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Tracy Chapman’s ‘Fast Car’ Grammys performance is what awards shows are made for

A perfect moment for a perfect song

Tracy Chapman at a 2015 performance on The Late Show with David Letterman Jeffrey R. Staab/CBS Courtesy Everett Collection
Joshua Rivera (he/him) is an entertainment and culture journalist specializing in film, TV, and video game criticism, the latest stop in a decade-plus career as a critic.

We don’t often get songs like Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car.” Despite its proven endurance, frequently covered by anyone with a guitar and a world too small to hold their dreams, “Fast Car” feels fragile every time you hear it, a work so full of yearning for something that the speaker trembles to articulate, lest it vanish forever. Thirty-six years after the 1988 song catapulted Chapman to fame (following an impromptu performance at Wembley Stadium for a concert in honor of Nelson Mandela’s 70th Birthday), the legendary singer-songwriter made a surprise appearance and a rare public performance at the Grammys, for one of the best awards show moments in recent memory.

“Fast Car” has been on a strange journey over the last year, becoming a mega-hit once again after country singer Luke Combs’ cover exploded in popularity over the summer. Combs’ success with Chapman’s 1988 classic became a cultural flashpoint, re-surfacing discussions about white appropriation of Black art broadly, and the lack of support Black and queer artists have in the Country music industry more specifically. (It’s worth noting Chapman owns the publishing rights to her music, and therefore makes a cut on cover recordings like Combs’.)

At Sunday’s Grammy awards, Combs paid tribute to Chapman in a recorded segment about the remarkable success of his cover, and what “Fast Car” (for which Chapman won Best Female Pop Vocal Performance at the 1989 Grammys) means to him. To the audience’s surprise and delight, Chapman joined Combs on stage afterwards to perform the song — one of the few public performances the reclusive and famously private artist has made since releasing her last album, 2008’s Our Bright Future.

Awards shows are strange affairs, often gaudy celebrations of commerce over art, gladhandy and self-congratulatory in ways that can be very removed from the reasons people love art to begin with. But at their best, they’re a stage like any other: one where, the right person, with the right song, can cast a spell over everyone — the celebrities in the audience or a tired commuter watching a clip on social media, remembering a dream they had about getting away from it all and finding a place they belonged.

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