How an Unscheduled, Last Minute Performance of “Fast Car” Shot Tracy Chapman to Stardom in 1988

And the award for the first Black song­writer to win Song of the Year at the Coun­try Music Awards goes to Tra­cy Chap­man …for a tune that trans­fixed mil­lions of row­dy con­cert­go­ers when she sang it at Wem­b­ley Sta­di­um 35 years ear­li­er (see above.)

At the time of that per­for­mance, Chap­man was just 24, near­ly a decade younger than 33-year-old Luke Combs, the coun­try super­star whose recent cov­er was a mas­sive hit.

“Fast Car” was not just a star-mak­ing turn at Wem­b­ley. It was a last minute, unsched­uled one.

Chap­man had already per­formed her 3‑song set at that day’s celebri­ty-stud­ded Nel­son Man­dela 70th Birth­day Trib­ute con­cert, sand­wiched between Stephen Fry and Hugh Lau­rie’s com­e­dy act and pro­to­typ­i­cal­ly 80s Scot­tish soft rock­ers Wet Wet Wet.

Her 3‑song set list was in keep­ing with the nature of the event, which helped speed the anti-apartheid activist and future South African pres­i­dent’s release from prison, and was described by music jour­nal­ist Robin Denselow, as “a more polit­i­cal ver­sion of Live Aid, with the aim of rais­ing con­scious­ness rather than just mon­ey:”


Behind the Wall

Talkin’ Bout a Rev­o­lu­tion

The audi­ence got to hear “Fast Car” thanks to the unwit­ting involve­ment of sur­prise guest Ste­vie Won­der.

The R&B great went to Wem­b­ley Sta­di­um straight from the air­port, unaware that his syn­clavier’s hard disc, con­tain­ing all the syn­the­sized music for his act, had not made the trip.

This colos­sal over­sight was only dis­cov­ered when he was head­ing toward the stage. Unwill­ing, or pos­si­bly too over­whelmed to come up with a workaround, he declined to go on, leav­ing orga­niz­ers scram­bling for an artist who could hus­tle to the mic to fill time.

Chap­man and her solo gui­tar must have struck them as a tech­ni­cal­ly uncom­pli­cat­ed solu­tion.

No one can fault her for seem­ing a bit breath­less at first. How often is an emerg­ing singer-song­writer called upon to save the day by step­ping into a legend’s shoes?

With­in a year, Chap­man was named Best New Artist at the Gram­my Awards, and “Fast Car,” which she per­formed at the cer­e­mo­ny, earned her “Best Pop Vocal Per­for­mance Female”. (Song of the Year went to Bob­by McFerrin’s “Don’t Wor­ry Be Hap­py,” a cul­tur­al jug­ger­naut of a dif­fer­ent stripe.)

A few days ago, Chap­man reprised “Fast Car” at the 2024 Gram­mys as a duet with Combs, an inter­pre­ta­tion that impressed the New York Times’ pop music crit­ic Lind­say Zoladz as “wel­com­ing and expan­sive enough to hold every sin­gle per­son (the song) had ever touched, regard­less of the mark­ers of iden­ti­ty that so often divide us:”

It was a rare reminder of music’s unique abil­i­ty to oblit­er­ate exter­nal dif­fer­ences. “Fast Car” is about some­thing more inter­nal and uni­ver­sal. It is a song about the wants and needs that make us human: the desire to be hap­py, to be loved, to be free.

That’s cer­tain­ly one inter­pre­ta­tion, but per­haps the artist who wrote it should have the final word:

I nev­er had a Fast Car, it’s just a sto­ry about a cou­ple, how they are try­ing to make a life togeth­er and they face chal­lenges…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… And about how when they met each oth­er they were very young and they want­ed to start a new life togeth­er and my moth­er was anx­ious to leave home. My par­ents got mar­ried and went out into the world to try to make a place for them­selves and it was very dif­fi­cult going.

My moth­er didn’t have a high school diplo­ma and my father was a few years old­er. It was hard for him to cre­ate the kind of life that he dreamed of… With the edu­ca­tion that he had…. With the oppor­tu­ni­ties that were avail­able to him… In a sense I think they came togeth­er think­ing that togeth­er they would have a bet­ter chance at mak­ing it.

– Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo and Cre­ative, Not Famous Activ­i­ty Book. Fol­low her @AyunHallidayOver and out. 

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  • Michel Marques says:

    “regard­less of the mark­ers of iden­ti­ty that so often divide us”
    “Fast Car” is about some­thing more inter­nal and uni­ver­sal.”

    This is just out­ra­geous.

    The strug­gles that the song por­tray are not shared by “all of us”, they are par­tic­u­lar to cer­tain groups whose exis­tence the crit­ic tries to oblit­er­ate with their com­ments. It’s song about social injus­tice. This is not “if you hap­py and you notice clap your hands”.

  • Michel Marques says:

    * hap­py and you know it

  • Lee Hauser says:

    No, sor­ry. Cer­tain­ly Tra­cy’s song address­es a cer­tain sit­u­a­tion that was part of her upbring­ing and her fam­i­ly’s social sit­u­a­tion. But the themes of the song are indeed shared by every­one: we’ve all been in sit­u­a­tions we want­ed to escape from; we’ve all had dreams of a bet­ter life; we’ve all been dis­ap­point­ed by those we love, and dis­ap­point­ed them in return; we’ve all been resigned, at some point, to our lives being what they are.

  • Eve Hinesley says:

    Great arti­cle by your very best contributor/writer — Ayun Hal­l­i­day!

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