Photo Credit: Harry Langdon / Bettmann Archive
Singer, actress, and Oscar-winning songwriter Irene Cara died on November 25th at age sixty-three. Although she would only have a few major hits over a relatively short period, those songs would leave an indelible stamp on the early part of the ’80s and have since proven to be timeless. Irene Cara Escalera was born in the Bronx section of New York City in 1959 (she was half Puerto Rican and half Cuban), and showed musical promise at an early age. As a child, she performed on various television programs (including The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson) and as a preteen appeared on the popular educational series The Electric Company (a sister show to Sesame Street), becoming part of the original cast which also included Morgan Freeman and Rita Moreno.
In the late ’70s, Cara starred in a couple of now-mostly-forgotten theatrical films (Aaron Loves Angela and Sparkle). However, it was as part of an ensemble cast that Cara would finally achieve major recognition as both an actress and a singer. In the Alan Parker-directed Fame (1980) – set in the real-life performing arts high school in New York City – Cara not only played a major role but sang both the theme song (which went Top 5 in the U.S. and to number one in the U.K. and several other countries) as well as the show-stopping ballad “Out Here on My Own.”
Both songs would make history the following year when Fame became the first movie to receive two Oscar nominations in the Best Original Song category (Cara sang both at the awards ceremony, and the title song won). Fame not only became a franchise that eventually produced a TV series, several stage incarnations, and a 2009 remake, but also served as the prototype for the ’80s teen dance movies, a genre that was crystalized in 1983 with the release of Flashdance.
Cara didn’t appear in Flashdance, but did perform the title song “Flashdance… What a Feeling,” as well as writing the lyrics (supposedly en route to the recording session), to the music by Italian dance music guru Georgio Moroder. The song went to number one in at least five countries (including the U.S.), and the combination of the hit film and soundtrack became the year’s defining dance-pop entity (along with Michael Jackson’s Thriller), finally getting people back on their feet after the disco backlash had cleared dance floors several years earlier (the song also won an Oscar). Cara seized the momentum late that same year with her first major full-length solo album, not only titling it What a Feelin’ but continuing her collaboration with Moroder. The single “Why Me?” went Top 20, but probably more noteworthy was “Breakdance,” a number eight hit encapsulating the urban dance craze of the time which in turn helped create mainstream awareness of hip-hop (which would never subside).
Cara would continue to act, appearing in the movies D.C. Cab as well as City Heat alongside Burt Reynolds and Clint Eastwood. However, her next full-length album, Carasmatic (1987) didn’t even chart in the U.S., and by the ’90s she had been reduced to doing voiceover work on animated direct-to-video Disney knock-offs (although with her music she would continue to have some minor success in Europe).
In 1993 Cara filed a lawsuit claiming she was owed back royalties for “Flashdance… What a Feeling.” Though she was awarded 1.5 million dollars, Cara would later say that she believed that this also resulted in her being blackballed in the entertainment industry, accounting for her minimal success and visibility since the ’80s.
Some might argue that Cara had already gotten a raw deal a decade earlier. An era-defining number-one single, “Flashdance… What a Feeling” had the potential to make Cara a major pop star, particularly considering her good looks and crossover potential (she had previously recorded an album entirely in Spanish). Yet, Cara doesn’t even appear in the video for the song (it’s comprised entirely of footage from the movie), so the voice behind it could have been any random session vocalist, rather than a Golden Globe-nominated actress (for Fame) who’d already had a huge international hit.
This was probably an effort to sell Flashdance as a single product, not a vehicle for its contributors. Still, Irene Cara’s two biggest hits both endure, not only as staples of ’80s-theme radio but as true time capsule pieces representing that era. At the same time, both “Fame” and “Flashdance… What a Feeling” depict the relentless pursuit of one’s dreams, regardless of seemingly insurmountable odds, and this message remains just as universal in 2022. In “Fame” Cara repeats the lyric: “Baby, remember my name,” throughout the chorus. It’s safe to say the world won’t ever forget Irene Cara.