Listening to Tracy Chapman is an experience, both personal and political. I remember “Fast Car” blaring from every TV and car speaker, fast or slow, for the majority of 1988 and 1989, though I was too young to grasp its profound lyric then. (A dance remix of the song still plays regularly in my gym but I refuse to recognize it as reality.)
I remember watching Tracy Chapman perform the song on the 1989 Grammys too. She stood on the big stage alone, wearing all black—a simple turtleneck and jeans— and holding an acoustic guitar that occasionally caught the spotlight and reflected it back at the audience. None of the typical pageantry associated with pop, none of the spectacle of rock. Simple, yet strong and vulnerable simultaneously. She defied the music industry’s expectations.
With small hoop earrings and a bare face, she exuded a no-frills energy that drew me in: her hair, short twisted dreadlocks brushing against her forehead; her now easily-identifiable signature contralto croon—a mix of masculine and feminine that didn’t even pretend to care about either side of that binary. She was just telling a story through her song and I was transfixed.
Music was my favorite escape as a shy kid. I could turn on a song, close my eyes, melt into the music, and imagine myself wherever I wanted to be—anywhere different than exactly where I was. My childhood was fine, not necessarily happy. I always felt different, like I didn’t belong. I grew up in small-town Utah, Mormon country. And I liked other boys. The way I felt inside never matched the way everyone told me I was supposed to be or feel.
The first time music saved me, it was Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors.” Cyndi Lauper represented the freaks and the weirdos, the ones that didn’t belong. I felt like the discouraged one “with the sad eyes” she was singing to in “True Colors.” She could see my true colors and said it didn’t matter if they didn’t match the colors around me—blending in wasn’t the only option. I watched her move through music videos sporting multi-colored hair and thrift-store clothes, embodying what it meant to be “beautiful like a rainbow.”
The same goosebumps “True Colors” gave me rushed back as I watched Tracy Chapman break into the chorus of “Fast Car” all alone on that Grammys stage. My life was different from the details she was singing, but I too wanted to be someone; I wanted to belong. I wanted to feel the rush of escape and the hope, possibility of a different world just around a corner if I could only drive fast enough to reach it. And the conviction of her performance, the truth in her voice gave me permission, made it so.
Cyndi Lauper was my childhood example of cool, but Tracy Chapman, with just six strings and a voice, became my childhood definition of brave. In equal parts, they helped me build a home.
Tracy Chapman and Cyndi Lauper both espouse a queer aesthetic in almost opposite ways. Neither publicly identify as LGBTQ either. Lauper is heterosexual, married with a son. She’s cultivated a huge queer following, though, given the themes and campy nature of her music, videos, and style. Her outsider, rebel aesthetic draws specifically from LGBTQ+ culture, and Lauper unapologetically celebrates drag, queer relationships, and advocates LGBTQ+ issues in her music and political activism.
Chapman has never “come out” per se, but she’s long had romantic relationships with women, including a notable coupling with author Alice Walker in the 1990s. Her style and presentation has always been simple and androgynous; her voice sits between stereotypically identifiable “male” and “female” ranges. She maintains strict divisions between her public and private lives, and has never claimed a lesbian identity publicly. But the absence of any “coming out” declaration is also decidedly queer—fluttering between definitions and limits.
A queer aesthetic, appeal, presentation has nothing to do with actual identification but with what both Chapman and Lauper mark as possible. They create spaces that welcome and expand rather than exclude or deny. They focus on doing rather than being, queerness as action and not simply as identity. Neither was the first to do any of this, but Chapman and Lauper proved an unlikely 1980s queer duo that empowered a confused kid in ways that continue to reverberate and teach the grown me how to live.
Whereas Lauper’s style is outrageous—over the top, loud vintage fashion paired with punk hair and makeup, Chapman scales back to a bare, almost ascetic minimum. Where Lauper’s voice is hyper-feminine, a high brash soprano capable of ridiculously piercing sometimes uncomfortable high notes, Chapman sings in a soothing contralto whose wavelengths maintain decidedly mezzo levels. Cyndi Lauper wakes you up; Tracy Chapman lulls you to sleep.
“Fast Car” and “True Colors” are unlikely queer bedfellows as well. Both songs address larger socio-political issues, but at their core they create/expose connections between folks that have been marginalized for one reason or another. They touch one another across genre, from different directions.
The day after Trump was (illegitimately) elected president, I woke up early for work. I’d tossed and turned through 4ish hours of fitful sleep after desperately refreshing social media accounts, scrolling through TV news stations, hoping the results coming in were somehow incorrect or could be undone. I drove in a daze, on autopilot for the 40 miles from apartment to place of employment. My iPod was plugged into the car stereo, set to random. I don’t remember what played for the majority of the ride. Then, out of nowhere, “Fast Car” began and broke me down completely.
At the first hammer-on strike of guitar strings, my eyes swelled with tears. Luckily, I was near the destination. I glided off the highway, down a twisting New Jersey local road and into my parking space. I took my hands off the wheel, didn’t even have time to shut the car off before the flood gates broke. I sobbed while Tracy Chapman’s lyrics pored over me. When they were done, I played the song over again. And again. And again.
Though “Fast Car” is one particular story, it’s also the story of anyone contained by circumstance but dreaming and hoping for better. Unlike “True Colors,” where Lauper validates our true colors by seeing something in us that we ourselves can’t see, “Fast Car” systematically mines an innate power from our core, sung first-person. It’s about our decisions, choices; our hopes and dreams. It’s not about being seen; it’s about seeing ourselves and know we deserve to be seen.
On the dawn of that post-election day, “Fast Car” voiced a desire for escape in me of a different kind from my childhood. Not from a hometown or a religion to somewhere around a corner where I could finally feel more like myself, but escape from the political nightmare playing out in real time. And I felt the words again just as deeply as that kid watching the Grammys in 1989.
I lost track of time while sobbing over my steering wheel, literally sitting in a car but unable to drive fast enough in any direction to escape what was happening all around me. Nearly 30 years after the song’s release, “Fast Car” still drove home a poignant ultimatum: “We gotta make a decision / Leave tonight or live and die this way.”
Trump’s presidency starkly delineates a space, an administration, a world, where so many of us don’t belong and will not belong in the future. It’s not new, but it’s more explicitly exposed. And in my parked car that day, it hit me anew: the real answer is between the words of Chapman’s lyric. We do have to make a decision, but escape or status quo aren’t the only options. To “finally see what it means to be living” isn’t to run away—it’s to change the immediate circumstances that prevent some of us from thriving. None of us will really belong until everyone belongs. None of us will be anyone until every one of us is someone.
I knew this. I had known this. But lessons you’ve already learned often like to hide as time passes, fade into the background. Tracy Chapman and “Fast Car” gave me hope as a kid. The home both Tracy Chapman and Cyndi Lauper helped me build was wherever I stood, not a fantasy existing in some imagined place or future. The feeling the songs elicited didn’t push recognition into an unknown future. My true colors were now. My fast car had already arrived. The home they helped me build was one I’d carried with me, one I still carry with me.
That day in my own car, “Fast Car” broke me because I needed breaking in order to refocus on the spaces between the words. That day in my own car, “Fast Car” broke me, but it also saved me one more time. It told me I’m not alone; we’re not alone: “maybe together we can get somewhere.” We’re “[s]tarting from zero got nothing to lose” so we might as well fuck some shit up while we’re here. We can run away or we can make this place better for all of us. Let’s make that feeling of belonging, that feeling of possibility a reality for everyone. Not a destination we might reach, but a home we carry with us.