Why Luke Combs' cover of Tracy Chapman's 'Fast Car' is sparking controversy

Why Luke Combs' cover of Tracy Chapman's 'Fast Car' is sparking controversy
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There’s a good chance the lines, “You got a fast car...” have strummed their way onto your car radio in the past year — and not because it’s magically 1988 again.

Tracy Chapman’s hit song has had a resurgence thanks to country star Luke Combs, whose cover went platinum in July 2023, and is now up for a Grammy award. Chapman surprised audiences by appearing at the Feb. 4 ceremony to perform alongside Combs, marking a full-circle and emotional moment for fans.

The song won the first two awards the CMA Awards on Nov. 8, 2023, out of Nashville: single of the year and song of the year.

"I’m supposed to be talking, I think," Combs, 33, said upon accepting the single of the year award. "First and foremost, I want to thank Tracy Chapman for writing one of the best songs of all time."

Chapman wasn't present at the award show but said in a statement that it was "truly an honor for my song to be newly-recognized after its debut."

Combs is a country superstar known for his traditional sound and personal lyrics; Chapman, 59, is a Black queer singer-songwriter who made waves in the music industry in the ‘80s and ‘90s.

Now, the seemingly unlikely duo are making music history.

“Fast Car” was big when it came out in 1988: It scored a No. 6 ranking on Billboard’s Hot 100 and earned Chapman one of three Grammys she took home that year. But it’s just as big now. Combs’ version hit No. 1 on the Billboard Country Airplay chart in July and landed the No. 2 spot on Billboard’s Hot 100.

The re-emergence of the always popular song has also been met with controversy, as people examine what it takes to make a country hit — and who can make one.

What have Tracy Chapman and Luke Combs said about the 'Fast Car' cover?

Combs frequently covered Chapman’s “Fast Car” during live concerts, but only released his cover as part of his March album "Gettin' Old." In doing so, he became one of many singers to pay homage to Chapman’s song — Sam Smith, Justin Bieber and Khalid also covered it.

The country star said he was first drawn to the song while driving with his father. “There was this one song that really stuck out to me. It was called 'Fast Car.' That song meant a lot to me since then—for my whole life. I always think about my dad when it comes on and us spending time together,” he said in live footage from a concert posted to his Instagram.

When the cover came out, Combs said he hadn't heard from Chapman, telling YouTuber Grady Smith he "didn't have to seek approval" from Chapman, since he adhered to the "very, very specific" list of things he could and couldn't do.

In July, Chapman, who hasn’t given an interview in years, told Billboard of the resurgence, “I never expected to find myself on the country charts, but I’m honored to be there. I’m happy for Luke and his success and grateful that new fans have found and embraced ‘Fast Car.’”

In his own subsequent conversation with Billboard, Combs expressed gratitude to Chapman: “Oh man, ‘Fast Car’ has surprised me more than you can imagine. Tracy Chapman wrote this perfect song that I first heard with my dad and it has stayed with me since I have played it in my live show now for six-plus years and everyone — I mean everyone — across all these stadiums relates to this song and sings along. That’s the gift of a supernatural song writer. The success of my cover is unreal and I think it’s so cool that Tracy is getting recognized and has reached new milestones. I love that she is out there feeling all the love and that she gave me a shout-out! Thank you, Tracy!”

So, what’s the controversy over 'Fast Car'?

Though many celebrated the recognition for Chapman’s work, questions arose for some surrounding the roles of race, gender and sexuality in Combs’ success.

In a Washington Post article considered to be the genesis of the debate, Emily Yahr wrote, “Although many are thrilled to see ‘Fast Car’ back in the spotlight and a new generation discovering Chapman’s work, it’s clouded by the fact that, as a Black queer woman, Chapman, 59, would have almost zero chance of that achievement herself in country music.”

Yahr interviewed Black individuals working in the music industry, who expressed mixed feelings about the situation: They are glad to see Chapman’s music receiving recognition and exerting influence, but they also feel “uneasy” about Combs’ overwhelming success in light of his white male identity.

“On one hand, Luke Combs is an amazing artist, and it’s great to see that someone in country music is influenced by a Black queer woman — that’s really exciting,” Holly G, founder of the Black country music organization Black Opry, told Yahr. “But at the same time, it’s hard to really lean into that excitement knowing that Tracy Chapman would not be celebrated in the industry without that kind of middleman being a white man.”

What has been the response?

Some have pushed back against the perspective expressed in Yahr’s article, arguing that it turns what should simply be a cause for celebration into a debate unnecessarily focused on race.

In a commentary piece for the Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf wrote that he was “concerned about (Yahr) overemphasizing racial identity” in her argument.

He cited Chapman’s individual success and the fact that she is not a country singer in arguing that “to choose the ‘Fast Car’ news peg for an exploration of queer Black exclusion forces the article to proceed not with real stories of the dynamics of race and sexual orientation in country music, but with speculative hypotheticals about how it feels like identity functions.”

However, others expressed agreement with Yahr and dissatisfaction with the dominance of whiteness and maleness in the country music industry.

“POC and women rarely get any play on country stations,” one person commented on Yahr’s article. “I was listening to OKQ this morning, and they played 5 male artists before they played a female artist. It grinds my gears that Luke Combs remade a song that was near-perfect, and now it’s getting a ton of play. Every time I hear the remake, I wish I were hearing the original.”

Richard Cooper, African American studies program coordinator at Widener University, feels positively about Combs’ success since it sparked a wave of appreciation for, and attention on, Chapman's work.

“I’m just happy that Tracy is getting the recognition and the money for her work,” he told TODAY.com. (Combs confirmed Chapman was receiving royalties for the cover in an interview with Grady Smith).

Looking ahead, Cooper is interested to see what happens on Combs’ end.

“The question is: one would think at some venue somewhere, some day, that either they would perform together (or) she would open for him – some kind of collab,” he said.

Combs’ manager, Chris Kappy, told Billboard Combs would be "more than excited" to sing with Chapman. As of the 2024 Grammys, that collaboration took place.

Cooper said “it’s important” to have conversations about race in light of the history of racial marginalization in the music industry, and white artists getting success for Black artists' work.

“These kinds of debates, I think, are great because they give an opportunity to raise the larger questions about the fact that, in terms of airplay on largely country stations, you’re not going to see Black women — Black queer women — get that kind of exposure or airplay had they released just the original song,” Cooper said. “So these conversations are important to have.

This article was originally published on TODAY.com