Fast Car, originally composed and performed by Tracy Chapman in 1988, is a contemporary song that has captured the hearts of audiences of all ages around the world for decades. In this piece, the persona takes the listener on not only a physical, but also on an emotional and imaginative journey, as she tells us her story of desperate hope to escape the place she lives in order to make a better life for herself elsewhere, and the obstacles she must overcome to do so.
Through this text, Chapman effectively communicates that searching for something better is often the reason we embark on a journey, as well as exploring the fact that taking a physical journey does not always mean that we escape the problems that exist in our life. She also conveys that even though a journey may not have given you what you thought it would, it will often bring newfound maturity, sense of reality and greater understanding of life.
The lyrics in the first three stanzas especially help describe the fact that searching for something better in life is often the reason we choose to take a journey. Lines such as ‘I want a ticket to anywhere’, ‘anyplace is better’ and ‘finally see what it means to be living’ demonstrate the extremity of her need to get out of wherever she is and start a new life. It is also through these colloquial expressions that a lack of education is implied, along with introducing the possibility of a poverty stricken environment which reinforces her desperation to get away.
With the use of the adverb ‘anywhere’ and the pronoun ‘anyplace’ in these lines, the broad spectrum of the persona’s imagination is successfully offered. ‘Starting from zero, got nothing to lose’ also depicts that she feels as if she’s got nothing worthwhile to leave behind because of her dead end situation, and she can’t go anywhere but forward. The cumulation of plans that the persona has made in the second stanza adds a tone of excitement and optimism, and reinforces her hopeful and eager attitude towards the journey that lay before her.
A sense of wanderlust is portrayed here, too, as she is longing so greatly for places she has never been. The third stanza is depicted as a main reason why the persona wants to leave her town; she is certain that she wants a life nothing like her parents’. This stanza is also the only one that doesn’t begin with ‘you got a fast car’. This break in the cycle demands the listener’s attention so that they are forced to understand the importance of it. The chorus of this song really emphasises the freedom that the character feels.
The ‘fast car’ is a metaphorical symbol of leaving behind her old life and ‘speeding’ towards what she thinks will await better opportunities. All her life the persona has felt a great want to fit it, to feel like she had a purpose. In the line ‘I had a feeling that I belonged, I had a feeling I could be someone’, we are shown that she finally feels comfortable and has developed the sense of identity that she longed for; that things are for once, acting in her favour.
This piece also presents the idea that taking a physical journey does not always mean that we escape the problems that exist in our life, which is shown in the disintegration of hope once the characters reach the physical destination of their journey, as they slowly begin discover it is not as great as they originally thought it was going to be. In the 6th stanza, the boyfriend is unemployed and they both live in a shelter, which is something neither of them planned. Nevertheless, there is still a huge sense of optimism portrayed here through the certainty of the way the persona says ‘I know things will get better’.
The verb ‘know’ is a very strong word that effectively communicates the composer’s point, that there are no maybes about it, she is SURE that things will start to look up soon. This comment also implies to the listener that this song with be conclude with a resolved ending. In the next stanza, though, her hope takes a turn for the worst as her life plummets further and further away from where she wants to be. This is portrayed in the vast contrast of her description of amazing hope at the beginning of the song, to her growingly sceptical view of the situation that she encompasses now.
This is also shown as vicious and familiar habits begin to form as the persona’s boyfriend starts mirroring the actions of her father. By this stage the persona and her partner have had kids, and through the line ‘you stay out drinking late at the bar, see more of your friends than you do of your kids’ the original statement that taking a physical journey does not always mean escaping problems in our life, is reinforced be the use of the repetitive cycle that what she was running away has secretly followed her.
The use of the word ‘you’ in this piece is also very deliberate. The composer has purposely made the persona speak directly to her partner and not about him, which are the subtle first foundations of conveying to the audience that he is the one with the problem, not the physical place in which they live. Lastly, Chapman illustrates that even though a journey may not have given you what you thought it would, it will often bring newfound maturity, sense of reality and greater understanding of life.
Throughout the whole song, the persona is shown as being very determined, and capable of taking charge when it comes to her want for a more fulfilling life. She’s the one who initiates the plan and originally and gets the job at the convenience store, she makes the money to get out of there, then gets another job where she now lives and manages to pay all the bills and look after the kids on her own. As the end of the song draws near and the persona’s hope diminishes, her strength and determination are really accented as she begins speaking in past tense.
As the persona realises that she’s ended up with the nearly identical life of her mother, the composer incorporates past tense verbs such as ‘hoped’, ‘thought’ and ‘would’ to make the listener realise that this journey is not going to have a resolved, happily ever after conclusion after all. She then goes on to say ‘I got no plans I aint going nowhere, so take your fast car and keep on driving’ which is her way of standing her ground and making him leave. She contrasts her mother this way, as she has the strength and realisation to get rid of the problem that was dragging her down, rather than just walking away.
The very last stanza is different to all the others like it, instead of saying ‘we’, she says ‘you’ in all the lines, jerking us all awake as another change in the previously repetitive cycle occurs. The intensity of this statement effectively allows the song to hit home as it strongly conveys to the listener the newfound maturity and reinforced strength of the persona. Although this journey may not have brought her what she originally hoped for, the bad experiences that it gave her allowed her to grow up emotionally, while casting out her naivety as she developed an understanding of how the real world works.
Through this song ‘Fast Car’ Tracy Chapman effectively offers the idea that often the reason we embark on a journey is because we are searching for something better, while also exploring the fact that taking a physical journey does not always mean that we escape the problems that exist in our life and that even though a journey may not have given you what you thought it would, it will often bring newfound maturity, sense of reality and greater understanding of life