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Tracy Chapman Trounced Me but It's OK

I was a senior at Tufts University when I entered a competition with an improbable band comprised of the Rabbi, the Dean, and two other coeds. Although I am capable of instigating this kind of madness, I don’t think it was my idea. I was friends with the Dean then, and I think it was he who proposed that we perform in the talent show.

The details are hazy. I remember protesting his first song selection, “Surfer Girl” by the Beach Boys. I loved “Surfer Girl,” so I had no objection to the actual song. However, I had sung it once, years ago, with my brother, Marc. I stood in the arched entrance of our living, and he sat cross-legged on a tan tasseled cushion near the window. Across the room, we spontaneously sprang into the closing harmony. “Little one, oh-oh. Little one…” I sang to him.

“Girl, surfer girl, my little surfer girl,” he chanted simultaneously. We had that perfect, ineffable sibling vocal blend. But, my perfect brother Marc died two years later. That blend, in every conceivable way, was irretrievably lost to me.

I knew I couldn’t choke through that song again. I also didn’t want to alter the memory of my heartfelt duet with my now-dead brother. Firm no to ”Surfer Girl.”

At the time, I was music director of the Jackson Jills, the Tufts female a cappella group, so I recruited two friends to join our pick-up band. The Rabbi sang lead, the Dean played guitar, and we sang backup. We practiced two old songs. One of them might have been “Money” and the other, “My Girl.” I’m not sure, but that was the feel. My friends and I created some cute 60s choreography, arms outstretched, hips swaying in unison. We wore color coordinated sweater dresses, and being in our early 20s, we looked good in them.

The talent show took place in the basement of the student center on a small stage near the bar. Several acts went before us, but we were a serious hit. Our songs sounded great, and we had a fun, happy groove. At the end, we were all flush with confidence that we would win the competition. There was just one act after us.

A lone young Black woman stepped on stage, her hair in dreadlocks, eyes downcast. She perched on a stool with her guitar. One spotlight illuminated her in the darkness. She began to sing, “You’ve got a Fast Car. . .”

I sat, riveted. I had heard her name before on campus, Tracy Chapman. She sang locally, but I had never seen her.

Tracy finished “Fast Car,” her distinctive voice low, her guitar playing rhythmically hypnotic. I applauded wildly. She stopped, re-tuned her guitar, and took a breath before her second song. She began, “Don’t you know…?” and sang her song, “Talkin’ ‘Bout a Revolution.”

I could not believe this woman in front of me. That voice, those original compositions, those chords, that look.

Tracy was the final act, a blessing to everyone else who performed that night. My friends and I awaited the judges’ results, drinking beers at the bar. After a while, the Dean and Rabbi informed us that our group was eliminated for the prize, because we were a faculty/student group. I thought this was probably just what the judges told them to help us save face. There was no universe in which we won that night.

Tracy Chapman accepted the award, still looking straight at the floor, smiling shyly. I watched her, waiting for a chance to speak. I made my way up to her, my voice high-pitched with awe. “Tracy, that was an incredible performance. Your songs are stunning. You are extraordinarily talented.”

“Thank you,” she replied softly, making no eye contact whatsoever.

“Thank YOU” I said and walked away. I never spoke to her again. But three years later, her first album was released. On it, she played “Fast Car” and “Talkin’ ‘Bout a Revolution” exactly as she had performed them that night. Tracy won three Grammy awards for the album.


              Life is funny. Sometimes you are sure you will win recognition. I have applied for all kinds of opportunities, awards, and grants. When I talk with my friends, I downplay my chances. “I probably won’t get it.”

“Probably, but who knows?” They reply.

Well, that’s what most of my friends say. I do have this one friend, Jodi. She is a world-renowned sleep psychologist and speaks all over the globe. She takes risks just like me, applying for international grants and opportunities.

“I probably won’t get it” I said to Jodi, explaining the latest prestigious grant for which I’d applied.

“Yes, but don’t you always think that you will? I always think I will.”

“Yes!” I grinned at her. “I do always think I will; that’s the only way I can keep trying.”


The talent show, in which we were most appropriately beaten by Tracy Chapman, is a perfect slice of life. Sometimes, you put yourself out there. You prepare a great song, have your moves down, look cute in your sweater dress, and make the whole audience cheer. Then, it turns out you are in competition with a future Grammy winner.

And that’s OK. Honestly, it’s hilarious.

I know many people who are so afraid of rejection that they never try. Their minds flood with the imagined agony of defeat. They cringe with anticipated shame and embarrassment. Full of these images, they convince themselves it is better not to try. But you know what happens if you never try? You never fail, but you also never succeed.

In the past few years, as I wrote my book and began speaking, I have stretched and stretched and stretched. I’m not interested anymore in worrying about failure. That’s just a waste of time. Failures happen. Instead, I’m laser-focused on accomplishing as much as possible with my time on earth. So, I go for it. In less than four years, I have: won three awards for Flashback Girl, won a writer’s grant, keynoted at several national conferences, delivered a compelling TED talk, written for several national publications, and much more.

But let’s be clear. In less than four years I did not win four other awards for Flashback Girl, did not win a different writers grant (that super prestigious one I told Jodi I could win), was turned down for several national conferences, was turned down for about 10 TED talks, had articles rejected by the New York Times, Washington Post, and plenty more.

The point is, there is always a Tracy Chapman. There is always the potential of a genius, standing in the wings, more talented than you. Many times, it won’t be your turn. Still, those experiences and lessons can have tremendous value. And, sometimes, if you try, YOU get to be the Tracy Chapman. Sometimes the distinctive voice they want is yours.

Go for it.

Photo credit: Gabriel Gurrola

Lise Deguire's multiple award-winning memoir, Flashback Girl: Lessons on Resilience from a Burn Survivor, is available for purchase on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Newtown Book Shop and The Commonplace Reader. Check out her TEDx talk "Scared Not Scary"


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