tremble clef

Friday, October 12, 2007

Mutya Buena, "Fast Car" (2007)

Over the past week, The Singles Jukebox has been reviewing, track-by-track, the Radio 1 Established 1967 compilation (starting here). It's a spotty album, but the writing by the reviewers (excepting one pathetic bloke) is often insightful and vivid even when the material doesn't deserve it.

Mutya Buena's version of "Fast Car" doesn't fare especially well, receiving an average score of five. The reviewers generally agree that the song seems to have lost something: Joseph McCombs finds it less poignant, and John Cunningham feels like it now lacks urgency and "character." Even Kevin Elliott, who is most sanguine about the track, likes it because it's brighter and more hopeful, or, to put it another way, because it shook off the original's haunting depression -- which is to say that he essentially likes it for the same reasons that the others don't.

It makes perfect sense to compare Mutya's take with Tracy Chapman's original, of course, and I think Elliott is right to do so on the question of "hope." But I am much harder-pressed to say if Mutya's version is more or less hopeful, because it strikes me as having a deeply ambivalent relation to it.

Mutya has made some clear changes to the song. She re-plays the acoustic guitar riff using synths, but a lot of the changes are in the service of shortening the track (Tracy's version is almost five minutes, while Mutya boils it down to just a bit over three). She omits several verses: an early one about "working at the convenience store," and a subsequent verse that again mentions a job at a checkout (and dreaming about moving "out of the shelter"). In Tracy's version, the repeated references to the store is another marker of how defeated the narrator is: she may start the song as a young girl and end up married to the driver of the fast car, but through it all she heartbreakingly hasn't been able to make any progress work-wise. Mutya ditches this trope, but at least she preserves the start and end points of the story -- girl dreams of escape, girl marries man and has kids, man is no good, girl tells him to take his fast car and go -- and thus still conveys the sad dead-end of the narrative.

But perhaps the change that most strikes the casual listener is the way the song no longer bursts into its chorus. That amazing chorus has always functioned, for the song, as the locus of hope; for all the trials and tribulations the narrator goes through, she has a moment of freedom and exhilaration when she is in that fast car. Or rather, "had." Because, significantly, the moment is only ever a memory: she's never in the car during the song, but merely recalling being so. (Indeed, it's not even clear if they still "got" the car.) "So remember when we were driving, driving in your car/The speed so fast, felt like I was drunk/City lights lay out before us, and your arm felt nice wrapped round my shoulder." Even though the chorus lapses, for a moment, into an ambiguous present tense ("city lights lay out before us"), it's still a chorus about the time when they "were" driving. Considered strictly, "Fast Car" therefore never gives us escape or catharsis: the moment has already come and gone, and all we have is a memory of it, which of course only makes us sadder.

In Tracy's original version, it's easier, I think, to forget the retrospective nature of the chorus. The song hums and strums along for two entire minutes -- an eternity in pop music -- before we get the chorus. If those two minutes feel lulling or even boring for some listeners, all the better, because we can see it as conveying the tedium of our narrator's life. When we finally get the chorus, we get it with along with the first appearance of the drums, and the song springs to life. It's a dash of color, and we can almost feel the wind in our hair. Because of the instrumentation, even though the chorus is about remembering a drive in the fast car, the music makes us feel that we are speeding along right there and then, in that moment.

Mutya's version in contrast refuses to give us even this illusion of being there in the fast car. Her chorus never erupts. The entirety of her version is bleakly drumless. Aside from the change in melody, the only things that mark off her chorus as a chorus is the more prominent organ line, and the way Mutya's vocals on the word "I, I..." are more emphasized -- they sound a bit more disembodied -- perhaps by some sort of overdubbing. It even sounds to me like Mutya corrects Tracy's one use of the past tense: she swallows the end of the verb somewhat, but sounds like she sings "city lights laid out before us." Unlike Tracy's chorus, then, Mutya's never truly positions itself as an escape, and in that sense the song feels more hopeless.

But the story is not as simple as that, and certainly doesn't end there. If Mutya refuses to deceive us into believing we are in that car, her chorus paradoxically feels more present in another way. Tracy actually initiates her chorus with the word "so": "So remember we were driving..." Mutya changes that to a pronoun: "I remember we were driving..." Tracy's chorus is therefore a command or request, albeit a desperate one: please try to remember, because only that offers us hope and solace. Mutya's chorus in comparison is less of an imperative, but an actual description of her act of remembering. While Mutya never lets us pretend that we are in that car, she at least lets us witness her in a moment of remembering a time when she was, and thus in a moment of hope and comfort. At least we know that Mutya still can hope; maybe Tracy is past that point, and reduced to simply trying to goad herself into remembering.

Neither song therefore has a straightforward relation to hope. Mutya's, in a sense, is more ambivalent: while she is more unrelenting in not allowing us to forget that being in that car is a thing of the past, it at least points us to the hope that memory can provide. (Unless you think that remembering is a kind of fixation and should not be an avenue to hope, but surely we're depressed enough by this post as it is.)

Perhaps this deep and beautiful ambivalence accounts for the two other alterations to the song I want to end by pointing out. Tracy ends all her choruses with this couplet: "And I, I had a feeling that I belonged/And I, I had a feeling I could be someone, be someone, be someone." Mutya stays faithful to this wording the first time she sings the chorus, but the second time, she changes "had" to "got." Is "got" in the present, or past tense? Is "having" a feeling better or worse than "getting" one? Which gives us more hope, more solace? Which is more real, more present? Which one has abandoned us less -- is it more likely that a feeling you once "had" will return, or one that you once (or now) "got"? I don't know. I also don't know which is better: in Tracy's version, she tells us (and her lover) that "You [We] gotta make a decision/ Leave tonight or live and die this way." Mutya doesn't even think that living is one of the options, because, both times in her song, she says: "We gotta make a decision/ Leave tonight or we can die this way." But then again, even in the original, "living and dying" this way was already a kind of death, so it's not clear if Mutya is being less hopeful, or simply more honest.


  • I find it somewhat difficult to take this too seriously, in part because Mutya also sings "your arms felt nice right 'round my shoulder." That shift from "arm" to "arms" makes me think that she and her lover are playing Twister. In a car.

    But this version also upsets me, because of something you only mentioned briefly in this superb post. In TC's version, it's clear that thge narrator's guy is dragging her down -- she's already made her decision to remain committed to the relationship, and strive to pull herself up by her bootstraps. But he stays out drinking, and so at the end, unlike earlier, he's the only one who needs to make a decision ("You leave tonight or live and die this way").

    Mutya, on the other hand, leaves in the verse about the guy ignoring his kids and drinking at the bar, but omits the verse about her own hopes and dreams. So the narrator now knows that her lover's hopeless, but refuses to think of herself outside of that relationship. As a result, at the end, she still wants to make the decision to leave or not *with* him ("We leave tonight or we can die this way").

    In Mutya's hands, the song becomes yet another sad example of the woman-who-doesn't-know-how-to-leave-and-doesn't-know-how-to-be-herself genre. I can't help associating this with the broader move toward ensuring a more complete packaging of pop starlets since TC's version first came out in 1990, and thinking that Mutya's version ends up saying something extremely depressing about how far women in pop have fallen since then. Everyone's Britney now.

    By Anonymous esque, at 9:56 PM  

  • Heh. Or maybe she's spooning with an octopus.

    You're right to emphasize the other change Mutya makes, which I noted but glossed over: Tracy says "We leave" the first time, and "You leave" the second, while Mutya keeps both lines as "We leave." And I agree with you that Tracy's version is more pointedly feminist, because it essentially ends with her telling him to hit the road.

    But I'm also not 100% sure that the circumstances sketched out by the song have one clear feminist response (telling him to get lost), and another one that's clearly not (leaving with him). First off, I think neither narrator is unproblematically "feminist"; when all is said and done, this is a song in which a woman values a man for his fast car. Yes, it's symbolic of escape -- but even so, it would be still be a song that makes no bones about how she gets with the man more for what he represents than what he necessarily is. Which is completely understandable under the circumstances, but she's not necessarily a model partner in the relationship either.

    In that light, we could see Mutya, with her "we"s, as more willing to accept responsibility for her choices: she has chosen this man based on little more than her desire to escape, and now things haven't worked out. Yes, telling him to get lost would help, but perhaps she is clear-eyed enough to realize that her problems are larger than just him. If so, her ending the song by saying, "We gotta make a decision/We leave tonight or we can die this way," is not (or not just) a sign of a weak woman who stays with a man despite his no-goodness, but someone who accepts her bleak situation and even takes some responsibility for it.

    You really got me thinking about this, though...

    By Blogger Brittle, at 12:40 AM  

  • Hmm. I think that you're right to imply that if Mutya had left the "Get promoted, get a big house in the suburbs" verse, as well as ended it with "we leave tonight or we can die this way," it'd be more disconcerting. After all, given the increase in income inequality (in the UK too, no?) in the last two decades, do we really think that the narrator's *really* going to pull herself up her bootstraps? We live in far bleaker times -- 1990 was also the year of Jesus Jones "Right Here Right Now" and Deee-Lite...

    By Anonymous esque, at 5:27 AM  

  • I just want to tell you how much I'm enjoying Lloyd Cole's Antidepressant. You blogged about the 'Rolodex Incident' about a year ago. The stand out tracks for me are 'The Young Idealists' and 'Antidepressant.' I'm annoyed with myself for missing him when he played Wellington a year or so ago (but I'm broke).

    By Anonymous arcite, at 4:48 AM  

  • Yes, those tracks are still great! And I really like "Traveling Light" too.

    By Blogger Brittle, at 10:50 PM  

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