How a 1980s folk anthem became the song of 2023

Courtney Smith, music critic and author of Record Collecting for Girls, says she “did a double take” when she first heard Combs’s cover version because it retains a broad musical similarity to Chapman’s original. “I was surprised that a white man in country music would have connected with a song that was released two years before he was born,” she says. “And even more surprised that he recorded it, and his label made it a single.” For Smith, Combs’s unexpected choice of cover “speaks to the nostalgia in the country genre but pushes it away from a nostalgia for rock music and towards something less definitively Southern and male”.

While Combs’s version could be viewed as an example of cultural appropriation – or at least of a white man benefitting disproportionately from a black woman’s handiwork – it also underlines the universality of the beautifully expressed sentiments in Chapman’s songwriting. Fast Car’s evocative opening salvo – “You got a fast car, I want a ticket to anywhere” – resonates with anyone who’s ever craved a better station in life. For her part, Chapman has responded graciously to Combs’s success, saying in her Country Music Association acceptance speech: “I’m sorry I couldn’t join you all tonight. It’s truly an honour for my song to be newly recognised after 35 years of its debut. Thank you to the CMAs and a special thanks to Luke and all of the fans of Fast Car.”

Certainly, Combs isn’t the first artist to rework Chapman’s classic for a new audience. In 2015, British DJ-producer Jonas Blue released a tropical house cover of Fast Car that became a sizeable chart hit in Australia, the UK and many other European countries. In an interview with Idolator, Blue admitted that he was initially “scared” to record Fast Car because “it’s such a legendary song [that] it’s like trying to cover The Beatles”. McIntyre believes Fast Car’s success in several different genres points to the transcendent quality of its subject matter. “There is a feeling embedded within the lyrics that is hard to describe, but Chapman has so brilliantly and beautifully put words to it,” he says.

Why its lyrics resonate so powerfully

Though difficult to pinpoint, this feeling is ineffably wistful and incredibly poignant. Fast Car begins with the narrator – who is never named or gendered – dreaming of a better life after managing to save “just a little bit of money” from their work at a convenience store. In the third verse, we learn that the narrator had a tough start in life because their father drank and their mother walked out. “I said, ‘Somebody’s gotta take care of him’, so I quit school and that’s what I did,” they tell us, heartbreakingly. Though the narrator is initially optimistic because their romantic partner appears to have prospects – “I know things will get better, you’ll find work and I’ll get promoted” – at the song’s climax we hear that history has cruelly repeated itself. The narrator is still working hard to provide for someone, this time their partner, who now stays “drinking late at the bar”. The narrator’s feeling that they “could be someone, be someone, be someone” is just a distant memory.

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