Did I listen to Tracy Chapman in my young queer years? Of course. Did I listen to her in 1988, when her very excellent self-titled debut album came out? Well, no—but only because I was seven years old at the time. I was listening to her before the end of the ’90s, though, and I do still own at least two of her albums—on cassette!
After country artist Luke Combs’s cover of Chapman’s iconic song “Fast Car” blew up last year and brought a new surge of attention to the original, the two performed the song together at the 66th annual Grammy Awards on Sunday night, and since then, the internet has gone wild for her. “Fast Car” is charting at #1 on iTunes, and the self-titled album it comes from is too. Her Greatest Hits album is at #2, and her hit song “Give Me One Reason” (off of her 1995 album, New Beginning) is at #9. Fans new and old are proclaiming their love for her, and their interest in her skincare routine—at 59 years old, the singer-songwriter is looking good.
There is no question about it: I am enjoying the Tracy Chapman renaissance. I am enjoying this happening while the artist is alive to see it. I am enjoying seeing new people introduced to her and her music (though, sharing is admittedly also hard).
But there are also a few things the internet at large is getting wrong, as evidenced by some overly popular posts.
Author Jeff Pearlman posted on the social platform X:
“Tracy Chapman was the most beautiful person there. She wasn’t dressed up. She didn’t do crazy shit to her face. She could have been walking through a store. Normal as can be. Yet beyond radiant, glowing, stunning.”
Beautiful, radiant, stunning—yes, yes and yes. But “not dressed up”?! The woman was wearing custom Prada. Her outfit was featured in GQ and People! She was not, as women are expected to at such functions, wearing a gown or an overtly feminine getup. Because she was ostensibly wearing “menswear,” and, more so, because she is a butch woman, her Prada doesn’t count in the eyes of the public? (I don’t know that Chapman identifies as butch, but you see what I’m saying here—masculine-of-centre presenting or androgynous also work.) Also, as GQ points out, the black shirt/blue jeans combo was a nod to the outfit she wore for her 1989 Grammy performance.
Speaking of that 1989 Grammy performance, Chapman won the Grammy for Best New Artist that night. The Root posted on X that Chapman was finally getting her “long overdue flowers.”
With all due respect, what?! The woman was nominated for six Grammys for her debut album. She’s had five hit singles chart on Billboard’s Hot 100. She has four platinum albums. She was on the cover of Rolling Stone in 1988!
This is not me saying, “lesbians love her and have for decades”—it’s awards, media, charts—objective commercial success. And, additionally, lesbians have made her into no less than an icon since the start of her career and show no signs of stopping. (Is Chapman the great equalizer of the queer community? Perhaps.)
There is no doubt that Combs’s cover of “Fast Car” brought the song to new audiences, including younger ones and country music listeners, but the song was not exactly a secret, unknown track before the success of his version. On Sunday, the Daily Beast had the nerve to publish that “as of March of 2023, Chapman had already netted over $500,000 in residuals off the back of Combs’s success.” I’m sorry, on the back of whom? Chapman literally wrote the song. It is her song. (The Daily Beast seems to have made some edits, but this Yahoo! News reprint tells all, at least at the time of writing.) Because of the spotlight Combs’s cover shone on the original, Chapman became the first Black songwriter to win the Country Music Award for Song of the Year in November 2023, 35 years after its release. But the idea that Chapman owes Combs her success is absurd, and absolutely—from all the respect he’s shown her—does not seem like a sentiment Combs himself would agree with.
Journalist Imani Gandy says it best: “There would be no success if Tracy Chapman had not written the goddamn song in the first goddamn place.” And even that may be putting it lightly.
Since her last tour in 2009, Chapman has been largely out of the public eye, on her terms. Never has there been any doubt that she’d be embraced back on the stage should she choose to return to it. She hasn’t recorded another studio album since Our Bright Future in 2008, and since then she’s only played in public a handful of times on record. But the hype about Chapman never died down. She just chose to move to the desert, fix up an old home and raise some chickens with the love of her life. Okay … maybe I made that up, but we can pretend I’ve given no previous thought to where Tracy Chapman may have been all of these years. (The answer, or what is known, is San Francisco. California state representative Matt Haney claims to have seen Chapman at a school board meeting, while others have spotted her out at a bakery and buying pet supplies—regular human things!)
While Chapman has said that being in the public eye is uncomfortable for her, her performance on Sunday and the outpouring of excitement since has made it clear that she’d be welcomed back with open arms. In the meantime, I’ll hold on to my chicken-raising theory, and invite someone to get Chapman’s “For My Lover” on the charts, where it belongs.