It was 1988. I had just received my driver’s license and had recently installed a tape deck and working speakers into my old Fiat Spider. I mostly played tapes I had made by sitting on the floor of my room listening to the radio waiting for one of my favorite songs to come on. My go-to station at the time was a hip-hop/r&b station in Dallas. Being well over 100 miles from Dallas, I had to work with the antenna of my stereo to get a signal. Most of my homemade tapes were as much static as music. My parents may not have claimed that the music parts were actually music; although, I found little difference in my dad’s Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons and my Roger or Rockwell. When the Fiat was running (which was not very often!) I usually had a tape in the deck, the top down, and the volume up (I had to turn it up if I wanted to hear anything over the wind and the whining engine). We lived “out in the country” a good fifteen minute drive into town. I had time for 3-5 songs to and from school each day. It never occurred to me that I could get through a whole album in a day’s worth of driving, especially if I ran a few errands (read: “cruised” around town). One day a friend loaned me a new tape she had bought. I guess she had grown tired of it and didn’t mind handing it off. Or maybe she felt sorry for me and my barely audible tape of static and the occasional thumping sound. Whatever the reason, she loaned me Tracy Chapman by Tracy Chapman. For the first time I listened to an entire album. It’s not much of an exaggeration to say my life changed that day. The sound of a store-bought tape was glorious. But more importantly, the songs themselves moved me like none before (or after, now that I think about it). At sixteen I was aware of poverty and domestic abuse, but not directly. And as most sixteen-year-old boys, I was becoming more and more aware of the complications of (often one-sided) relationships. Given my location, I was acutely aware of racism and materialism, if not indeed complicit in both. But nothing had made me as aware of any of these things up to this point in my life as Tracy Chapman. Not even another Chapman musician, try as he might, could affect me like Tracy did. With her songs I began to see these issues from the eyes of the victimized, and I began to contemplate the systemic, cultural, social, and economic complications that held these things in place.
- Plight of the poor: “Talkin’ Bout a Revolution“
- Plight of (poor) women (often with abusive partners): “Fast Car,” “Behind the Wall,” “She’s Got Her Ticket“)
- Racism: “Across the Lines“
- Complexity of (often one-sided) relationships: “Baby Can I Hold You,” “For My Lover,” “If Not Now…,” “For You“
- Materialism: “Mountain O’ Things“
- A whole host of things like Starvation, Loneliness, War, Domestic Abuse: “Why?“
This all might seem a little schmaltzy to my forty-year-old self (and maybe to you too!), but to that sixteen-year-old it was significant. I can still sing along with the whole album. I’ve seen her in concert at the Hollywood Bowl. I’ve bought every Tracy Chapman album since her debut. And I was listening to that debut album as I wrote this post, humming along as I typed.