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What Inspired “Fast Car” by Tracy Chapman?

What Inspired “Fast Car” by Tracy Chapman?

It might come as a surprise, but Tracy Chapman’s song Fast Car isn’t about a vehicle. Instead, the tune details the life of a woman in a relationship constantly facing challenges. 

Much of Chapman’s success is due to the song’s popularity and listeners’ ability to relate to it. Challenges are a common part of life, and overcoming them can be difficult.

Join us as we dive into the details of Fast Car and discover if it’s based on a true story.

Let’s check it out!

Who Originally Wrote Fast Car?

Tracy Chapman wrote the lyrics to Fast Car and was the first to perform and record the song. However, it wasn’t the first tune she wrote or performed. Chapman fell in love with music at a young age while growing up in Ohio. Her parents divorced when she was four, and she was raised by her mom.

She attended Tufts University and graduated with a B.A. in Anthropology and African Studies. Tracy frequently performed for tips in Harvard Square and other public venues. 

However, when she opened for Linda Tillery, she started making progress in her career. A fellow Tufts University student saw her perform and introduced her to his father, Charles Koppelman, who ran SBK Publishing. In 1986, Koppelman signed Chapman and, the following year, helped her sign with Elektra Records. Once with Elektra, Tracy released her self-titled album in 1988, which included Fast Car. 

Chapman was invited to perform at Nelson Mandela’s 70th birthday tribute at Wembley Stadium in June 1988. Her set was fairly short, but she came back on stage during a mishap with Stevie Wonder’s band. During the technical difficulties, Chapman played Fast Car for the audience. It immediately rocketed on music charts in London and the United States.

What Was Tracy Chapman’s Inspiration for Fast Car?

Chapman said she believes she wrote Fast Car in 1986. She states she didn’t write it with a particular couple in mind but now believes her parent’s relationship likely inspired the lyrics. Tracy saw them struggle through challenges and ultimately divorce. This event played a significant role in shaping her life.

Like the couple in the song, her parents met young and had lots of bright dreams for the future. However, they had limited education and resources. It was challenging for her dad to create the life the couple had dreamed of for themselves and her mom was nervous about taking the risk of leaving home.

Chapman’s life experience and upbringing likely played a major role in writing such a relatable song. Listeners from all demographics and backgrounds have commented how it was like she wrote the song specifically for them.

Was Fast Car a Hit Song?

After performing the song at Nelson Mandella’s birthday celebration, it took off like a rocket. Chapman was nominated and won multiple awards for the song. Fast Car won the Billboard Music Awards Best Female Video, and her album won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album.

Fast Car was an instant success for Chapman. It reached #1 on charts in Belgium, Canada, Ireland, Netherlands, and Portugal. However, in the United States, its highest position was #6. Despite not reaching #1, the song was a great boost for Chapman’s career and helped her attract a lot of attention.

Who Has Covered Fast Car?

Some say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. If that’s the case, Tracy should feel flattered. Multiple artists have covered Fast Car over the past few decades and introduced it to new generations of listeners. It’s still a relevant song today.

Tobtok Featuring River

In 2015, Swedish DJ and music producer Tobtok released a tropical version of Fast Car featuring British singer River. While the cover didn’t overshadow the original, it was popular in Australia. 

Tobtok’s version has a bit more exciting and pop sound than the original. It sounds like something you’d hear sitting by the pool sipping an ice-cold drink. Some could argue the techno backings distract listeners from the story the lyrics are trying to tell.


British musician Birdy performed the song on BBC Radio 1’s Live Lounge in 2016. Her version was soft and slow, much like the original. However, Birdy exchanged the guitar riffs for a piano backing. 

In addition, Birdy takes notes higher and emphasizes portions of the song with tonal inflections to put her distinct touch on the tune. Birdy makes it her own without changing the arrangement drastically.

Black Pumas

In June 2020, the Black Pumas released their version of Fast Car as a single. Their rendition sticks relatively close to the original but utilizes multiple guitars. The guitarists pick the strings for most of the song, giving it a more bluesy feel. 

The palm mutes in the bridge help the listener to feel the emotion behind the lyrics. And the soulful singing provides a very similar sound to Chapman’s original inflections. 

What is Tracy Chapman Doing Now?

Despite not playing a dominant role in the music industry in recent years, Chapman is still active. In 2015 she released a greatest hits album and said in an interview that she has yet to retire from music. However, she hasn’t ruled out a future album or tour.

Chapman has done an incredible job separating her personal and professional life over the years, which is likely why we don’t see much of her. She once told the Irish Time, “Being in the public eye and under the glare of the spotlight was, and it still is, to some extent, uncomfortable for me, but there are some ways by which everything that has happened in my life has prepared me for this career.”

Hardships Help Create Great Lyrics

Fast Car has an instantly recognizable riff that makes you want to roll the windows down and enjoy the wind in your hair. Many people can relate to her inspiration for the song in their personal experiences.  

While Chapman hasn’t released anything new in years, there’s a chance it’s not the last we’ve heard from her. And we welcome the possibility of fresh material from this talented artist.  

Are you a fan of Tracy Chapman and Fast Car? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

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