How one woman and her guitar blew away the late ’80s
Thirty-five years ago this month, the music scene was dripping with synth-pop. Pet Shop Boys. Eurythmics. Depeche Mode. Madonna and Prince were riding high on the charts. Lots of dance music. You get the idea.
Tracy Chapman walks into this room with her acoustic guitar, her finger on the politics and social consciousness of the day, and 11 songs that pretty much blow the room away.
To find any debut in the singer-songwriter canon that stands up to Chapman’s self-titled first album, you probably have to reach back to Bob Dylan’s 1962 emonymous debut. Or maybe Songs of Leonard Cohen five years after that.
But where Dylan and Cohen’s debuts received mixed reviews and went largely unnoticed, Chapman’s record burst onto the late-1980s music scene like a proverbial thunderclap. It sold a million copies in its first two weeks of release (it would go on to sell about 6 million in the U.S. and 20 million worldwide) and won Chapman three Grammys, including Best Contemporary Folk Album and Best New Artist.
VIDEO: Tracy Chapman “Talkin’ ‘Bout A Revolution”
The record opens with “Talkin’ ‘Bout a Revolution,” a song described by British author and historian Dr. Darren R. Reid, who studies race and resistance in American popular culture, as “one of the best protest songs of the era.” While it never got traction in the U.S. the way, say, Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” or “Ballad of a Thin Man” did, it turned out the song had some legs: It got plenty of radio play in Tunisia during the 2011 Tunisian Revolution and was played by Senator Bernie Sanders before speeches during his 2016 Presidential campaign rallies.
Then, of course, there was the album’s first single, “Fast Car,” a tune that made the top 10 in the U.S. and U.K. as it expresses the same fundamental urge expressed by so many singers and bands since the Animals nailed it so perfectly in 1965: We gotta get out of this place, if it’s the last thing we ever do. But no one had expressed that urge to the broad listening public (and the MTV viewing audience) so vividly from a below-the-poverty-line perspective.
VIDEO: Tracy Chapman “Fast Car”
The song’s success was massive, receiving three Grammy nominations: Record of the Year, Song of the Year, and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance (which it won). It was also nominated for a Best Female Video MTV Video Music Award, in the days when MTV Video Music Awards sorta meant something. Chapman famously played the song at the Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute on June 11, 1988.
While the rest of the album was overshadowed by “Fast Car,” it wasn’t for a lack of quality material. “Across the Lines” is an uncompromising look at racial division (“Across the lines / Who would dare to go / Under the bridge / Over the tracks / That separates whites from blacks”) … “Mountains O’ Things” takes on the irresistible lure of overt materialism (“Consume more than you need / This is the dream / Make you pauper / Or make you queen”) … “Behind the Wall,” performed a cappella, describes a horrifying domestic violence scenario from the neighboring apartment (“Last night I heard the screaming / Then a silence that chilled my soul”).
Not to say that the album is any sort of full-on political manifesto – “Baby Can I Hold You,” “If Not Now…” and “For You” set aside the political and social for the personal. But those political and social threads are what the music world grabbed as it raised Chapman to global star status. Just five month’s after the album’s release, she joined Peter Gabriel, Sting, Youssou N’Dour and Bruce Springsteen on Amnesty International’s 1988 Human Rights Now! Tour.
While it seems that Chapman’s career is a rare example of overnight success in the music business – she was signed to Elektra Records in 1987 – she told Hot Press in 1999 that “I was simply doing pretty much what I had been doing for quite some time; I started writing songs and playing guitar when I was seven or eight years old, I wrote some of the songs on that album when I was 16, I had been playing the same kind of music until I made my first record, and surprisingly, I found this place in popular music. I really didn’t expect that any of my records would be as successful as they have been.
“When my record came out, things were changing,” she added. “Right before my record, Suzanne Vega came out, so you started to have this new interest in singer-songwriters. And so I kinda feel like I was right there at the beginning of this new wave, in that people were going back to the way they had appreciated Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell. I’m not comparing myself to them, but just in terms of singer-songwriters.”
Today, one can’t help but wonder: Where has Tracy Chapman been? No, seriously: Where has she been? Her last album of new material was in November 2008 (there was a greatest hits record in 2015), and her official website hasn’t been updated since shortly before that.
It’s kind of a shame: I have to believe that Chapman’s voice would be a very welcome addition to today’s musical landscape. As she sings in “Why?” from the debut album: “But somebody’s gonna have to answer / The time is coming soon / Amidst all these questions and contradictions / There’re some who seek the truth.”
The music world needs all the truth-seekers it can find.
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