I was heartbroken to learn that Irene Cara, who starred in the 1980 film Fame, died over the weekend at the age of 63. I found out when a video popped up on my feed on TikTok sharing the news while her best known song “Here on Your Own” played in the background.
Although I hadn’t heard the song or even thought about it for several decades, the lyrics from over 40 years ago came back flooded. It was a hymn to youth, to belonging, to hope never to give up on your dreams. I was immediately transported to my first apartment in Brighton, Massachusetts, where I sing along while the record plays on the Panasonic portable player, which opened up to reveal two speakers.
Many people seem to enjoy listening to sad music, in part because it’s a stronger trigger for nostalgia than sadness.
Back in the present moment, I’m filled with nostalgia as the words in the first verse fill my head: “Sometimes I wonder where I’ve been, who I am, do I fit in… .” And then they close with the claim: “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’s no place for them. It really is a song for everyone. I would hum or belt along to the “Fame” soundtrack and sob occasionally, hundreds of times in my early 20’s as I found my way in the world. Sobbing because I had so many questions of my own about identity, dreams, young love. I always felt that Cara was singing directly to me, that she had insight into my emotional experience, which made me feel less alone. That’s the power of strong text. They connect us and confirm our experiences.
I’ve watched the original Fame a dozen times, always intrigued by the character Coco, played by Cara. A tale of artistic ambition, the film follows a group of young men and women who audition for the prestigious New York High School of Performing Arts. The film chronicles the characters’ development over the next four years as they cope with mounting 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 by a director to a topless photo shoot. That was a MeToo moment before there was a MeToo movement.
The cast was as diverse in terms of race, language, body type, sexual orientation, and economic background as films of the late 1970s and early 1980s were typically not. I loved the film’s edginess, the way it seamlessly tackled thorny issues like class, abuse, abortion and drug use, and brought to the big screen issues that many people have only whispered about. These themes provided opportunities to reflect on broader experiences outside of my small suburban hometown.
The original Fame was one of my favorite movies, so when I heard about the 2009 remake, I was excited. Until I looked at it. How could they screw up this iconic story? Those iconic songs? The new version had no soul; it was too loud, too cheesy and overproduced. I didn’t even fully watch.
However, Cara’s song has remained untouched. Luckily there are also other popular songs from my youth, like Joni Mitchell’s “Blue” or Dan Fogleberg’s “Longer”. Many people seem to enjoy listening to sad music, in part because it’s a stronger trigger for nostalgia than sadness.
We also capture the lyrics, melodies and emotions around them over long periods of time. I’ve heard some of these ballads so many times that decades later I not only remember their words, but the exact places I heard them and how they made me feel.
“Older adults have a really good memory for certain songs from their youth because they’ve been listening to the same record over and over,” said 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 when you had those self-defining experiences.”
Daniel Levitin, 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 life. The same is true for today’s teenagers when they are older adults.
According to a study by Northwestern Medicine and Institute for Therapy through the Arts, in patients with dementia, musical perception, musical emotion, and musical memory can survive long after other forms of memory and cognitive function have disappeared. This response can persist even when executive functions such as planning and reasoning and language skills have been lost.
Music brings us joy by releasing the pleasure neurotransmitter dopamine. It strengthens personal identity and social connectedness. All of this could explain my violent reaction when I heard about Cara’s death, even though she was a total stranger.
I listened to “Out Here on My Own” repeatedly over the weekend, and it brought back countless memories of my own life during that time: singing and performing in high school musicals, friends, mean girls, secrets, hope. That song and the movie it was in were fundamental parts of who I was personally at the time. So I will never forget Cara and her ballad that made me want to achieve my “rising star” and gave me hope that anything is possible.