Tracy Chapman (album) – Classic Music Review
There are many things I don’t miss about going to a corporate office five days a week, but what I don’t miss most of all is corporate-speak. Every time I heard one of the dweebs mention “leverage,” “low-hanging fruit,” “game changer,” “trim the fat” or “open the kimono” it took every ounce of restraint I could muster not to leap across the conference table and strangle the bastard.
The morsel of corporate-speak I detested most of all was “shiny new thing.” This morning I googled that limp metaphor and found that “shiny new thing” has been officially designated a syndrome! The source is Conversion Uplift (UK) and the article falls under the category of “Strategic Optimisation,” which should tell you that the people at Conversion Uplift are certified masters in the field of corporate-speak.
Shiny new thing syndrome is when businesses place too much emphasis on implementing the latest technology or following new trends and not enough attention on getting the basics right.
The corporations that dominate the music business don’t suffer from shiny new thing syndrome because history tells us they are more likely to reject shiny new music in favor of whatever form of music is currently raking in the dough. Most shiny new music that makes its way to the public’s ear comes from either mid-tier labels (what’s left of them) or indie outfits (before they get swallowed up by one of the big players).
The Big Three music empires that produce 80% of the music we hear today avoid shiny new music because in their minds it’s an unpredictable variable they cannot control. Part of the reason why most of the music today is so repetitive and boring* is that the Big Three figured out that the most effective way to reduce the risk of shiny new music messing with their profit margins was to ape the film industry: build the franchise, release sequel after sequel and give the people what they’ve been programmed to want. Taylor Swift and Beyoncé are essentially the music industry’s answer to Batman and Spider-Man.
The moguls who run the Big Three probably think that was a pretty smart move, but by classifying shiny new music as unpredictable and unreliable, they’re actually leaving a lot of money on the table. While nothing in life is certain and unrecognized variables often mess up predictions, history tells us that many of the shiny new music offerings that became successful had one thing in common: they were polar opposites of what was currently popular. The complexity and wild experimentation of psychedelic music spawned a yearning for roots rock. The lengthy grandeur of progressive rock triggered a hunger for cut-out-the-bullshit punk. The smooth-and-slick new wave rock of the 80s demanded the counter-reaction of grunge.
A wise man once pointed out that for every action in nature, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Tracy Chapman benefitted from Newtonian physics by challenging the late 80’s fascination with overproduced dance-pop, synthpop and heavy metal with a breathtakingly quiet offering of acoustic folk music. Her shiny new thing topped the charts in several Western countries.
Several of the songs on Tracy Chapman are protest songs concerning social conditions in the United States, which makes her unexpected ascent to fame even more impressive. Protests in the 80s generally centered around two “global” issues: the Nuclear Freeze Campaign and the anti-apartheid movement. Reagan’s two landslides seem to have taken the wind out of the sails of the myriad social justice movements and his barrage of right-wing initiatives put the left on the defensive through most of the decade. Given the circumstances, it would have been logical to assume that there was no appetite for protest songs, and Tracy Chapman herself made the same assumption: “I didn’t think there was any indication that record people would find the kind of music that I did marketable.”
Tracy’s journey to widespread recognition began when she was a student at Tufts University, busking and playing the occasional coffee house. A student named Brian Koppleman fell in love with “her presence, her voice, her sincerity” and offered to connect Tracy with his father (Charles Koppleman), who owned SBK Publishing. She didn’t react one way or another, but the young Koppleman refused to give up. Though Tracy refused to give him any demos of her music, he managed to “borrow” a demo she had recorded for the campus radio station, make a copy and present it to his father. The elder Koppleman was impressed and in short order facilitated her signing with Elektra Records.
The recording process was initially delayed because they couldn’t find a producer who was interested in bucking current music trends. An SBK executive suggested David Kershenbaum, who had produced Duran Duran’s dance-pop hit album Rio. While at first glance that seems like pairing oil and water, Kershenbaum embraced Tracy’s desire to keep things simple and was more than willing to challenge the music industry’s current paradigm. “I’d been looking for something acoustic to do for some time,” says Kershenbaum. “There was a sense in the industry of a slight boredom with everything out there and that people might be willing to listen again to lyrics and to someone who made statements.”
Hmm . . . sounds like he was talking about 60s folk music. So was the shiny new thing really a shiny old thing primed to make a comeback? Was Tracy Chapman just another example of “what goes around comes around?”
Nah. Tracy Chapman may have built her music around certain folk traditions, but “her presence, her voice and her sincerity” made her a true original.
The album begins with the demo song that the Kopplemans found so appealing, “Talkin’ Bout a Revolution.” As promised, Kershenbaum kept things simple with an arrangement of acoustic guitar, bass and drums, sharpening the focus on Tracy’s voice and her unique ability to communicate passion and empathy without going over the top. The simplicity of the arrangement, chord structure and melody make the song a perfect crowd-motivating anthem (it was used to open Bernie Sanders rallies and inspire Tunisians during the Arab Spring).
Tracy wrote the song in the 70s when she was still a teen, several years before its official release in 1988. Whether you choose the early date or the later date, you may find yourself wondering, “What revolution?” Americans may have been pissed off about gas shortages and inflation in the late 70s, but the only revolution sparked by those irritants was the Reagan Revolution—not exactly what young Tracy Chapman had in mind. By 1988 most Americans had adopted the right-wing belief that “greed is good” and showed no signs of abandoning that ludicrous dogma despite Oliver Stone’s best efforts. Revolution was neither in the air nor in the cards.
The key to understanding the song is the parenthetical line, “It sounds like a whisper.” Tracy draws attention to that line by whispering the last three words, imbuing the line with the meaning, “Right now it sounds like a whisper, but watch out!” Tracy Chapman had a good grasp of history and understood that prolonged income inequality can eventually lead to social unrest.
While they’re standing in the welfare lines
Crying at the doorsteps of those armies of salvation
Wasting time in the unemployment lines
Sitting around waiting for a promotion
Don’t you know
Talking about a revolution?
It sounds like a whisper
Poor people gonna rise up
And get their share
Poor people gonna rise up
And take what’s theirs
History tells us that income inequality is one factor that can ignite a revolution, but it’s rarely the only factor: war exhaustion drove the Russian Revolution as much or more than the gap between rich and poor. In the 20th Century, the fear of social unrest related to income inequality led capitalist societies to adopt preventive measures designed in part to stifle revolutionary urges (the New Deal is the most obvious example). It’s interesting that she mentioned both the proletariat (in the welfare lines) and the middle class (waiting for a promotion), for the French Revolution wouldn’t have come off without both classes joining together in righteous anger. I don’t see that happening in the class-conscious United States, but though Tracy may have been engaging in a bit of wishful thinking, the threat of social unrest brought about by income inequality is real, as noted in an article summarizing a recent, exhaustive study of income inequality throughout history and in the world today:
On Monday, a global report from Credit Suisse showed that modern humans are continuing the trends set by our predecessors: Now, the report showed, half of the world’s wealth really does belong to a super-rich one percent, and the gap is only growing. Historically, Kohler says in his statement, there’s only so much inequality a society can sustain before it reaches a tipping point. Among the many known effects of inequality on a society are social unrest, a decrease in health, increased violence, and decreased solidarity. Unfortunately, Kohler (Tim Kohler, Ph.D, who led the study) points out, humans have never been especially good at decreasing inequality peacefully — historically, the only effective methods for doing so are plague, massive warfare, or revolution.
The more mature Tracy Chapman (at the age of twenty-four) had clearly honed her songwriting skills since writing “Talkin’ Bout a Revolution,” composing vivid and poignant stories of real people trapped in the lower strata of the economic pyramid. “Fast Car” understandably became Tracy’s most celebrated work, a rich, unfolding narrative centered around the awkward marriage between the symbolism of the automobile and the bitter realities of life at the bottom of the heap.
First, let’s look at the symbolism. Krystal D’ Costa wrote an excellent piece on the car’s place in American lore for Scientific American titled “Choice, Control, Freedom and Car Ownership.”
Cars have long been symbols for personal freedom. With the open road before you, you can go anywhere—from behind the wheel you really take control of your destiny. In this regard, cars are empowering. Ownership means that you have the means to be independently mobile, that you own not just a vehicle but choice as well.
The narrator of “Fast Car” firmly believes in the empowering qualities of a car but faces one seemingly insurmountable obstacle: she can’t afford to own one. Ever resourceful and determined to make a better life for herself, she hooks up with a person she knows who happens to have wheels:
You got a fast car
I want a ticket to anywhere
Maybe we make a deal
Maybe together we can get somewhere
Any place is better
Starting from zero got nothing to lose
Maybe we’ll make something
Me, myself, I got nothing to prove
When you’re starting from zero you don’t have a whole lot of choices, so she’s going to play the hand dealt to her. Maybe they will make something—it can’t get any worse:
See, my old man’s got a problem
He live with the bottle, that’s the way it is
He says his body’s too old for working
His body’s too young to look like his
My mama went off and left him
She wanted more from life than he could give
I said somebody’s got to take care of him
So I quit school and that’s what I did
Note that she felt an obligation to take care of her father but seems to view her mother’s abandonment as completely understandable. Listening to Tracy build the narrator’s character is like watching a painter slowly completing a portrait—we now know that as a high school dropout she’s starting from zero plus a couple of steps backward. Next we learn that she learned more from her mother than her father:
You got a fast car
Is it fast enough so we can fly away?
We gotta make a decision
Leave tonight or live and die this way
Like mother, like daughter, she’s had it with the old man and is ready to move on. An equally significant revelation awaits us in the bridge, where we find out that the narrator and the car provider have some history together:
So I remember when we were driving, driving in your car
Speed so fast it felt like I was drunk
City lights lay out before us
And your arm felt nice wrapped ’round my shoulder
And I-I had a feeling that I belonged
I-I had a feeling I could be someone, be someone, be someone
With the open road before you, you can go anywhere—from behind the wheel you really take control of your destiny. That cherished moment of freedom was probably a rare and special event in the young woman’s life, one that triggered the notion that she could be more than a zero—and that the two of them could make a go of it.
The pair complete their move to the city where she finds a better-paying job. Alas, the first signs of trouble appear, though at this stage the narrator chooses to cling to fading hopes and unrealistic dreams:
You got a fast car
We go cruising, entertain ourselves
You still ain’t got a job
And I work in the market as a checkout girl
I know things will get better
You’ll find work and I’ll get promoted
We’ll move out of the shelter
Buy a bigger house and live in the suburbs
One step forward, two steps back. Once again, she finds herself in the role of caretaker. Having strengthened her confidence by finding a respectable job, she decides it’s time for her partner to hit the road:
You got a fast car
I got a job that pays all our bills
You stay out drinking late at the bar
See more of your friends than you do of your kids
I’d always hoped for better
Thought maybe together you and me’d find it
I got no plans, I ain’t going nowhere
Take your fast car and keep on driving
Tracy never identifies the gender of her partner, but the mention of kids indicates the involvement of a man somewhere in the mix. As the timeline is rather vague, we’re not sure if the kids are theirs or progeny from a previous relationship. The final, truncated verse is also ambiguous; we’re not sure if she’s threatening her partner or simply pointing out the likely consequences of the partner’s irresponsibility (I lean towards the latter):
You got a fast car
Is it fast enough so you can fly away?
You gotta make a decision
Leave tonight or live and die this way
“Fast Car” is a brilliantly constructed tale, further enhanced by Tracy Chapman’s innate ability to relate a great story. Once again, the understated supporting music never threatens to interfere with the storyteller and her remarkably compelling voice. Though the tale is filled with struggle and betrayal, the song leaves me feeling absolutely confident that the narrator will persevere despite the obstacles she will likely face, whether it’s a lack of credentials or the über-barrier of white privilege.
“Across the Lines” deals with the racial divide, where Tracy bemoans the hopeless tendency to “resolve” racial differences through violence while embracing Dr. King’s vision of the American Dream:
Across the lines
Who would dare to go
Under the bridge
Over the tracks
That separates whites from blacks
Run for your life
Tonight the riots begin
On the back streets of America
They kill the dream of America
While Tracy generally maintains a neutral position and generally avoids choosing sides, it’s impossible for her to escape certain long-held myths—blacks are to blame for the violence that white people inflict upon them and women are always asking for it:
Little black girl gets assaulted
Don’t no one know her name
Lots of people hurt and angry
She’s the one to blame
Unlike her more narrative-driven compositions, “Across the Lines” features more chordal variation and a stronger melody that reveals the more beautiful side of Tracy Chapman’s voice . . . though in this case the beauty is marked by a palpable sense of tragedy.
Having served as a volunteer in domestic violence shelters since my late teens, I tend to approach “Behind the Wall” with a certain sense of dread. I’ve seen the broken faces and broken spirits; I’ve heard all about all the no-win situations women have to deal with and the endless barriers to escape; I’ve cried along with them as they try to make sense of what is ultimately senseless; I get angry and sick to my stomach when they dare to wonder if they were at fault.
I’m sure that Tracy Chapman feels just as strongly as I do about the need to end domestic violence, but she wisely inserted a barrier between her feelings and the story by narrating the tale from the perspective of a neighbor listening to the sounds of violence from behind a wall. By allowing the story to tell itself instead of imbuing it with righteous anger, she increases the odds that people will listen, learn and perhaps take action against this ongoing scourge:
Last night I heard the screaming
Loud voices behind the wall
Another sleepless night for me
It won’t do no good to call
Always come late, if they come at all
While police reluctance to involve themselves in domestic violence is real, it’s also understandable: incidents of domestic violence are among the most dangerous situations a cop has to face. The second verse is somewhat dated, for it describes the police telling the woman that they can’t interfere “with domestic affairs between a man and his wife.” It took a long time for the justice system to define domestic violence as a crime, so Tracy was probably referring to an event that took place before criminalization became the norm in the United States (and if that’s the case, I understand her frustration). Whether the cops get involved or not, too many acts of domestic violence end as Tracy describes in the closing verse:
Last night I heard the screaming
Then a silence that chilled my soul
Prayed that I was dreaming
When I saw the ambulance in the road
Tracy’s a capella vocal underscores the shared helplessness of the two women in the story—the woman listening to the battering from behind the wall and the victim whose cries for help are met with indifference. “Behind the Wall” isn’t an easy listening experience, but many of the best protest songs fall into that category. You can’t change minds if you choose to soften the blow of unmitigated truth.
At this point, the listener is seriously in need of a break from life’s endless tragedies, and we get some relief in the form of a relationship song, “Baby Can I Hold You.” I say “some relief” because the silent partner in the relationship is . . . rather silent. He or she is unable to say ‘I’m sorry,” “Forgive me” or even “I love you,” which more than hints at an issue with genuine intimacy. Putting aside that bit of disconnection, the song is pleasant, comparatively unremarkable, and (at this stage) deeply appreciated.
“Mountains O’ Things” is a fascinating psychological exploration of “greed envy,” the occasional but persistent yearning for unlimited wealth that afflicts many inhabitants of the lower classes. In modern lingo, the wish appears in the form of “If I won the lottery” followed by a lengthy list of all the decadent pleasures and pointless indulgences we can conjure up.
As I’m pretty happy with my current batch of decadent pleasures, the only thing I can come up with to finish the phrase “If I won the lottery” is “Pay some genius millions of dollars to invent a guitar that I can play without having to trim my nails.” Petty, but true.
Set to an exceedingly pleasing mix of Brazilian-Jamaican sounds and rhythms, the song is a first-person account of a woman with an extensive inventory of wealth-related fantasies. Before she launches into her lengthy Christmas list, she gives us a bit of insight into the motivation that drives her dreams of conspicuous consumption:
The life I’ve always wanted
I guess I’ll never have
I’ll be working for somebody else
Until I’m in my grave
I’ll be dreaming of a life of ease
Oh mountains o’ things
Having a shit job in a consumerist society that bombards you with advertisements of various trinkets and pleasures is a form of slow torture for many people; the programming creates desires that can never be fulfilled. Having a shit job also means you have zero status, in part because you have nothing tangible to show for it—the twisted version of wanting to be somebody.
But we can always fall back on our fantasies, and the narrator plunges into her dream world with reckless abandon:
To have a big expensive car
Drag my furs on the ground
And have a maid that I can tell
To bring me anything
Everyone will look at me with envy and with greed
I’ll revel in their attention
And mountains, oh, mountains o’ things
“Drag my furs on the ground” is a powerful line, revealing her ultimate goal of accumulating enough wealth to indulge in the luxury of waste. The narrator then defends her outlandish desires as compensation she deserves for having suffered extreme deprivation:
Sweet lazy life
Champagne and caviar
I hope you’ll come and find me
Cause you know who we are
Those who deserve the best in life
And know what money’s worth
And those whose sole misfortune
Was having mountains o’ nothing at birth
At this point, the narrator grapples with bipolarity, craving the obscenity of wealth while admitting that having always creates have-nots:
Oh they tell me
There’s still time to save my soul
They tell me
Renounce all those material things you gained by
Exploiting other human beings
Consume more than you need
This is the dream
Make you pauper
Or make you queen
I won’t die lonely
I’ll have it all prearranged
A grave that’s deep and wide enough
For me and all my mountains o’ things
Now that she’s placed herself firmly in the upper stratosphere of a consumerist society, she realizes the need to defend her precarious position:
Mostly I feel lonely
Good good people are
Good people are only
My stepping stones
It’s gonna take all my mountains o’ things
To surround me
Keep all my enemies away
Keep my sadness and loneliness at bay
I find myself hoping that the narrator will finally realize that the pursuit of wealth will only create a different set of problems to deal with, but when she returns to the real world and her shit job in a repetition of the opening verse, she closes her tale with “I’ll be dreaming, dreaming, dreaming . . . ” Tracy wisely avoids the temptation to add a moral to the story, largely because no one has come up with viable solutions to human greed or the desire of human beings to surround themselves with nice things, even if those nice things involve the exploitation of others. Marxists who dream of a world where private property is a thing of the past can fuhgeddaboudit. Can we create a more equitable playing field? Yes, to some extent, given the limitations imposed by the power structure. But collective ownership of everything? Ain’t gonna happen. Ever. People love their stuff.
“She’s Got Her Ticket” is a nice little reggae number that also happens to feature the first electric guitar solo on the album . . . which isn’t really that good of a fit. The story is about a girl who has had it with the current reality of “Too much hatred/Corruption and greed” and buys a ticket to take her away to some unknown place in the sun. I like the song but the story feels a bit skimpy and Tracy doesn’t imbue the girl with much depth.
A certain critic from the Village Voice who shall remain nameless dismissed “Why?” as “naive left-folkie truisms.” What the unnamed critic failed to recognize is that many music fans in the 80s never heard those truisms; the only artists to release covers of “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” were two German bands who sang the song in their native language and . . . Bernie Sanders. Mr. Smartypants Critic also blithely ignored the fact that Tracy’s truisms included topics not raised during the Folk Revival as well as old issues posed in contemporary language:
Why when there’re so many of us
Are there people still alone?
Why are the missiles called peace keepers
When they’re aimed to kill?
Why is a woman still not safe
When she’s in her home?
I would argue that “Why?” is a pretty solid piece of music featuring a very un-folky mix of assertive rhythms and sung with genuine passion . . . and the King of Self-Importance can go fuck himself.
Having confirmed her credentials as a superb composer of protest songs, Tracy shifts gears for the last three songs on the album, all of which qualify as love songs. What makes Tracy’s love songs unique is her keen awareness that love had become a socio-political issue in a culture where the Moral Majority had gained significant political influence with the open support of the Republican Party. The indifference of the Reagan administration to the AIDS epidemic was accompanied by a frightening campaign of demonization launched by the Christian Right against the LGBTQ population in general and gay men in particular. Though Tracy cherishes her private life and has generally avoided conversations about her sexual orientation, we know she did have an intimate relationship with author Alice Walker because Alice spilled the beans. Gossip interest aside, the salient point is that Tracy Chapman’s early experiences with adult love were consummated in an environment of fear and loathing, and her love songs must be interpreted through that lens.
“For My Lover” opens with a verse that probably confused many people by seeming to raise more questions than answers:
Two weeks in a Virginia jail
For my lover, for my lover
Twenty thousand dollar bail
For my lover, for my lover
And everybody thinks
That I’m the fool
But they don’t get
Any love from you
The things we won’t do for love
I’d climb a mountain if I had to
Risk my life so I could have you
You, you, you . . .
How did she wind up in jail? Is she taking the fall for a crime her lover committed? What on earth could motivate her to do such a thing? The third verse provides the clue that unravels the mystery (italics mine)
I follow my heart
And leave my head to ponder
Deep in this love
No man can shake
The song is about a deep and passionate love between two women, one of whom was jailed for homosexual acts. We don’t have enough details to figure out why the other woman did not do time, but it’s obvious that the narrator was determined to keep her out of trouble. The last four lines of that verse find Tracy struggling with the question “Does love really conquer all?”—a valid question in a milieu of demonization:
I follow my heart
And leave my mind to wonder
Is this love worth
The sacrifices I make?
As a woman in a long-term intimate relationship with another woman, it’s difficult for me to feign objectivity in relation to this song, so I will turn things over to Francesca T. Royster, who penned a highly insightful summary of the song for NPR’s Turning the Tables:
And “For My Lover,” on the second half of the album, sang deliciously of an outlaw love. With the twang of Ed Black’s steel guitar and Chapman’s tough-girl contralto, the song moodily discloses the trials of a love that is deemed criminal and dangerous by society’s standards:
Everyday I’m psychoanalyzed
For my lover, for my lover
They dope me up and I tell them lies
For my lover, for my lover.
This resolute trickster lover shares much in common with the LGBTQ folks, especially folks of color, who have been arrested, institutionalized, blacklisted, fired from their jobs, cast out of political organizations and murdered for their gender expression, sexual desires and choice of sexual partner in the 20th (and 21st) century. But the narrator refuses a story of tragedy, willing to risk it all for love and “you, you, you, you, you.”
All I can tell you is this: manifesting and accepting my attraction to women was a liberating experience partially dampened by the fear that there are people out there who hate me enough to harm me. Ironically, that fear has strengthened the bond my partner and I have forged. I know that I would risk my life for her and she would risk her life for me.
“If Not Now” deals with the fear of making a commitment common to all relationships, but heightened for non-heterosexuals. It’s a nice song but pales in comparison to both “For My Lover” and the stunning closer, “For You.” Accompanied only by her acoustic guitar, Tracy sings of her love with beautiful clarity, conveying a sincere devotion to her lover while freely admitting the vulnerability inherent in the expression of deep emotions.
There’s no words to say
No words to convey
This feeling inside I have for you
Deep in my heart
Safe from the guards
Of intellect and reason
Leaving me at a loss
For words to express my feelings
Deep in my heart
Look at me losing control
Thinking I have a hold
But with feelings this strong
I’m no longer the master
Of my own emotions
I hope with all my heart that her partner responded, “Baby, it’s okay. Let it all out. You’re safe here.”
Though the heavily commercial orientation of the music business doesn’t make it easy, Tracy Chapman has never compromised either her values or her integrity. She regularly performs at charity events and does her best to stay out of the limelight. Over the years she has built an impressive catalog of powerful and often beautiful songs, recorded and produced on her terms. Her debut album had an enormous impact, inspiring record companies to open the doors to a new generation of female singer-songwriters.
And she did it all by having the courage to be herself.
*Next week I’ll offer a more complete explanation of why today’s music sucks, backed in part by genuine, honest-to-goodness scientific analysis!