The Week In Pop

The Long Journey Of “Fast Car”

Take a look at this:

That’s a freshly shorn Justin Bieber posted up in the BBC Live Lounge not long ago, clutching an acoustic guitar and covering Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” like so many flannel-clad open mic singers before him. If a black woman’s folk-pop hit from 1988 feels like an odd choice for a young white pop heartthrob known for his fluid R&B vocals and on-trend electronic production, consider two things: (1) Bieber went to #1 last year with the acoustic Ed Sheeran cowrite “Love Yourself” duh and (2) “Fast Car,” although it may be the only folk-pop hit from 1988, is not just any folk-pop hit from 1988.

It’s not just that “Fast Car” is a great song, though it certainly is great: a guitar figure that manages to be wistful without being hokey, a savvy construction that allows the chorus to quicken your pulse even when performed solo, the way Chapman’s vocals communicate both the weight of a hopeless situation and the wonder of escaping it. “Fast Car” is a jam, no doubt about it. But more importantly, “Fast Car” is a jam that never seems to expire.

Like Suzanne Vega’s “Tom’s Diner” — which returned to the pop cultural spotlight last year when Giorgio Moroder covered it with Britney Spears and Fall Out Boy interpolated it on “Centuries” — “Fast Car” is one of those songs that lends credence to the concept of reincarnation. It continually emerges again in some new context, most recently when a pair of electronic dance artists inexplicably released cover versions on the same day last December.

In the upper video, Swedish remix DJ Tobtok plays it straight, building from the tune’s original guitar-oriented foundations into a colorful splash of tropical house synthesizers while vocalist River more or less imitates Chapman’s pensive, understated delivery. Below that, the UK’s Jonas Blue dispenses with the string work and gets straight to the keyboards before erupting into the sonic equivalent of a laser light show sponsored by Rainforest Cafe. It’s a little bigger and bolder than the Tobtok take, but Dakota’s vocals offer a similar callback to Chapman.

As strange as it may be to hear competing tropical house versions of “Fast Car” dueling to become this year’s dominant background noise, the song’s history of reinterpretation is long and diverse. Perhaps most famously, London R&B singer Gabrielle sampled it on her 1991 demo “Dreams” but had to wipe the sample from 1993’s official version due to clearance issues. The same year Gabrielle’s demo began circulating in UK clubs, rappers Nice & Smooth sampled “Fast Car” on their hit “Sometimes I Rhyme Slow.” (British rapper Example also sampled it years later, much less effectively.)

A cappella group the Flying Pickets covered it. Pop-punks Amazing Transparent Man did, too. Ditto nu-metal band Darwin’s Waiting Room. Wayne Wonder made a dancehall version. Experimental indie rock band Xiu Xiu recorded a terrifying minimal take for their 2003 album A Promise. Vertical Horizon have performed it live, as have Kelly Clarkson and Chris Daughtry. And cover specialists Boyce Avenue teamed with Kina Grannis for an acoustic rendition so faithful it’s basically redundant. The list goes on and on, and therefore so does “Fast Car.”

So: Why have so many different kinds of musicians gravitated toward this song? I suspect some of it has to do with the original track’s disparate sonic DNA. There are traces of folk, pop, rock, country, blues, and soul in Chapman’s performance, and the musical loop from the verse obviously adapts well to a hip-hop beat. It’s also a real songwriter’s song, one that leans more on sharp composition than any specific kind of sonic window dressing. And it tells a story most people can relate to, one of feeling trapped in a dead-end life and considering a treacherous leap toward something better. It’s universal.

A simpler answer may be that once a song like “Fast Car” picks up momentum via a handful of covers and appropriations, it’s like an automobile with the brakes out rolling downhill. Musicians begin to gravitate toward it by default; it becomes a standard via inertia until Bieber finally gets to it, plucking it not out of obscurity but out of the air. “I had a feeling that I belonged,” goes one of the song’s climactic lyrics. And at this point, “Fast Car” belongs to everyone.

Barbra Streisand
CREDIT: Theo Wargo/Getty Images

CHART WATCH

Frank Ocean’s reign atop the Billboard 200 album chart was short-lived. Blonde drops to #5 this week with 67,000 equivalent units and is replaced by Barbra Streisand’s Encore: Movie Partners Sing Broadway, which racked up 149,000 units en route to her 11th #1 album. Per Billboard, that extends her record for the most all-time #1 albums by a woman, and it ties her with Bruce Springsteen for third-most overall behind the Beatles (19) and Jay Z (13).

Debuting at #2 is Florida Georgia Line’s Dig Your Roots with 145,000 units and 126,000 in traditional sales, followed by Britney Spears’ Glory with 111,000 units and 88,000 sales. Young Thug’s Jeffery enters at #8 with 37,000 units and 18,000 in sales, his second top-10 debut this year following the #7-debuting Slime Season 3.

The top of the Hot 100 singles chart is more or less stagnant, with the Chainsmokers and Halsey’s “Closer” remaining at #1 for a third straight week and zero new entries in the top 10. “Heathens” by Twenty One Pilots does reach a new peak of #3, while the band’s other current top-10 hit “Ride” falls to #7. And Shawn Mendes’ “Treat You Better” rises to a new high point of #8.

POP FIVE

Post Malone – “Deja Vu” (Feat. Justin Bieber)
I was thinking Bieber should be embarrassed for jumping on a Post Malone track but maybe it’s me that should be embarrassed because… this… song… is… good?

Aloe Blacc – “Billie Jean” (Michael Jackson Cover)
On one hand, props to Aloe Blacc for not just playing this straight. On the other hand, naaaaah.

Zara Larsson – “Ain’t My Fault”
Was kind of expecting this to be a Silkk The Shocker/Mystikal cover, but hyperactive post-“Flawless” trap-synthpop is OK too.

OneRepublic – “Future Looks Good”
Future would look better if I wasn’t anticipating hearing this song on the radio every hour for the next 8-12 months.

Rebecca Black – “The Great Divide”
Just when you thought Rebecca Black was a one-hit wonder, she attempts a serious pop song and proves that, yes, she’s a one-hit wonder.

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • Taylor Swift and Tom Hiddleston broke up (if you believe they were ever really dating in the first place). [Us]
  • Ariana Grande previewed “My Favorite Part,” a collab with her boyfriend Mac Miller, on Snapchat. [Twitter]
  • Demi Lovato covered Adele’s “When We Were Young” in Cleveland. [YouTube]
  • Camila Cabello left Fifth Harmony’s Missouri concert mid-show on Friday after suffering from anxiety. [People]
  • In a new interview Sean Paul gently criticized artists like Justin Bieber, Drake, and Major Lazer for making dancehall-oriented music without recognizing or “understanding” its roots. [The Guardian]
  • The New York Times asked Stevie Nicks if she’s “a fan of Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga or any other major contemporary female artist.” Her answer: “I love Katy Perry. [And] I’m so happy for Adele right now.” [New York Times]
  • The Chainsmokers say they’ll only make an album if their fans demand it. [Radio.com]
  • Britney Spears reached a settlement with ex-manager Sam Lufi who filed a defamation suit against her and her family way back in 2009. [TMZ]
  • Rihanna launched the autumn/winter 2016 Fenty Puma by Rihanna fashion line at popups in NYC and LA on Tuesday. She said it was inspired by Japanese street culture and “if the Addams Family was working out.” [AP]
  • Madonna and ex-husband Guy Ritchie finally settled their custody dispute over 16-year-old son Rocco. [Reuters]
  • Wiz Khalifa and Charlie Puth’s “See You Again” became the second ever video to hit 2 billion views on YouTube. [ YouTube]
  • Here’s a tour of the outside of Justin Bieber’s house. BBC]
  • Jason Alden thinks people made too big a deal when he dressed in blackface as Lil Wayne for Halloween. [Billboard]

HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME (APPLE EVENT EDITION)