The Bittersweet Meaning Of Tracy Chapman's "Fast Car" Sunday September 17 2023, 1:15 PM
Yona Marie
Singer, Songwriter, Producer.
The Bittersweet Meaning Of Tracy Chapman's "Fast Car"

"Fast Car" Meaning

Within the last year or two, I got a chance to discover and sing this song for a community event, and boy, did it change my life when I dove into learning and interpreting the song as I prepared for my performance. 

Of course, this song was a mega success, but it somehow wasn't on my radar fully until recently. It received widespread critical acclaim and won the Grammy Award for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance in 1989; I was born in '91, so that's part of my excuse!

I had heard the hook of this song for years, but I listened to it and really let this song resonate within my soul once someone suggested that I sing a cover of it. 

This song's universal themes and emotional resonance have made it a timeless favorite among music lovers, and it continues to be celebrated and appreciated by new generations of listeners.

Overall, "Fast Car" is a folk-rock song that tells the story of a young woman looking for an escape from her difficult life, but the way the story unfolds in the verses, along with the upbeat yet haunting simplicity of the guitar can really put you in the shoes of the song's main character. 

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The Story Behind The Songwriting 

Tracy Chapman is the type of artist who lets her work speak for itself, which it does beautifully when you take a deeper look into the lyrics. 

But thankfully, with a few interviews, she's given us fans some interesting insight into her songwriting process here as well. 

She said the following in a BBC interview:

"It very generally represents the world that I saw when I was growing up and Cleveland, Ohio, coming from a working-class background, being raised by a single mom, and being in a community of people who were struggling," she said. "Everyone was working hard and hoping that things would get better."

According to her, the story wasn't really about her life, but was subconsciously about the lives she saw around her as a child, and the life of her own parents. 

What's very interesting about it is how the lyrics flowed through her in this lens that was so relatable to others, but was seemingly unintentional. 

In an interview with the Canadian station “CIDR – The River", she said the following:

"At the time that I wrote the song, I actually didn’t really know who I was writing about. Looking back at it, and this happens with other songs as well, that I feel like I understand it only later…I think that it was a song about my parents."

After the song became such a huge hit, she said that fans would often tell her that it seemed like she was speaking directly to them about their personal life struggles when she penned these lyrics. 


Lyrical Breakdown

You got a fast carAnd I want a ticket to anywhere

The repeated phrase of her lover having a fast car starts out as an exciting prospect for her to move ahead in life, start fresh, and become someone better. 

The first verse talks about how it's very exciting to be young, in love, and starting everything from scratch. It seems she and her lover are in a poor area right outside of the city, dreaming of moving there and starting a new life fresh, away from poverty. 

Won't have to drive too farJust across the border and into the cityYou and I can both get jobsFinally, see what it means to be living

In the next verse, the narrator describes knowing what it's like having to take care of a parent with an addiction problem. While her mother was tired of her drunk father, Tracy decided to stick by him and care for him. 

This is where we realize that Tracy's character is a huge giver, which may be to her demise as the story progresses. 

Mama went off and left himShe wanted more from life than he could giveI said, somebody's got to take care of himSo, I quit school and that's what I did


The hook comes in for the first time soon after, allowing Tracy's character to soak up the memories of good times in the fast car, feeling free, and being loved. 

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City lights lay out before usAnd your arm felt nice wrapped around my shoulderAnd I, I, I had a feeling that I belongedI, I, I had a feeling I could be someone, be someone, be someone

The first time the chorus is sung, it gives you a sense of wonder. But as it keeps coming back, you realize that the feeling she had that she could be someone is slowly fading away because of how much she gives and gives without receiving in return. 

In a later verse, Tracy and her lover are still trying to make it, but they are going through setbacks despite the fact that she is still hopeful. 

You still ain't got a jobSo I work in a market as a checkout girlI know things will get betterYou'll find work and I'll get promoted

In the final verse, the story gets even more depressing quite fast, and you find out that while Tracy is still dreaming of a better life, her partner is holding her back big time. 

You got a fast carI got a job that pays all our billsYou stay out drinking late at the barSee more of your friends than you do of your kids


The fast car started as a beacon of hope in the song, but now we see that it seems to be all that her lover has going for him. 

My favorite part is where she flips the idea of the misleading fast car back into what can be a symbol of hope and a catalyst for change. In the end, she speaks to her audience, encouraging them not to fall for what she did. 

You got a fast carIs it fast enough so you can fly away?You gotta make a decisionLeave tonight, or live and die this way

Years and years of being someone who pours into the cup of others without being poured into can leave you miserable, as we all know. So, in your own toxic situation, will you find the strength to leave in the early part of your story, or will you live and die this way? 

As the guitar strums on to the end, you really sit back and get lost in the thought of it, especially if this song speaks to you personally. 

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Yona Marie

As a session singer, writer, and producer that has worked with over 300 clients to provide high-quality jingles, singles, and features, Yona spends her time creating and marketing new music and helpful resources for creators. Check out Yona’s latest releases on her Spotify, her Youtube and share if you like it!

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