I was heartbroken to learn that Irene Cara, who starred in the 1980 movie “Fame,” passed away over the weekend at age 63. song, “Here on my own,” played in the background.
Although I hadn’t heard or even thought about the song in decades, the lyrics from over 40 years ago came back. It was an anthem of youth, of belonging, of hope, of never giving up on your dreams. I was immediately transported to my first apartment in Brighton, Massachusetts, where I sing along, the record spins on the Panasonic suitcase player that opened to reveal two speakers.
Many people seem to enjoy listening to sad music, in part because it is a stronger trigger for nostalgia than sadness.
Back in the present moment, I am filled with nostalgia as the words in the first stanza fill my head:Sometimes I wonder where I’ve been, who I am, do I fit in….” And then they close with the ambitious: “We always prove who we are, always reach for that rising star …”
It’s a song for anyone who’s ever felt alone, who’s ever felt like there was no room for them. It really is a song for everyone. I hummed along or sang the soundtrack to “Fame,” sobbing on and off hundreds of times in my early twenties as I made my way in the world. Sobbing because I had so many of my own questions about identity, dreams, young love. I always felt that Cara was singing right in front of me, that she had a window into my emotional experience, which made me feel less alone. This is the power of strong texts. They connect us and validate our experiences.
I’ve seen the original version of “Fame” dozens of times, always mesmerized by the character of Coco, played by Cara. A tale of artistic ambition, the film follows a group of young men and women as they audition for the prestigious New York High School of Performing Arts. The film chronicles the development of the characters over the next four years as they deal with increasing pressures as performers and students. The film is also about privilege and opportunity: Coco, a dancer from a less affluent background, appears in an unforgettable scene where she is lured to a topless photo shoot by a director. This was a MeToo moment before there was a MeToo movement.
The cast was diverse in race, language, body shape, sexual orientation, and economic background in ways that films of the late 1970s and early 1980s usually were not. I loved the edginess of the film, the way it seamlessly tackled tough issues like class, abuse, abortion and drug use, bringing to the big screen topics that many people only whispered about. These issues provided an opening to think about broader experiences beyond my small suburban hometown.
The original “Fame” was one of my favorite movies, so I was excited when I heard about the remake in 2009. Until I went to see him. How could they screw up that iconic story? Those iconic songs? The new version had no soul; it was too loud, too cheesy and overproduced. I didn’t even look all the way.
However, Cara’s song has remained untouched. Like, thankfully, other much-loved songs from my childhood, like Joni Mitchell’s “Blue” or Dan Fogleberg’s “Longer.” A lot people seem to like listening to sad music, partly because it’s a stronger trigger for nostalgia than sadness.
We also hold on to the lyrics, melodies and emotions around it for a long time. I’ve listened to some of these ballads so many times that decades later I remember not only their words, but the exact places I heard them and how I felt when I did.
“Older adults have a very good memory for certain songs from their childhood because they listened to that same record over and over,” Dr. Kelly Jakubowski, assistant professor of music psychology at Durham University in the UK told Time Magazine earlier this year. “It can bring back your memories of that time period when you had these self-defining experiences.”
Daniel Levitin, the author of “This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession”, notes that the music of our teenage years is fundamentally intertwined with our social lives. The same will be true for today’s teens when they are older adults.
In patients with dementia, according to a study from Northwestern Medicine and Institute for Therapy through the Arts, musical perception, musical emotion, and musical memory may persist long after other forms of memory and cognitive function have faded. This one reaction can tolerate even when executive functions such as planning and reasoning and language skills are lost.
Music brings us joy by releasing the pleasure neurotransmitter dopamine. It strengthens personal identity and social connection. All this might explain my strong reaction to hearing of Cara’s death, even though she was a complete stranger.
I listened to “Out Here on My Own” repeatedly this weekend and it brought back countless memories of my own life during that period: singing and performing in high school musicals, friends, mean girls, secrets, hope. That song and the movie it appeared in were essential parts of my personal identity, who I was at the time. So I will never forget Cara and her ballad, who pushed me to reach my “rising star” and gave me hope that anything was possible.