I learned to drive in my mom’s minivan. It might have been the same old white Toyota my mom had long driven me to school in, but when I was behind the wheel, that minivan became an entirely different vehicle (and safety risk). But no matter who was driving, we would always turn the volume dial all the way to the right as soon as we heard the first note of the guitar riff that would inevitably lead to us screaming, “You’ve got a fast car…”
“Fast Car” was first released in 1988, right around when my mom was first learning to drive. It’s since gained significant popularity nearly forty years later, when country singer Luke Combs released a cover of the eponymous car ride anthem on his 2023 album, “Getting’ Old.” With country songs continuing to top charts throughout the U.S., Combs’ cover hit number one on the country billboards making Chapman the first Black female solo songwriter to claim that spot. It was a historic occasion, given the longstanding underrepresentation of Black women in commercial country, despite their significant legacy defining the genre. But while Chapman’s lyrics might be having a modern heyday, remaining number six on the iTunes top chart, the current revival is rather divorced from the original song.
Chapman’s original “Fast Car” became a pop hit soon after it was released in the late 80s, nominated for three Grammys and reaching the US Billboard Top 100. While primarily recognized as a single, the deeper meaning of the song lies within the context of Chapman’s politically charged self–titled debut album from which it was originally released.
Opening with “Talking ‘bout a Revolution”, the album frames itself as a call for social action, discussing domestic violence in “Behind the Wall,” racial division in “Across the Lines,” and materialism in “Mountains o’ Things.” There are even references of queerness in “For My Lover,” as Chapman croons, “Two weeks in a Virginia jail, for my lover,” a nod to the fact homosexuality was a criminal offense in Virginia when the song was written. The album is rooted within its particular socio–cultural period, and “Fast Car” can hardly be separated from the political consciousness surrounding it.
Paired with a haunting acoustic backing, “Fast Car” constructs a narrative of a young girl working at a rural convenience store with hopes that she can find a better life with her lover, drive away from all her problems, and finally have autonomy. While it may be about a romantic relationship, it’s far from a love song, each verse instead centered on the idea of capital and dreams. The song can be interpreted as a condemnation of the American Dream, as the narrator is unable to claim the world she believed her fast car would deliver her.
Chapman’s “Fast Car” tells an even more specific story for queer people of color, sidelined within the context of the time period. While Chapman never confirmed her sexuality, her relationships with women have become common culture knowledge and “Fast Car” has easily become a lesbian anthem.
Contextualized by queerness, “Fast Car” reveals another potential interpretation about the inability of queer minorities to protect their love against the economic and social barriers that undermine their dreams. The lyrics, “We'll move out of the shelter / Buy a bigger house and live in the suburbs” take on a fatalistic meaning; despite the narrator’s hopes and work to find a better life for herself and her lover, that pinnacle of the American Dream was not created with her in mind. All there is to do is “keep on driving.”
But, what happens to that longing when a happily married white man covers “Fast Car”? Combs’ cover has garnered plenty of controversy as people have compared it to Elvis Presley’s appropriation of Big Mama Thornton’s "Hound Dog" and part of the historical co–opting of music by people of color.
Others have pushed back, denying the role of race in this modern homage to Chapman’s timeless lyrics. The song ultimately, is also about class, alcoholism, and yearning, themes that anyone, including Combs can relate to. It’s important to note when considering the historical context that Chapman has publicly approved Combs’ cover and received plenty of benefits from the modern revival including nearly half a million in royalties.
There’s no doubt, Combs reveres “Fast Car” as a song he and his father played growing up. Combs replicates Chapman’s words to precision, so faithful as to call himself a “checkout girl”, which can either be read as a subversion of traditional gender lyric swap or more pragmatically a means of covering the song without acquiring permissions from Chapman. Moving the piece from folk to country, his main changes include replacing Chapman’s eponymous finger–picking with straight chords, speeding up the song, and adding female backing vocals to the chorus.
Combs’ “Fast Car” exists within a very different context from the original. Unlike Chapman, who built her discography off of scathing social commentary even when it threatened her commercial success, Combs has described himself as a “people–pleaser” who steers away from politics. In essence, when sang by Combs, the societal critique that permeates all of Chapman’s works is erased and stripped of political power.
Combs lives the reality that “Fast Car” yearns for. He’s raising two kids in a suburban household with the same “really fun, and normal childhood” that characterized his own upbringing. So, the longing for the American Dream that defines “Fast Car” means something entirely different in his voice. When Chapman sang about the suburbs, it was a pipe dream; for Combs, it’s reality.
While songs aren’t inherently autobiographical, the voices that give them life and their background create interpretations. In the case of “Fast Car,” Combs’ cover strips the original of the social and political frustration that originally contextualized its meaning. Any remake will lend a new voice to an old song. But when the meaning of a song is so rooted in who the words come from, the song becomes something different. From the underlying message of queerness to the condemnation of the American Dream, so much of “Fast Car’s” power is tied to who Tracy Chapman is as an artist. That’s something Combs' can’t replicate.
Luke Combs' cover of "Fast Car" raises questions on what it means to cover a song, and reclaim someone else’s lyrics for your own rendition. It’s one thing to sing “Fast Car” at a concert, but there’s a new implication when you release a song under your own name on an album. The song takes on a new life to be purchased, streamed, and played on radios again and again as the song continues to grow in popularity.
Forty years after the original, the Combs' version could very well be younger generations’ only association with “Fast Car.” Only time will tell whether radios will remember Luke Combs or Tracy Chapman, although history has long been slanted in one direction. Future generations might easily associate Luke Combs with “Fast Car” without even knowing of Tracy Chapman, but they’ll be listening to an entirely different song than the one my mom and I once listened to in her minivan. Because at the end of the day, the meaning of a fast car depends on who's driving.