Sometime during the COVID spring, I was walking behind a young couple and overheard the guy ask the girl, “Did you hear the Luke Combs cover of ‘Fast Car’?” I wasn’t familiar with Luke Combs, but I was surprised to realize that the Tracy Chapman song had remained in the pop vernacular for more than three decades.
As a Black lesbian folk singer appealing to white audiences, Chapman was a pop anomaly. But her song is a perfect slice of Americana. I heard her busking “Fast Car” in the Harvard Square subway station a few times in the 1980s. I remember hearing it once from another part of the station, and the reiteration of “be someone, be someone” in that large space seemed portentous to my young self.
At that time—probably 1987—“being someone” was a still-vibrant goal of youth. You had only to go back 23 years to hear Marlon Brando lament to Rod Steiger in On the Waterfront, “I could’ve been somebody.” His pain as a failed boxer owes less to the fact that he’s a nobody (“a bum”) than the fact that opportunity had been snatched away.
Etched in the brick floor of Cambridge’s Davis Square subway platform is a poem by Emily Dickinson: “I’m nobody! Who are you?” I used to marvel at how one might read Dickinson’s sentiment as reflecting the slacker esthetic of the early nineties. But the guy who made Clerks was most definitely not a nobody. We may not know the last names of Bill & Ted, but culturally they became someone.
The aspiration to be someone outlived Gen X’s ironic detachment. It demanded a willingness to travel outside your comfort zone, out into the world, making mistakes and learning from them. The small town/strip mall/7-Eleven world against which “Fast Car” rails represents the inertia of clinging to the familiar by virtue of its being familiar. What makes the song interesting is that even though the action taken does not bring the intended reward, the action remains a constant throughout further attempts (and failures).
The progressive American dream has always rejected the limitations of social class and birth family. It said that avenues of change and advancement were open to all of us. In our stories and songs and movies, two routes emerged for those without means: working hard academically to graduate from college and join the middle to upper middle class, or else going with your chutzpah to take risks on the road.
Today things are quite different. Decades of grade-school self-affirmation have all but killed the unquantifiable aspiration of being “someone.” Now we have the critical substitution of being “best.” You don’t want to be someone but the best version of yourself. When the goal is being your best self, the assumption is that you are born with all the greatness you will ever need or desire; your job is to coax it out. Our physical bodies, the context of our births—they constitute a life raft we never want to leave.
The difference between “someone” and “best” comes down to creation versus curatorship. Neither precludes excessive vanity or narcissism, but seeking to be best is certainly a hierarchical pursuit. What you are besting is not just laziness or lack of initiative but the sin of not looking inward for perfection.
The identity politics that is the focus of so much intellectual dispute is fueled by individual pursuit of being best, of viewing one’s physical and situational self as a temple from which everything good begins. You are born with all these wonderful assets that you have to curate and manage. You certainly don’t want to get in a fast car and leave the safety of your origins, your identity group.
The singer Morrissey, whose comments often seem to get him into hot water, had this to say about identity some 16 years ago: “It’s so tedious that everyone must be defined. And if you pull away, why is it always assumed that you have a lurking dark secret that you’re hiding in a wine cellar? All of us, ultimately, we’re not that interesting, when it comes down to it.” Wanting to be “someone” is admitting that the self and situation you were born with or into might not be all that interesting. Wanting to be “best” is accepting what is on the menu.
The novelist Lionel Shriver—who is now more famous on speaking circuits as a foe of cancel culture—described being a person as “a continual act of becoming, of creation,” explaining that “if nothing else, you continually have to be another day older. . . . To instead focus on the things that are never going to change—from the day that you are born—is like locking yourself in a room.” That is my small patch of common ground with Shriver—that defining identity as static is a gross suppression of one’s life potential.
Identity is part of a larger philosophical debate between believers in an enduring and consistent self and those who view existence as episodic. The philosopher John Gray points out that “an episodic life featuring a succession of disparate selves captures the experience of many people better than any story of the continuous unfolding of an autonomous individual.”
Living a life in which we change our views and goals because of external events like personal illness or tragedy is messy; it is not seamless. According to Gray: “The selfhood that some find throughout their lives is a by-product of stability in society, which rarely lasts for very long. War, revolution and social breakdown regularly overwhelm the sense of being a person with a coherent life-story. A unitary self is a fantasy that can be enjoyed only in peaceful times.”
Why would we want to impose constraints on our lives and lock ourselves in our rooms? Probably because (1) creation is work, (2) it requires us to be independent, and (3) independence involves risk. When you envision being “someone,” you are committing to the difficult and often frustrating work of making a self—not just with the materials that came preinstalled at birth, but with the wisdom you gain by independent action and reaching out to different kinds of people. You must be willing to confront a future without structure.
I found out that Combs is a white country singer with hit a song titled “Beer.” He seems to reside on the opposite side of the cultural spectrum from Chapman, but not from her song. You might presume that his proposition that “you got a fast car / I want a ticket to anywhere else” would resonate with semi-rural white America in 2020, especially with the empty streets and social isolation of lockdown.
Even before COVID-19, young adults in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Indiana, and other states were suffering from deaths that could not simply be attributed to opioid use. Last fall, JAMA reported that rising death rates from suicide, drug overdoses, liver disease, and many other causes have been driving down life expectancy for U.S. young adults for three consecutive years.
But if the eyes of this demographic tear up at Combs’s cover of “Fast Car,” it’s probably less at the poignancy of the narrator’s futile attempts to get to someplace better and more at the fatalism of the very idea. If Chapman’s side of the cultural spectrum rejects the risks of being someone in favor of the safety of being best, Combs’s side has been burned too many times to make striving a plausible endeavor.
A culture of dependence—whether on identity politics, social media, abused substances, or Fox News—is killing the dream of someone from all sides. §