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Queer Classic: Tracy Chapman’s Quiet Revolution

Tracy Chapman

We're highlighting 50 years of queer music classics this week, as seen in "Songs in the Key of Pride" in the June/July issue. Here, we're bringing it back to 1988 with an album that changed history.

Tracy Chapman's self-titled first album was a watershed moment. In a year dominated by larger-than-life synth pop and arena-filling heay metal, the quiet, introspective, and beautifully sincere folk record somehow managed to crack the mainstream, topping the charts, garnering the 24-year-old singer three Grammys, and eventually selling 20 million copies worldwide.

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When she performed its lead single, "Fast Car," at Nelson Mandela's 70th-birthday celebration that summer, with nothing more than a guitar and a microphone, Chapman transfixed a packed Wembley Stadium -- and a global audience of 600 million people -- with a gripping portrait of a working-class woman's struggle to lift herself out of poverty and find her freedom. "Fast Car" and its anthemic exhalation "I had a feeling that I belonged / I had a feeling I could be someone" hit deep, but the palpable longing in highlights like "Baby Can I Hold You" and the defiant "For My Lover" represents some of the most powerful songwriting to emerge from that decade. It's no surprise that in Out's 2008 poll of "The 100 Greatest, Gayest Albums (of All Time)," Tracy Chapman came in at number three. Chapman's fiercely private relationship with The Color Purple author Alice Walker in the mid-1990s only adds to the record's queer appeal and mystique.

Thirty years later, this 36-minute collection of politically and socially conscious songs, which helped usher in a new wave of female singer-songwriters in the 1990s, feels more relevant and vital than ever. Chapman wrote its opening salvo, "Talkin' 'Bout a Revolution," when she was 16. The rest of us are only now getting in on the conversation.

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