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Why Tracy Chapman made us cry

Her Grammy duet with Luke Combs struck a deeper chord.

Tracy Chapman and Luke Combs perform "Fast Car" at the 2024 Grammy Awards. (Screen shot / CBS)

The magic began the moment the camera panned to Tracy Chapman’s hands on the first guitar notes of “Fast Car."

The crowd inside Los Angeles’ Crypto Arena roared and viewers at home posted on social media about bursting into tears.

Chapman’s Grammy duet with Luke Combs was both surprising and symbolic. 

Last year, Combs’ heartfelt and inescapable remake of “Fast Car” resulted in Ms. Chapman being the first Black woman songwriter to achieve No. 1 on the country charts.

Last night, she performed it live for the first time in nine years—a beautiful echo to her performance of the song on the Grammy stage in 1989 when she won Best New Artist.

“Fast Car” taps into the shared joys—and existential angst—of American life: despite poverty and inequality, our country still offers a sense of belonging and the opportunity to “be someone,” as the song’s refrain repeats.

When Chapman and Combs sang the choruses together in a display of unity across genres and generations, they minted Grammy gold. Taylor Swift danced. Oprah wiped her eyes.

Why did we cry during the Grammy awards?

Intense feelings have been rife over the past year as Americans try to calibrate their lives to the concurrent stressors of recovering from a pandemic and dealing with inflation, military conflicts, and fears of losing democracy.

Music is a release valve, which explains why the waterworks flowed when we saw Tracy Chapman's smile and heard her nourishing voice again.

Chapman's appearance with Combs recalled another TV moment when music brought a divided country together: President Obama crying during Aretha Franklin’s performance of Carole King’s “Natural Woman” at the 2015 Kennedy Center Honors concert.

People of all ages are crying at concerts after reuniting with friends and their favorite artists in the wake of COVID-19 disruptions.

But for Gen X music fans with profound connections to the music of their youth, a performance like Chapman’s with Combs equaled validation. 

“Fast Car” made the cohort feel seen —then and now.

The song is part of an uptick in 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s music on streaming platforms which have rendered the chronology of music discovery into a nonlinear experience, sending songs like A-ha’s 1985 hit “Take On Me” and 1985’s “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” by Tears for Fears into the billion plays club.

In 2023, 19 of the 50 most-streamed groups on Spotify included band members with hits from the 1980s and 1990s.

The MTV generation —of which I am a member—reached midlife at the crux of shifting technologies and the flattening of music’s historical timeline. Songs helped us traverse a century and a millennium and have served as basic needs for survival.

For Gen Xers who are sandwiched between dying parents and their children’s fragile mental health while also dealing with financial trauma, unemployment, and self-hatred, music is as necessary as food.

We are so tired.

We are also extremely vulnerable to unity and hope. We still believe music can change the world—which is why we view Lionel Richie's new Netflix documentary about the creation of "We Are the World" through the lens of community rather than irony.

We were the first generation to experience access to music everywhere we went —from transistors and car radios to the Sony Walkman and now smartphones. Music is always with us.

A friend who worked with me in a record store in high school— pre-internet— lost her son suddenly during the pandemic. We played Tracy Chapman's 1988 debut in the shop when it was released. Although we had not seen each other in decades, I wept for her, the free spirit in swirly skirts and jingling bracelets. I also wept for another five friends who lost children to suicide or addiction over the past few years—and with each moment of grief, there is a song associated with a fond memory. 

Those memories aren’t merely nostalgia, they are unbreakable bonds, and sharing songs and concerts is our way of alleviating the pain and identifying with each other no matter our race, religion, region, status, or cohort.

In light of the ongoing tragedies in the Middle East and Ukraine, sounds from the 1980s Cold War era continue to serve as a reminder of music’s power to soothe, reinforce, or challenge worldviews, to hold people accountable to their dreams, and above all, to be a source for happiness and healing. As we round the corner into a contentious election season, music is one of the few paths to unity.

"Fast Car," with its dozen layers of meaning, is reawakening audiences to struggles and challenges that remain as urgent today as they were in 1988. Tracy Chapman’s appearance at the 2024 Grammy Awards affirmed her brilliance and Luke Combs’ reverence.

No matter how dire the circumstances, there is strength in the music between us.


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