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I never knew Irene Cara. But the ‘Fame’ star knew me.

I always felt like Cara had a window into my emotional experience, which made me feel less alone.
Bruno Martelli played by Lee Curreri, tries to convince Coco Hernandez played by Irene Cara, that they should form a rock band, in a scene from 'Fame,' 1980.
Bruno Martelli, played by Lee Curreri, tries to convince Coco Hernandez, played by Irene Cara, that they should form a rock band, in a scene from 1980's 'Fame.'United Artists / Getty Images file

I was heartbroken when I learned that Irene Cara, who starred in the 1980 movie “Fame,” died over the weekend at age 63. I found out when a video on TikTok popped up in my feed sharing the news while her most well-known song, “Out Here On My Own,” played in the background.

Although I hadn’t heard or even thought about the song in several decades, the lyrics of 40-plus years ago came flooding 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’m singing along, the record spinning on the Panasonic suitcase player that opened and revealed two speakers. 

Many people seem to like 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 initial stanza fill my head: “Sometimes I wonder where I’ve been, Who I am, Do I fit in… .” And then they conclude with the aspirational: “We’re always provin’ who we are, Always reachin’ for that risin’ star …” 

It’s a song for anyone who has ever felt alone, who has ever felt that there was no place for them. It’s really a song for everyone. I hummed along with or belted out the “Fame” soundtrack, sobbing off and on, hundreds of times in my early 20s as I was finding my way in the world. Sobbing because I had so many of my own questions about identity, dreams, young love. I always felt like Cara was singing right 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 Coco, played by Cara. The film is a story of artistic ambition, and it follows a group of young men and women who audition for the prestigious New York High School of Performing Arts. The movie chronicles the development of the characters over the next four years as they cope with increasing pressures as performers and students. The film also deals with 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. 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 movies of the late 1970s and early 1980s usually weren’t. I loved the film’s edginess, the way it seamlessly tackled tricky issues such as class, abuse, abortion and drug use, bringing onto the large screen topics that many people only whispered about. These issues offered an opening to thinking about broader experiences beyond my small suburban home town.

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 botch that iconic story? Those iconic songs? The new version had no soul; it was too loud, too cheesy and overproduced. I didn’t even watch all the way through.  

Cara’s song, however, has remained untouched. As, thankfully, have other much-beloved songs from my youth, like Joni Mitchell’s “Blue,” or Dan Fogleberg’s “Longer.” Many 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 them over long periods of time. I’ve listened to some of these ballads so many times that decades later, I not only remember their words but the exact places where I heard them and how I felt when I did. 

Older adults have a really good memory for certain songs from their youth because they listened to that same record over and over,” Dr. Kelly Jakubowski, assistant professor of music psychology at Durham University in the U.K. told Time magazine earlier this year. “It can bring back your memories from that time period when you were having 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 teenagers when they are older adults. 

In patients with dementia, according to a Northwestern Medicine and Institute for Therapy through the Arts study, musical perception, musical emotion and musical memory can survive long after other forms of memory and cognitive function have disappeared. This response 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. It solidifies personal identity and social connectedness. All of which 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” on repeat over the weekend, and it brought back countless memories of my own life in that period: of singing and performing in high school musicals, of friends, mean girls, secrets, hope. That song and the movie it appeared in were seminal parts of my personal identity, of who I was at that time. So I will never forget Cara and her ballad, which pushed me to reach my “rising star” and gave me hope that anything was possible.