Talking about Tracy

Some things just define you; the music you listen to as a child is often one of them. For me, anyway. Maybe I was luckier than some – thanks to my parents, I was exposed to a large variety of truly great songs as a child. This wasn’t really intentional; my parents just listened to what they liked, and they happen to have really good taste. (Not that I liked all of it – I still don’t get the point of Mariza Koch.)

Most of my musical memories come from driving around Greece in our trusty old Ford Fiesta, often at night, the highway lights stretching into the distance, the dusty landscape disappearing into the dark. Sitting in the back seat, watching the landscape go by, with nothing in the world except the music and my thoughts and the slow days of summer… the memories are vivid, and some songs bring them back with heartbreaking clarity. This is one of them.

How much is this album responsible for who I am today? Tracy Chapman has made a lot of great music that I love, but that particular album was part of my childhood, part of my process of discovering what I believe in. All those songs – they shaped me. How could they not? How could you listen to a song like Behind the Wall and not be changed by it? How could you not be chilled to your soul by it? And know that something must be done, that we have to fight to make the world better than that?

A thousand pages of feminist scholarship couldn’t have done 0.1% of what that song accomplished.

Or take Why?, one of the simplest, most to-the-point songs about injustice I know:

Why do the babies starve when there’s enough food to feed the world? Why are the missiles called peacekeepers when they’re aimed to kill? Hearing these questions when I was young is one reason I’m making the games I’m making, writing the stories I’m writing. So is Mountains o’ Things.

And since I’m asking questions, isn’t it amazing, isn’t it glorious, that thanks to modern technology, a black woman from Ohio changed the life of a Greek/German boy half a world away? That the words and music she recorded on that first, self-titled album would shape the thoughts, language and beliefs of someone she’s never heard of? And to make the whole thing more wonderful, that said boy from Greece is only one of many affected in such a way?

Hearing Tracy Chapman’s voice does something to me. It reminds me of my childhood, but not in a hollow, overly sweet kind of way. It reminds me of long journeys through the night, of discovering that the world was big and complex and unfair – but also of discovering how powerful art could be, how it could lift you up and motivate you and change you. The songs on that album are as essential to who I am as my DNA is. In fact, far more so. I’m grateful for that.


  1. lin

    Oi. Made me spent most Saturday night hearing her music again. Shame on you. It’s sombering though, remembering the emotions of the 15 year old me who first heard her, while staring in the face of the 33 year old me. You know, the one who lives here and was seeing things get better in life finally. The one who works 45 hours a week and owns her own place and can’t afford to pay her bills. The one who has an unemployed partner and two lovebirds to worry about and has to decide between doctor or vet or super market this month. What can we survive without, all four of us? I spent 10 euros buying groceries for the κοινωνικό παντοπωλείο this week, knowing there’s people out there having it worse than us, but now I can’t cover the vet bill. And no, honey, you’re gonna be allright, you don’t REALLY need the blood works, it’s probably nothing, let’s see how you are next month.

    Tracy Chapman has something about her that makes you want to get out of your chair and do something because you HOPE. Except when you’re too tired to get out of the chair. Or to hope.

    Maybe it’s just the day. Or maybe I shouldn’t read any news. I dunno, I’m starting to understand people who say they’re too exhausted by the desparation of it all to believe in anything. The Wonderful Macroeconomics docu was an TV again this morning. It felt like a bad coincidence watching it on the first sunny day of the coldest winter in years. And then I stumbled onto this letter: . Yeah. Getting too tired to feel anything. You messed me up with making me listen to these songs again Jonas, but thanks anyway. And sorry for the long post. Suppose I needed to vent to someone who can maybe take the desperation and make something useful out of it. I still believe in art, you see.

  2. No worries about the long post – “walls of text” as people say is what this site is all about! As for what you describe, that situation is pretty much exactly what Chapman’s first album is all about. So it’s all very appropriate, really.

    I know how it feels. And I’d like to think that art is one thing that helps us get through it, to survive psychologically so we can organize and fight back. Art itself isn’t the solution, but it can be part of it.

  3. Rob

    Hey Lin, I hear you, (I read you?) and if you didn’t write all that I would have less to respond to, so keep being heard.

    Being an American, I feel the average person I run into during any given day has just become too accustom to such a high standard of living. I know I can get along with less and still be satisfied at the end of the day, but I haven’t found anyone who really shares that mentality. It’s hard for people to see eye to eye with me when they have such consumerist tendencies.
    My peers and I really have lived privileged lives which we are not all that entitled to.

    When I was younger Tracy Chapman’s hit Fast Car was a favorite of mine. I only discovered the rest of her music on my own later in life. I definitely feel the same way about how the music of your youth can shape you. Bob Marley’s music shaped my interests at a young age and got me very interested in discrimination and activism in America. Specifically it helped me discover Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi who became my idols as a kid and taught me a lot about pacifism. I use to write research project about them any chance I got in elementary school.

  4. It’s a hard balance – if you’re obsessed with consumerism, your life can become hollow and meaningless, but having nothing is even worse. (Which is what I’d say “Mountains o’ Things” is about.)

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