Child Abuse Commentary Emotional abuse Opinion

Fast Car, by Tracy Chapman — It’s even darker than you thought.

Most people realize that the song is not about the car. It’s about the narrator’s living conditions: Poverty, despair and the desire to escape it. It’s also about the generational cycles of the very poor and a doomed relationship.


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Fast Car is a Grammy Award winner (1989).

It has been covered by several artists, the latest being Luke Combs.

By the summer of 2023, Luke Combs went to No. 1 on the Country Airplay chart and No. 2 on the Hot 100 with his cover of “Fast Car.’ Featured on his fourth album, Gettin’ Old, “Fast Car” was more than another cover song for the country singer, who shared that he would listen to the Chapman hit, and her entire debut album, while driving around with his father in a beat-up 1988 Ford F-150.

Most people realize that the song is not about the car. It is about the narrator and her living conditions: Poverty and despair and the desire to escape it. It is also about the generational cycles of the very poor.

You got a fast car
I want a ticket to anywhere
Maybe we make a deal
Maybe together we can get somewhere
Any place is better
Starting from zero, got nothing to lose
Maybe we’ll make something
Me, myself, I got nothing to prove


You got a fast car
I got a plan to get us out of here
I been working at the convenience store
Managed to save just a little bit of money
Won’t have to drive too far
Just ‘cross the border and into the city
You and I can both get jobs
And finally see what it means to be living

The first hint is in the following verse. Her dad is a drunk whose wife has left him and the narrator. Whether his drinking is the cause of her leaving or vice versa isn’t clear. What is clear is that the wife didn’t take her daughter with her.

See, my old man’s got a problem
He lives with the bottle, that’s the way it is
He says his body’s too old for working
His body’s too young to look like his
My mama went off and left him
She wanted more from life than he could give
I said, somebody’s got to take care of him
So I quit school and that’s what I did

While there is no indication that the narrator and her father were on welfare at the time, the last two lines reveal her descent into enablership. He didn’t need to be taken care of; he needed to get sober.

You got a fast car
Is it fast enough so we can fly away?
We gotta make a decision
Leave tonight or live and die this way


So I remember 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
And I-I, had a feeling that I belonged
I-I had a feeling I could be someone, be someone, be someone.

Somewhere she hooked up with the owner of the car, who already shows some potential red flags — which she doesn’t see because he makes her feel special, like she could “be someone.”

They make the jump to the city. (If the father is dead, it isn’t stated.)

You got a fast car
We go cruising to entertain ourselves
You still ain’t got a job
And I work in a market as a checkout girl
I know things will get better
You’ll find work and I’ll get promoted
We’ll move out of the shelter
Buy a bigger house and live in the suburbs

This verse indicates that they live in a homeless shelter and that she got a job as a cashier, while he hasn’t done squat. Red Flag, but again she doesn’t notice.

Later, in another verse, we see that she’s been pregnant several times by this guy, but that she’s  risen high enough to pay their bills by herself:

You got a fast car
I got a job that pays all our bills
You stay out drinking late at the bar
See more of your friends than you do of your kids
I’d always hoped for better
Thought maybe together you and me would find it
I got no plans, I ain’t going nowhere
So take your fast car and keep on driving

So, she’s basically married a twin of her father. And she’s been enabling him to not straighten up and amount to something.  She’s been caring for him now for years. He seems fine with the situation.

There’s also an implied warning: she is running out of patience with him. The first time she says “We’ve got to make a decision.” But the final verse is somewhat different.

You got a fast car
Is it fast enough so you can fly away?
You gotta make a decision
Leave tonight or live and die this way

A failed relationship that started for the wrong reasons, as Tracy herself has said. She said it’s not autobiographical, even though she did grow up near Cleveland, OH to a single mother.. Did the ‘Fast Car’ owner wake up and make amends, or did the narrator become yet another single mother? The song doesn’t say definitively whether things got better —

or worse…?


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