We Go Cruising

“fast car” rides again.

Fast cars sometimes move slow. When Luke Combs’ remake of Tracy Chapman’s 1988 song “Fast Car” went to the top of the country charts last year, Chapman became the first Black woman to write a number one country hit. And when the reclusive songwriter appeared at the 2024 Grammy Awards ceremony broadcast, performing with Combs, it elicited powerful emotions. Those who remembered the original, released over thirty years ago, wanted to celebrate the triumphant resurfacing of Chapman in the public eye again.

They also wanted to explore questions of race, gender, and genre raised by the song and its acoustic melancholy desperation. “Fast Car” was originally understood to be a “folk” or a “singer-songwriter” song, but with Combs adaptation of it, the always lurking country connections emerged in full. So too did many other levels of how genre in American popular music relates to questions not only of race and gender, but also of region, class, and sexuality.

The celebrations, and some of the criticisms, of “Fast Car”‘s resurgence and transformations from Chapman to Combs must be understood in the aftermath of another country music charts controversy: the success of the more controversial, playful, ribald hip-hop song “Old Town Road” by Lil Nas X on the country charts in 2019. When that song succeeded on the country, hip-hop, and pop charts simultaneously, it spoke to the porous boundaries between genres that are supposed to signal neat, clean divisions in America by race (country is white; hip hop is Black), not to mention different kinds of sexuality and gender (Lil Nas X would eventually come out as gay and the song is, well, not just about horses; the performer also, of course, explores all kinds of queer modes in his performance style and presentation). So too, the song confounds regional associations (where is this old town road anyway? Is it an urban or rural place?). “Old Town Road” was removed from the country charts and radio play despite its success on social media and in country music dance clubs and on the radios of pickup trucks across the land.

“Fast Car” arrives from a different place. There are no horses in this song. What there is, fascinatingly, is another kind of interplay between musical genre with regard to race, gender, sexuality, region, age, and maybe most of all, class. Here, most of all, is a tune that pushes experiences from the margins of working-class aspiration to the center of the American story. Originally made popular by a queer Black female artist, its lyrics transposed easily to the identity of a straight, white, male artist. It speaks to both Black and white, female and male, queer and straight, young and old moments. it’s the class position that matters. The singer, whatever the identity, speaks of a hope to escape from poverty and precarity while at the same time registering a despair about being able to do so. Things will get better, but they probably won’t. While Lil Nas X is going to ride until he can’t ride no more, neither Tracy Chapman and Luke Combs are sure the motor will start at all at this point, nor that they can get anywhere even if it could ignite.

“Fast Car” brings us to a standstill. We poise in a liminal zone where American working-class identities, musical genres, racial identities, senses of self and community, dreams of partnership and loneliness, fantasies of mobility, and the realities of becoming trapped in the unrelenting social hierarchies of US economy come into view. From this place, maybe on the outskirts of town, by the onramp to the Interstate, you can see life sprawled out before you. The mansions on the hill beckon. The rows of houses slump humbly in the shadow of the shutdown factory. The strip mall stretches out blearily. It’s bleak, but there’s actually a lot of people here by the roadside.

We are in a place where many other musicians and their listeners have gathered. At this spot, the rules start to fall away when it comes to questions of sorting out who should be on what music industry chart, or what neighborhood they come from, or who should be riding shotgun in whose car, or what place anyone should be heading. The sounds of Hank Williams mingle with Robert Johnson’s slide guitar here at the crossroads. Frank Sinatra, Alicia Keys, Jay-Z, Simon and Garfunkel, Taylor Swift, and countless others sing about New York City here as they approach the big city lights. Maybe Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band gather by the parked cars, drinking forties on the hood. By the end of the night, the Boss sits alone with his girlfriend, much like Chapman or Combs do with their romantic partners in “Fast Car,” trying to figure out whether to split or stay, light out for the territories or return back to a humble job at the checkout counter.

Darkness at the edge of town. Couldn’t one say, in fact, that “Fast Car” is a kind of remake of Springsteen’s “Born to Run”? I don’t mean remake in a pejorative sense, but rather that these tunes are in a tradition of the working-class escape/no escape song. Indeed, both of these songs could be said to be remakes of yet another tune: “We Gotta Get Outta This Place,” written by the Brill Building team of Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann. All of the songs in this mode take us to an unresolved moment between escape and no escape. There’s really no arrival or departure in them, just the moment at the door to the car.

There, you can interpret the songs going in both directions. For some, the point is that the car isn’t fast, we weren’t actually born to run, and we ain’t gonna get out of this place. The fast car is in fact a broken-down automobile prevented by the realities of class in America from going anywhere. Tramps like us, baby we were born to try to run but we are in fact doomed to get stuck. We gotta get outta this place if its the last thing we ever do, but actually we’re never going to get out of this place at all, and we know it. For others, the songs signal a brief moment of possibility that is all the more powerful for its temporariness. And for a few, these songs could, maybe, just maybe, if others hear them loud enough, lead to some kind of liberation. Maybe one gets out by the skin of their teeth, but remember, workers of the world, that the next song Chapman had a hit with after “Fast Far” was “Talkin’ About a Revolution.” As cultural critic Ellen Willis wrote, “the impulse to buy a new car and tool down the freeway with the radio blasting rock-and-roll is not unconnected to the impulse to fuck outside marriage, get high, stand up to men or white people or bosses, join dissident movements.”

That’s what makes “Fast Car” and songs like it powerful. They present the moment when we don’t know which way things will go, when the door hinge might be shutting for the trip or shutting for the night. Yet, there’s an urge that shows up in popular culture to put the song back in its place. For some, it needs to be returned to sender, to the queer Black woman who wrote it. For others, it has to be freed from its origins, rendered a sonic Trump flag whipping in the wind on the back of a pickup truck. Country music, more than any other genre, has a way of raising the stakes of these affiliations and afflictions in the good old USA. I once heard even the cold-eyed economic historian Barbara Fields, who has repeatedly criticized the substitution of race politics for class analysis, surprisingly perform a bit of what she herself named as racecraft by saying that Black people would never want to listen to country music. I thought, what?! Country music is so much in the African Diasporic tradition (not to mention beloved among some African Americans and even in parts of Africa itself). It is only re-coded non-Black in America as a way to cover the fact up that the genre speaks to the polyglot nature of the US working-class (shoot, to the global working class): full of admixtures of races, genders, sexualities, regions.

On stage at the Grammys, if you watched close enough, Chapman and Combs undid the effort to straighten out country music’s many queernesses. They even did more than just perform the song together across lines of race. They also performed it across lines of gender and sexuality. They made the story permeable and full of permutations. They took its hypnotic riff back and forth over the borderline. There was Chapman, dressed more as the butch male performer while next to her, Combs started to look a bit more glitzy and glam, even a touch femme. Country music has always had a flamboyant, fabulous side for men. Nudie suit, anyone? So who was the man here and who was the woman? Who was the star and who was the starstruck? Who was leading and who was following? Who was in the driver’s seat of this fast car exactly?

The need not to care slowly crept up on us. Stripped down to its essence, its pain, its hope, its suspension, its shock, its shock absorption, the song grew larger, as did the moment. Time extended and shrank, grew faster and collapsed, all at once. A wonderful presentation of blurring and mixing offered itself up. One knew that this would not last. After all, the song tells is it won’t. But for a moment, all roads stretched out before us, an invitation across the nation, not so much to assert a resolution as to hang in the balance, like a pair of dice from the rearview mirror.

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