Music Reviews

Music Timehop: Thirty Years On, Tracy Chapman Still Rings True

I’ve loved ‘Fast Car’ for years – it’s one of those songs that sticks with you, and occasionally you feel the need to listen to it for no other reason than you haven’t heard it in a while. When I got my newest phone, I wanted to have it on there, and then realised that my parents had the whole Tracy Chapman album already. I added ‘Fast Car’ to a playlist, then promptly forgot about the rest of the album. Until the other day.

“There are themes of love and injustice”

Looking for something to listen to, and craving ‘Fast Car’ again, I remembered I had the whole album, and put it on shuffle. And then I learned how brilliant Tracy Chapman is. Every single song on the album is important. There are themes of love, injustice, learning to understand and accept yourself, trying to achieve huge goals in a world that’s against you, and so much more.

The music itself is beautiful. Tracy has an incredible voice, and a way of making music that amplifies the lyrics, rather than crowding them out. Every track is unique and memorable for its sound alone, but it’s the words that really make it – poignant words, that still ring true today.

‘Talkin’ Bout A Revolution’, the first song on the album, sets the tone as one of strength and a voice taking the chance to be heard. Addressing issues of poverty and the need for change in an American system of capitalism that leaves people unable to change their situation for the better, Chapman advocates for something bigger – a mass movement, taking what you deserve, and changing the system itself. This opening is starkly political; there is no attempt to hide the content of the album by starting off with a softer song, perhaps a love song – and even if she had, the love songs on the album are themselves political.

“It directly challenges the notion of a positive ‘American Dream’”

After ‘Fast Car’ ends, ‘Across the Lines’ continues the theme of inequality, this time focusing starkly on the line drawn between black and white in America. “Tonight the riots begin” in a terrifyingly familiar way, recalling (or rather, foreshadowing) the racist ‘Unite the Right’ rally and riots in Charlottesville last year. The song also points to issues of assault and victim blaming – “Little black girl gets assaulted … she’s the one to blame” – and directly challenges the notion of a positive ‘American Dream’ when the country is so divided.

‘She’s Got Her Ticket’ is a beautiful lesson in self-love and having the confidence to do what you have to for yourself. The girl at the centre of the story is leaving a place that offers her nothing, daring to find somewhere that might give her the chance for something more. “No one should try and stop her”, Tracy sings, and “why not” escape the “hatred, corruption and greed” she is exposed to, if she can? She “knows” that she can make it, so she should go.

Immediately following is ‘Why?’, a series of questions about the state of the world, poetically arranged to emphasise the vastness and variety of the issues at hand. The lyrics “Why do the babies starve / when there’s enough food to feed the world?”, addresses a very real inconsistency in the distribution of resources globally, and “Why is a woman still not safe / when she’s in her home?”, highlights the constant struggles of women for equality and safety worldwide. But the song also has a hopeful quality – “somebody’s gonna have to answer” is a demand being heard in the USA today, and “the time is coming soon” for a resolution.

‘Behind the Walls’ is where I broke down. “Last night I heard the screaming”, as the singer follows a story of domestic violence, helpless to help, knowing the police would refuse to interfere, “if they come at all”. The stripped-back nature of this song – Chapman singing alone, without the support of other instruments – only serves to highlight the horror of the situation and the lack of escape routes available. The end of the story is inevitable and devastating, and the irony of the police officer’s words is enough to move anyone to anger.

“It’s still shockingly relevant”

After the album had played through the first time (and I had wiped the tears from my face), I googled when it had come out. By a strange coincidence, I had listened to it the whole way through on the exact 30th anniversary of its release – it came out on 5th April 1988. And in a time of Black Lives Matter, strong criticisms of the US police, a revolution being led by a group of students from Florida, the attacks on the rights of women in the United States, and a whole host of other problems in America and globally, it’s still shockingly relevant.

It’s horrifying to think that so many of the problems relevant thirty years ago haven’t changed, or have improved but then regressed. Had Tracy Chapman been released this year, instead of three decades ago, no one would bat an eyelid. But perhaps the artist’s suggestions of change incoming can be a ray of hope for us – as teenagers move millions of people in hundreds of locations, both in the US and internationally, to protest gun violence and the associated issues, Tracy Chapman is an album that could be an anthem for the new revolution. Hopefully, this time positive change will be here for good.


Isobel Sheene

Image courtesy of Tracy Chapman official facebook page.

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