I was heartbroken to learn that Irene Cara, who starred in the 1980 film Fame, died over the weekend at age 63. I found out when a TikTok video popped up on my feed sharing the news while her best-known song, “Out Here On My Own,” played in the background.
Although I hadn’t heard or thought about the song in several decades, the lyrics from over 40 years ago washed over me. It was a hymn of youth, of belonging, of hope, of never giving up on dreams. I was immediately transported to my first apartment in Brighton, Massachusetts, where I’m singing, the record spinning in the Panasonic suitcase player that flipped open to reveal two speakers.
Many people seem to like listening to sad music, in part because it’s a stronger trigger for nostalgia than sadness.
Returning to the present moment, I am filled with nostalgia as the words in the opening verse fill my head: “Sometimes I wonder where I’ve been, who I am, if I fit in….” And then they conclude with the aspirational: We’re always proving who we are, always reaching for that rising star. …”
It’s a song for anyone who’s ever felt alone, who’s ever felt like there was no place for them. It really is a song for everyone. I hummed or sang the soundtrack to “Fame,” sobbing from time to time, hundreds of times in my early 20s as I found 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 directly to me, that she had a window into my emotional experience, which made me feel less alone. This is the power of strong lyrics. They connect us and validate our experiences.
I’ve seen the original version of “Fame” a dozen times, always mesmerized by the character of Coco, played by Cara. The film is a story of artistic ambition and follows a group of young men and women who audition for the prestigious New York High School for the Performing Arts. The film chronicles the development of the characters over the next four years as they face increasing pressures as artists and students. The film is also about privilege and opportunity: Coco, a dancer from a less affluent background, appears in an unforgettable scene where a director lures her in for a topless photo shoot. This was a MeToo moment before there was a MeToo movement.
The cast was diverse in terms of race, language, body shape, sexual orientation, and economic background in a way that late-’70s and early-’80s movies generally were not. I loved the edginess of the film, the way it seamlessly tackled complicated issues like social class, abuse, abortion, and drug use, bringing to the big screen issues that many people only whispered about. These themes offered 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 it. 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.
Cara’s song, however, has remained intact. Like, luckily, I have other well-loved songs from my youth, like Joni Mitchell’s “Blue” or Dan Fogleberg’s “Longer.” A lots of people seem to like listening to sad music, in part because it’s a stronger trigger for nostalgia than sadness.
We also hold on to the lyrics, melodies, and emotions around it for long periods of time. I have listened to 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 I felt when I did.
“Older adults have very good memories for certain songs. from their youth because they would listen to the same record over and over again,” Dr. Kelly Jakubowski, an assistant professor of music psychology at Durham University in the UK, told Time magazine earlier this year. “It can bring back memories of that time period where you were having these self-defined experiences.”
Daniel Levitin, the author of “This is your brain with music: the science of a human obsession”, points out that the music of our adolescence is fundamentally intertwined with our social life. The same will happen with today’s teenagers when they are older adults.
In dementia patientsAccording to a Northwestern Medicine and Institute for Therapy through the Arts study, music perception, music emotion, and music memory can survive long after other forms of memory and cognitive functions have disappeared. East the answer can endure even when executive functions such as planning and reasoning and language ability have been lost.
music brings us joy by releasing the pleasure neurotransmitter dopamine. Solidifies personal identity and social connection. All of which might explain my strong reaction to learning of Cara’s death even though she was a complete stranger.
I listened to “Out Here on My Own” repeatedly over the weekend and it brought back countless memories of my own life in that period: of singing and acting in high school musicals, of friends, mean girls, secrets, hope. That song and the movie it appeared in were fundamental parts of my personal identity, of who I was at that moment. So I’ll never forget Cara and her ballad, which pushed me to reach my “rising star” and gave me hope that anything was possible.