From ‘Fast Cars’ to Self-Gifted ‘Flowers’: What Pop Music Reveals about the Status of Women

Tracy Chapman and Luke Combs perform during the 66th GRAMMY Awards on Feb. 4, 2024, in Los Angeles. (John Shearer / Getty Images for The Recording Academy)

For a moment, our culture wars held a ceasefire, and music was our balm.

This year’s annual Grammy Awards began on a profound note of hope, as the beaming, grey-haired and youthful looking folk icon Tracy Chapman opened the show duetting with country singer Luke Combs on her celebrated 1988 hit song, “Fast Car.” It wasn’t just Combs’ reverence for the 59-year-old legend on full display, but also the audible excitement from the live audience, the sincere smile on Chapman’s face, and the recognition that two artists representing different sides of our political divide—one a white cis-heteronormative man from a “red state,” the other a Black queer woman living in a “blue state”—could come together and literally harmonize on music’s biggest night.  

Various thinkpieces have emerged in the wake of this performance to celebrate this moment, and “Fast Car” has risen to the top of music charts due to its rediscovery among a younger group of music lovers. All this is thanks to Combs, whose country-version cover of Chapman’s song peaked to number 2 on the Billboard 200 last year, and Chapman became the first Black woman to win Country Music Awards’ Song of the Year.

Like so many others who have grown up on Chapman’s profound music with her deeply intricate lyrics documenting Black working-class life and revolutionary politics, I’m delighted to see her receive these accolades. With so many of our legends dying, who doesn’t want to see underappreciated talents finally receiving their flowers while they’re still alive?

And yet, there is something so desperate about this moment, a forced need to see “unity,” as this moment between Chapman and Combs has come to represent. This need among so many of us to witness racial harmony is almost disingenuous, as if we could conveniently ignore the obvious white male privilege that Combs brings to Chapman’s rediscovery without acknowledging how such allyship should be intentional in our efforts toward national healing.

Even more problematic are the different ways some have taken to social media to erase Chapman’s differences of race, gender and sexual orientation—insisting on her “universality”—or even to reinterpret her incredibly bleak song as one of “hope” during a bygone era. Talk about missing the deep-seated irony conveyed in the refrain: “I had a feeling I could be someone, be someone, be someone,” the very repetition sonically fading out along with the hope—which first materialized with the promise of a “fast car” to anywhere but where the song’s narrator resided and driven by a love interest … now crushed by the reality of romantic disappointment and generational poverty.

Equally awkward are those comments that seek to praise Chapman for her desexualized appearance and her “humility,” in contrast to other femme-presenting women artists who appeared bedecked in their most revealing gowns and proud of their looks and status. Not only do such comments erase and sublimate Chapman’s butch-masculine style as sexy in and of itself—as members of the LGBTQIA+ community have pointed out—it also sets up a binary that suggests one type of womanhood (Black womanhood in particular) is respectable, while its antithesis (sexualized femininity or extraverted confidence) is considered somehow “inappropriate.”

I might appreciate such praise if I didn’t have vivid memories of Chapman being mocked as “unattractive” back when she debuted due to her dreadlocks, which were short then and far from the length that now approximates our metrics for “good hair.”

It’s more than gratifying to see Chapman aging like fine wine with her flawless and glowing skin as she pushes 60, but her more mature presentation should not be weaponized against younger talent—especially those whose hypersexual personas afford them a visibility that has long been denied to artists like Chapman, who must work twice as hard when performing outside these gendered boxes, regardless of their obvious talent. And even when they fit the boxes, their talent is often denied or overlooked.

Yet, it was only recently that rapper Megan Thee Stallion packed a punch with her chart-topping “Hiss” and its hard-hitting, “Don’t be mad at Megan / … [be] mad at Megan’s law” line, which sent one rap star reeling as countless fans turned to Google to learn the history of a sex-offender law—a reminder that Black women artists are still moving the needle in our culture and doing so in a flex for sexual freedom, whether that freedom looks like a sexy rapper or a self-assured lesbian standing and smiling in her truth.

Our pop music is an opportunity to assess the status of women in our culture, and for the first time, women dominated Grammy night by performing on the main stage or winning the top awards—from the brilliant R&B artist Victoria Monet winning Best New Artist; to Fantasia’s energetic memorial tribute to Tina Turner that returned us to the late icon’s country and blues-rock roots; to the vulnerability expressed in younger artists like Olivia Rodrigo’s “Vampire” and Billie Eilish Song-of-the-Year-winning “What Was I Made For” from the movie Barbie; to the power of 80-year-old legend Joni Mitchell making her Grammy debut performing her classic “From Both Sides,” which documents her status as a veteran in both love and culture wars; to the great Annie Lennox calling for a ceasefire in the Israeli-Gaza conflict during a memorial to the late singer Sinead O’Connor.

Seeing this variety of women’s musical strength across ages and races was a powerful reminder of women’s slow but steady ascendancy.

Black women artists are still moving the needle in our culture and doing so in a flex for sexual freedom.

Victoria Monet and Beyoncé at the Grammys. (Kevin Mazur / Getty Images for The Recording Academy)

This was most lyrically presented in the songs. The timeless “Fast Car” presents Chapman as a sharp storyteller narrating what she once claimed was the story of her parents and their dashed hopes—even as the song has been claimed as a “lesbian anthem,” despite the heterosexual couple that is centered (this is not to discount the possibilities of a queer narrator, but if she is, she is equally trapped by heteronormative dreams and desires).

The narrator of “Fast Car,” who finally finds the strength at song’s end to tell her no-count trifling lover to “take your fast car and keep on driving,” is an earlier version of Sza’s narrator on the heartbreak and revenge-fantasy songs that comprise her Grammy-nominated album SOS—a worthy project that many had hoped would break the 25-year-drought of a Black woman winning the Album of the Year Grammy, since Lauryn Hill’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.

But, if Beyoncé could not accomplish this feat with either Renaissance or Lemonade, perhaps the next Black woman will have to wait until middle or old age, or for the boost of someone with more privilege—much like Chapman—to receive such an honor.

This is not to take away from actual winner Taylor Swift, who had a successful year and history-making world tour and whose album Midnights, which propelled her to a historic four-time album of the year winner, demonstrates masterful lyricism. Who would doubt that—despite her wealth as a self-made billionaire and her vast resources—she was just as mired in the same heteronormative dreams as “Fast Car”’s narrator, someone who, in “Bejeweled” for example, suffers from her lover “walking all over my peace of mind / in the shoes that I gave you as a present.” Her grievance is not unlike Chapman’s narrator, who bitterly reflects, “You got a fast car / I got a job that pays all the bills.” These figures represent vastly different socio-economic brackets, while contending with the same exploitation of women’s labor.

Do these songs depict the shift in women’s status over the decades? We may have come a long way from passively waiting for someone else’s “fast car” to move us out of poverty—and failing to doing so—while the latest songs imagine us killing our exes or shimmering like diamonds once we move on.

We have arrived at that moment in which we are more than eager to celebrate the women who can drive in their own fast cars—accrued debts and generational poverty be damned.

Miley Cyrus performs at the Grammys on Feb. 4, 2024. (Valerie Macon / AFP via Getty Images)

Perhaps the most triumphant song is Miley Cyrus’ “Flowers,” which received the Record of the Year Grammy. Performing her song while clearly channeling Tina Turner—one of her idols—Cyrus reminded us all that “I can buy my own flowers / write my name in the sand … I can hold my own hand / Yeah, I can love me better than you can.”

Now that “Fast Car” has found a new generation of listeners and has again climbed to the top of the pop music charts—thanks to a reverential country singer relaunching her to the masses as she collects the songwriting royalties that have likely appreciated with interest in her bank account—Chapman can certainly buy herself scores of flowers, as I’m sure she’s done countless times. Still, it’s gratifying to know a new audience is prepared to add to her bouquet while she’s still living and here to appreciate them.  

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Janell Hobson is professor of women's, gender and sexuality studies at the University at Albany. She is the author of When God Lost Her Tongue: Historical Consciousness and the Black Feminist Imagination. She is also the editor of Tubman 200: The Harriet Tubman Bicentennial Project.