Pop Music Reviews : Powerful Protest Songs From Tracy Chapman

Submitted for your approval: A young black woman on stage alone with an acoustic guitar; song titles like “I Was Born to Fight” and “Talkin’ Bout a Revolution”; lyrics railing against police, conspicuous consumers and show-biz opportunists who would “turn me into a white man’s drone”; a jam-packed crowd of mostly record industry folk affording standing ovations.

All right, everybody, let’s synchronize our watches. . . . This is 1988, right?

The singer under discussion is Tracy Chapman, a tremendously gifted singer and songwriter who made her local debut with two sold-out shows Wednesday at the Roxy. As one of the two current “next big things” of choice--the other one being Ziggy Marley, who by coincidence was also appearing Wednesday across town--Chapman is the logical successor to Suzanne Vega, who held that mantle last year.

Vega helped bring folk sensibilities back into pop-rock fashion with her highly introspective musings. Chapman’s best songs are also somewhat personal, but what may bring her more attention are the more didactic, almost anachronistically sociological numbers she pens. Singing about racial violence, unemployment, starvation and missiles, she’s an honest-to-Guthrie protest singer .

These songs of dismay and outrage make up about half the new album. And if they’re less consistently well written than her love songs, they’re outspoken enough that the curious folk-rock fan would certainly want to check out her show, if only to see what she has to say between songs and gather answers to questions that might come up while listening to the record.


Questions like: What about this “Revolution” she predicts? How exactly are the “poor people gonna rise up and take what’s theirs?” By what signposts does she know that “the tables are starting to turn?” At 24, does Chapman have the ideological freshness and naivete of a young college liberal, or is she really sophisticated and informed enough to maybe know something that we don’t?

Unfortunately, no answers to any of these questions were forthcoming during her first Roxy show. Stricken from all indications with a severe case of shyness, the singer said nothing to the audience during her rather brief (at 50 minutes) set, except for a mumbled quip about earthquakes before her encore--and the silence between numbers was shocking, given her lyrical outspokenness.

Besides her unwillingness or inability to establish rapport with the audience, Chapman has other things going against her in terms of what pop audiences expect from performers in the late 1980s: a stage presence that proved as non-existent as her stage patter (she spent nearly the entire set looking down or closing her eyes). A retrograde-casual look (two layers of T-shirt and blue jeans). And, of course, no backing band.

So what exactly is it that Chapman possesses which, even in the midst of all these would-be minuses, convinces you she has what it takes to be a major, lasting star?

Namely, the gift of self-revelation, which is what separates the women from the girls in rock ‘n’ roll. Chapman’s love songs may be even riskier than her political ones--and in a powerful, unwavering voice that is akin to--and perhaps even superior to--Joan Armatrading’s, she dares to sing them as if they were about her.

Perhaps the most startlingly honest of these was an unrecorded number, “This Time,” that takes an unflinching look at the painful emotional precautions lovers take after being burned: “Gonna love myself more than anyone else / Gonna make you say that you love me first / Let you be the one with the most to lose tonight,” she sang in the evening’s most devastating moment.

Her character sketches can be equally touching--among them the rising hit “Fast Car,” a tale of spoiled romance and dead-end dreams that’s the sad antithesis of “Born to Run.”

All the standing ovations and whooping may have been a bit premature, and one might wish that Chapman could be granted a year or two more before having “next big thing” status conferred on her. For someone who sings “I Am a Fighter,” she isn’t much of a warrior on stage yet. Her voice, though, and at least several of her songs are truly knockout punches.