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‘60 Songs That Explain the ’90s’: Tracy Chapman Never Had Much to Prove. She Did It Anyway.

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‘60 Songs That Explain the ’90s’: Tracy Chapman Never Had Much to Prove. She Did It Anyway. 1

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Our latest episode, discussing “Fast Car,” Tracy’s Grammy performance, and her ’90s hit “Give Me One Reason”

60 Songs That Explain the ’90s is back for its final stretch run (and a brand-new book!). Join The Ringer’s Rob Harvilla as he treks through the soundtrack of his youth, one song (and embarrassing anecdote) at a time. Follow and listen for free on Spotify. In Episode 118 of 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s—yep, you read that right—we’re covering Tracy Chapman’s “Give Me One Reason.” Read an excerpt below.

You cried. I cried. Everyone cried. According to the internet, everyone cried. My mom texted me. You know how many times my mom has texted me about the Grammys? Zero times, previously. Did you hear that giant burst of applause just now, for Tracy Chapman, at the 2024 Grammys? You remember how this performance opens with a hero shot, zoomed in on her guitar, on her hands playing the immortal, gentle, vulnerable, empathetic riff to “Fast Car,” and everyone in the world thought, Is that really her? and the camera slowly zoomed out and it was really her and you got, like, chills? You remember that? You got chills. I got chills. Everyone got chills. Everyone cried. I’m here to tell you I’ve been complaining about the Grammys on a professional level for my whole entire life, and you can go years, you can go decades waiting for one Grammy moment that literally anyone enjoys, and Tracy Chapman is the only Grammy moment in history that literally everyone enjoyed.

Me, myself, I got nothing to prove. She sounds like she’s almost crying, right? She’s so moved, in this moment, by the realization that she’s making everyone else cry. So this country singer, Luke Combs, is like a giant sentient Sam’s Club endcap, right? The endcap’s got beef jerky and camouflage winter coats in it. He’s got the baseball cap. It’s like he perpetually walks around in a fishing boat, with holes in the bottom of the fishing boat for his legs and feet. I don’t even mean any of that pejoratively. As blockbuster arena-filling modern country stars go, Luke Combs is pretty cool, I gotta say. And so Luke Combs in 2023 has this bonkers chart-topping hit cover of “Fast Car” by Tracy Chapman. I was playing cornhole at my family reunion in rural Pennsylvania last summer and Luke Combs’s cover of “Fast Car” came on the radio and I got really super good at cornhole for like 45 seconds. It was awesome. I’m not explaining what cornhole is if you’re not familiar. I don’t have time.

And there is some consternation, understandably, about a big, burly country bro dominating country radio—the ultra-macho, pickup-truck-humping, He-Man Woman-Hater’s Club cesspool that is country radio—there is consternation about Luke Combs dominating country radio with a beloved song written and sung by a Black woman. Sung by Tracy Chapman, an international deity and somewhat of a deified mirage, nowadays. Not a public figure. Not someone who requires our attention or approval. Me, myself, I got nothing to prove.

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But suddenly Tracy Chapman’s on my TV again, playing “Fast Car” with Luke Combs. But never mind Luke Combs: There’s Tracy Chapman, beaming with joy, and you’re crying and I’m crying and I don’t know about you but when I cry I get florid, right, I start thinking about the “Fast Car” guitar riff, the modest pristine little melodic jump, brrr nrrr nrrrr nrrrr nrrrr, dnnnnggg dnnnnnng. It’s not a huge leap. She slides up, what, eight frets on her guitar, but it feels like a huge leap. And then I start thinking about the lyrics to “Fast Car,” the modesty of the escape “Fast Car” describes: Won’t have to drive too far / Just ’cross the border and into the city. Eight frets equals eight highway exits, maybe.

Then I start thinking about the line Mama went off and left him / Wanted more from life than he could give and then I think about the climactic verse of “Fast Car,” the downer ending, the disillusionment, the realization that the singer has become like her mother, still longing for escape.

I’d always hoped for better. Holy shit. Listen, I get emotional, all right? I said I cried; I didn’t say I stopped crying. I have heard “Fast Car” a billion times. And thanks to the Grammys I will now happily endeavor to hear it a billion more times. We’re playing the chorus. Of course we’re playing the chorus. I’m not a monster.

And once again the melodic leap we’re about to take here—the I-eee-I—is not some enormous, grandiose, overwrought rock ’n’ roll–type gesture, but it’s all the more triumphant and devastating and then triumphant again for how modest it is. She fears no danger. She is invulnerable. She sees no foe. She is related to the earliest times, and to the latest.

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“Fast Car” came out in 1988. It appears on Tracy Chapman’s debut album, self-titled, from 1988. I heard “Fast Car” one billion times in the 1990s. It is canonically, essentially, indelibly, yet not officially the ’90s, and thus technically outside my purview. But Tracy Chapman is a figure of tremendous compassion and understanding, and that is why Tracy gifted us with another bonkers hit song, and this one was the ’90s, canonically, essentially, indelibly, and officially. Us works there—she gave this gift to all of us. But she gave this gift to me, especially.

This week we are discussing “Give Me One Reason,” by Tracy Chapman, from her 1995 album, New Beginning. I didn’t need another reason to talk about Tracy Chapman, but I am grateful to the Grammys anyway for giving me another reason. Before I get distracted by anything else, listen to this guitar riff, dude. You’ve heard this song at least half a billion times, but there’s a reason for that. She’s playing electric guitar now, but there’s no overblown grandiosity to it. There is, instead, tremendous personality. The slyness, the flirtatiousness, the skepticism. This is a guitar riff that says, I am ill-advisedly attracted to you, and I am aware that you will gravely disappoint me. Listen to the way the first note bounces, dude.


I keep wanting to describe this as bluesy, also, and bluesy is accurate as analysis, given the vibe and the chord structure and whatnot, but this word bluesy just feels weird in my mouth, though now I’ve said the word three times where I could’ve just said bluesy once and kept it moving. Four times now. In the early 2000s, I’m like 23, maybe, and I go see a rad local blues band in Columbus, Ohio, and I’m sitting behind this woman who’s drinking a bottle of Mike’s Hard Lemonade, and she’s banging her bottle of Mike’s Hard Lemonade on the table in time to the music, like, doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo. And this image fucked me up for weeks. I can’t explain it. That’s ungenerous clueless young snooty rock-critic behavior on my part, obviously, fueled by this dopey idea in that moment that I get the blues in some fundamental soulful way that the Mike’s Hard Lemonade lady does not. That’s bullshit, obviously, but I just want you to have all the facts—or I guess all the feelings.

The greatness of the first 10 seconds of “Give Me One Reason” illustrates a core Tracy Chapman proposition: these elegant, beautiful, warm, compact, incredibly lifelike little guitar riffs—[hums “Fast Car” riff]—that you absorb into your bloodstream within 10 seconds the first time you hear them, and you remember them fondly for the rest of your life. And sometimes it’s just chords, y’know, four simple and bright and familiar chords that she makes her own, that she somehow transforms into a classic Tracy Chapman riff. Very few people who’ve ever walked the earth can do this; can play four chords you’ve heard 50 billion times apiece and make them sound like their chords, make these chords sound brand-new and radical and revolutionary. Tom Petty comes to mind. Tom Petty did that a lot. But like, if I pulled out a guitar right now—I’m not gonna do this, don’t worry—if I pulled out a guitar and played G, C, E minor, and D, you’d be like, Yeah? So? But that’s not your reaction when Tracy Chapman does it.

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