Welcome to Formative Jukebox, a column exploring the personal relationships people have with music. Every week, a writer will tackle a song, album, show, or musical artist and their influence on our lives. Tune in every week for a brand new essay.
I’ve never had a great relationship with my mother or father, one due to alcoholism, and the other due to a general apathy to my existence. Yet I always felt like there was something wrong with me, because I didn’t wholly love my parents the way kids are told they’re supposed to. It wasn’t until I found the Tracy Chapman classic, “Fast Car,” that I realized I wasn’t the only person who felt this way, and that I wasn’t wrong for not loving my parents entirely … a revelation that was both liberating and heartbreaking.
Growing up I was not abused, nor did I struggle financially (that would come later). I was told I had it better than a lot of people. I didn’t feel like I did, but my family said it so often that I assumed it to be true. Who was I going to believe, myself or them?
My family drilled this sentiment of me being “lucky” into my head as I grew up. My feelings about my parents were frequently invalidated by those around me, because “things could be worse.” I had no outlet through which I could share my feelings; I didn’t have a place to talk about how I felt completely unloved, that I would purposely leave Buffy the Vampire Slayer paused in the DVD player and turn it on when my my dad returned home in hopes that maybe he’d watch it with me. I had no one to whom I could explain the hot, shaky feeling in my chest and stomach when I could smell liquor over everything else in the house.
It may be odd for someone struggling with parental relationships to find solace in a sad song like “Fast Car,” a song written by Chapman in 1986, 6 years before I was even born. It didn’t begin reaching widespread popularity until after Chapman performed it at Nelson Mandela’s Birthday Tribute concert in 1988. Among many honors, “Fast Car” peaked at 6 on the US Billboard Hot 100, and was ranked 167 in Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
Like most songs, there is not one “correct way” to understand it; however, I instantly had a clear interpretation when I heard it. The song, for me, revolves around a disintegrating father who is fading before his child’s eyes. He drinks too much, as Chapman says, and sees more of his friends then he does of his own children. His problems become so severe that his child quits school to work and take care of him.
Despite these struggles, his child still has the memories of driving in the car with him, times when she felt alive and happy. That’s very much true of life: The bad times don’t erase the good times, and the good times don’t erase the bad. They exist together, separately for most people. I myself drifted between these two worlds of positive and negative. One day I’d love my parents. They were everything in my eyes. And other days I wished I could hurt them the way they hurt me.
The song gave me more than a sense of being understood. It enlightened me with the reality that my parents are human, above all else. Being my parent didn’t remove their flaws, complexities, and struggles. While I tried to deal with anger, fear, and resentment over situations I felt I had no control over, Chapman’s song presented me with a character who helped her father despite him being a lost soul, for lack of a better phrase. Her character is not angry, nor does she hate him, even though she is pushed to change her life to take care of him. She recognizes his humanity and loves him, or so it seems.
I felt challenged, for the first time ever, to look at my parents as human beings, to accept that their realities were as three-dimensional, difficult, and painful as my own. I couldn’t hate them for not being perfect anymore.
Taking my parents down from the pedestal I’d put them on allowed me to build a new, unique bond with my parents that I’d never thought possible. I found myself looking at them, frequently, not as my parent, but as a human being with a complex struggles and a backstory similar to mine in many ways. My parents let me down sometimes, as all humans are fated to do to the ones they care about from time to time. I’m sure that I’ve let them down plenty of times. Ultimately I realized that that there wasn’t some major fundamental difference between them and I … aside from age and ideology, really. What was more important than anything, however, is that loving their imperfection helped me set up the path to learning how to love the imperfection in myself.
My relationship with my parents has never been perfect, even after the epiphany of “Fast Car,” and I never expect that it will be. Most of the time, I’m able to look back on their mistakes without anger. Other times I get stuck in my memories (I’m working on it). What remains the most consistent in this, is that I look back with a radiant pride for my own journey. I was a kid who recognized their parents’ humanity, a kid who loved and supported them even if they weren’t always great at showing and expressing the sentiment back.
I don’t love my parents the way I’ve been told I’m “supposed” to. It’s not a blind love, compelled by the blood that we share. I love them in a human way, which is to say, sometimes fully and other times less than I should. There have been and always will be bad times, but those “fast car” moments with my mom and dad are some of the best of my life.
Image courtesy of Elektra Records.