Saturday, September 27, 2008

Feminist Anthems: Tracy Chapman - Fast Car

We need more feminist anthems.

Music is powerful, and feminism needs music if it is to succeed and stay together as a movement. (I've got this theory, that the demise of riotgrrl is partly responsible for the current state of feminism, but that's another post...)

So what would a feminist anthem be, anyway? Fluffy, upbeat "girl power" songs? Angry riotgrrl rantings? Lesbian anthems? Protest songs? Songs about liberated female sexuality?

I think that any and all of these, and more beside, can qualify. We simply need to listen, recognize, and share.

Today, I'd like to consider a song that became very popular in the late 1980's. It's usually not thought of as a feminist song - the song is about generational poverty - but I believe that it is meaningful on many other levels.

Let's listen:

I'm going try and not over-analyze this song - it's too powerful musically to justify it.

"Fast Car" tells a simple story. The singer's father is an alcoholic, her mother leaves. She drops school to care for her father. She can't stand it, so she leaves town with her boyfriend, who has the car, to find a better life. It doesn't really work out, though, and her life starts to repeat her parents' life. She tells her boyfriend to leave, that they are not going to have the dream that she thought they would.

"Fast Car" is a sad, painful song. It seems to point to an inescapable circle of life, a pointless repetition of poverty. But the song is also hopeful. Note that it is not a love song - the word 'love' is never mentioned. The attraction to the boyfriend, even if he is 'nice', is also attraction to the power of his car - the power to leave, to make a new life.

So, it is a song about choice, about freedom. In the beginning, the singer is trapped - in the relationship with her father. Her boyfriend, via the car, provides a way out. She doesn't fall blindly in love with him, though, she doesn't just follow him somewhere. Instead, she make a choice to leave - "let's make a deal", she says.

And she retains this control. She gets a job, and then a better one. She's not dependent on her boyfriend. At the end, she tells him to leave, that she doesn't want to repeat her parents' life. By attaining this power, we know that she actually is avoiding her parents' life.

And notice her situation at the end of the song. No, she hasn't attained her dreams - no house in the suburbs - but she does 'pay all our bills'. Her children will likely remain in school, unlike her. Most importantly, "I got no plans, I ain't going nowhere." Even if she hasn't become "someone", she is also free from the demands of society - free, as a woman, to do the best she can given her situation. It's not ideal, by any means, but whose life is?

It's a song, at some level, about female empowerment.

Let's listen to "Fast Car" again. Think about it this way:

The car represents societal power, power to escape bad circumstances, and the boyfriend, what goes with that power. By the end, though, the singer doesn't need the car, and thus the boyfriend, to try and make the best that she can out of her life. So, she tells her boyfriend to take the car - perhaps he can try again for himself. Because, at some level, she has already made it. She belongs.

I hope to make 'Feminist Anthems' a semi-regular feature. If you have suggestions for songs, please let me know!


sally said...

This is an awesome post. It's one of my favorite songs, but I have to say I've never really seen it that way. I saw it for the message it has about poverty, and some of the issues about who has the power and what that means, but never took it to this level.

Thanks so much! (Especially for including two videos, not just one! LOVE this song!) said...

I only finally got a chance to sit down and read this fully and listen to the song and think it through or I would have commented sooner.

I have to agree with Sally that this is a fantastic post. Really insightful and compelling. I'll never think about that song the same way again.

As for suggestions, what about Dar Williams? I haven't heard all her new CD yet, but maybe "Buzzer" (Promised Land) or, from her other albums, "You're Aging Well" (Honesty Room), "When I Was a Boy" (Honesty Room), or "I won't be your Yoko Ono" (Green World).