’s squeeze will send us retreating to our corners soon enough. But this moment and the music that precipitated it are reminders of how yearning to belong is part of the human condition, a thread to mend our sense of separation.