Forever No. 1 is a Billboard series that pays special tribute to the recently deceased artists who achieved the highest honor our charts have to offer — a Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 single — by taking an extended look back at the chart-topping songs that made them part of this exclusive club. Here, we remember the late Irene Cara with an extended look at her lone Hot 100-topper: the era-straddling soundtrack classic “Flashdance…What a Feeling.”
Flashdance didn’t invent movie/music synergy, but it perfected the formula for the MTV generation. MTV, after all, wasn’t even two years old when Flashdance premiered in the spring of 1983.
Footloose, Beverly Hills Cop, Top Gun, Dirty Dancing and other mega-successful music-driven movies of the 1980s all owe a debt to Flashdance, an unexpectedly huge movie with no established stars and a fairly thin – but as it turned out, very relatable – plot. The film told the story of Alex Owens, a young woman who works as a welder and dreams of becoming a ballerina, but first must overcome her fear of auditioning before a panel of judges.
Irene Cara’s propulsive “Flashdance…What a Feeling” was released in March 1983 to build anticipation for the film, which was released on April 15. The song was just right for both the movie and the moment – a time when Black pop music was reaching new commercial heights thanks to Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie, Prince and many more star artists.
The film debuted at No. 2 at the box-office in its opening week, and spent the next three weeks at No. 1. Cara’s single reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in late May, the soundtrack album topped the Billboard 200 for two weeks starting June 25 – and a second song from the soundtrack, Michael Sembello’s “Maniac,” topped the Hot 100 for two weeks in September. That is what you call a movie/music grand-slam.
Cara, who died on Friday (Nov. 25) at age 63, had enjoyed a comparable success three years earlier, when she introduced the rousing title song from Fame. That smash reached No. 4 on the Hot 100 in September 1980. But she didn’t co-write that song – Michael Gore and Dean Pitchford did, winning the Oscar for best original song for their efforts. As a co-writer of “Flashdance…What a Feeling,” Cara shared in her second film smash’s Oscar glory.
Disco don Giorgio Moroder composed the melody for “Flashdance…What a Feeling” and produced Cara’s single. The instrumental backdrop has echoes of Moroder’s electronic film score work. But it’s warmer and more triumphant-sounding than Midnight Express, for which Moroder won an Oscar in 1979, or say, Donna Summer’s 1977 smash “I Feel Love,” which Moroder co-produced with his long-time creative partner, Pete Bellotte.
Cara co-wrote the lyric with Keith Forsey, Moroder’s frequent session drummer and a future star writer/producer in his own right, with No. 1 Hot 100 hits for Simple Minds and Billy Idol in the back half of the ’80s to his credit. Cara’s warm vocal conveys yearning and humanity, which offsets the occasional chilliness of the synthesized backdrop.
Jerry Bruckheimer, who co-produced Flashdance with his late partner Don Simpson, contacted Moroder in 1982 to see if he would be interested in composing the music for Flashdance. The two had previously teamed on 1980’s American Gigolo, which spawned Blondie’s “Call Me,” also a No. 1 hit on the Hot 100.
Cara had been somewhat reluctant to work with Moroder because she didn’t want to trigger comparisons to Moroder’s star client, Summer. “Giorgio approached me right after ‘Fame,’” she told me in an interview for Billboard that ran in the March 10, 1984 issue. “The only reason I didn’t go with him at the time was all the comparisons. But with ‘Flashdance […What a Feeling],'” we were thrown together by Paramount.”
Cara and Forsey were shown the last scene of the film, in which Alex auditions at the Pittsburgh Conservatory of Dance and Repertory, so they could get a sense of what the lyrics should be. They both felt that the dancer’s ambition to succeed would work as a metaphor for anyone hoping to achieve any dream.
“Flashdance…What a Feeling” wasn’t the first or last motivational anthem to reach No. 1, but it’s one of the best. The lyric “Take your passion and make it happen” is excellent career and life advice. Also, the line “in a world made of steel, made of stone” is an apt nod to the day job of Jennifer Beals’ welder character.
Moroder felt that the oft-repeated lyric “what a feeling” was right for the story but tried to persuade Cara and Forsey to incorporate the title of the film into the lyrics. The word “flashdance” never appears in the song – it’s a tough word to rhyme – but the words “flash” and “dance” do appear separately. It was only after the song was completed with the intended title “What a Feeling” that the word “Flashdance…” was tacked onto the title, for its promotional value.
The song wound up being used over the climactic scene Forsey and Cara had previewed, as well as during the opening credits. “Flashdance…What a Feeling” is what we hear as a young woman rides her bike through the streets of Pittsburgh just after sunrise, and as she starts her shift at the steel mill.
Cara had a good, well, “feeling” about the song. “I knew when we were recording it that we had something special with the song,” she said in an interview for BBC Radio 2’s Electric Dreams: The Giorgio Moroder Story. “Some things you just feel, you know? You can’t really dissect it or analyze it. It’s a spiritual thing that you sense, and I did sense that I had something special with this song.”
Bruckheimer also immediately sensed the song’s potential. On the Special Collector’s Edition DVD release of Flashdance (2010), Bruckheimer said, “When you first heard it, you said, ‘It’s a hit.’ It’s one of those things you just heard, and you just couldn’t get it out of your head. And it just got us all so excited. We kept playing it over and over and never got tired of it. To this day, I’m not tired of that song.”
As Cara had fretted all along, “Flashdance” drew comparisons to Summer’s hits of the era – and not just because of Moroder’s involvement. The song’s balladic opening, which segued into a rousing dance section, echoed a formula Summer and Moroder had perfected on hits like “Last Dance.” That Thank God It’s Friday highlight had won the Oscar five years earlier.
But while “Flashdance…What a Feeling” is very much in Summer’s wheelhouse, Cara sang it with an approachability and conviction that made it her own. She takes the listener on a journey from timidity and fear (“First, when there’s nothing/ But a slow-glowing dream”) to joy and abandon (“Pictures come alive/ You can dance right through your life”).
Even snarky critics were (mostly) won over by the single. Writing for Rolling Stone in 1984, Don Shewey called it “1983’s cheapest thrill… a patently ludicrous ode to instant gratification that Cara’s youthfully urgent, desperately soulful vocal rendered transcendent.”
“Flashdance…What a Feeling” was the second-highest new entry on the Billboard Hot 100 for the week ending April 2, 1983. Only Duran Duran’s “Rio,” first released in 1982, got off to a faster start that week. “Flashdance” reached No. 1 in its ninth week, dethroning David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance,” and stayed on top for six consecutive weeks – until it was in turn booted by The Police’s “Every Breath You Take.” “Flashdance…What a Feeling” was the longest-running No. 1 hit of 1983 by a female artist. It also was the only 1983 single to log 14 weeks in the top 10.
At the end of the year — and this is almost too perfect — Cara’s single and the film achieved identical rankings on key year-end charts. On Billboard’s year-end Hot 100 singles chart for 1983, “Flashdance…What a Feeling” ranked No. 3 behind “Every Breath You Take” and Jackson’s “Billie Jean.” On boxofficemojo.com’s accounting of the top-grossing films of 1983, Flashdance ranked No. 3 behind Return of the Jedi and a 1982 holdover, Tootsie.
When the 26th Annual Grammy nominations were announced, Cara received four nods – record of the year and best pop vocal performance, female, both for “Flashdance…What a Feeling” and album of the year and best album of original score written for a motion picture or a television special, both for Flashdance.
At the Grammy telecast on Feb. 28, 1984 – the highest-rated Grammys in history, in large part because the red-hot Jackson was expected to sweep (and did) – Cara won the female pop vocal award and shared in the award for original score. She also performed “Flashdance” as the final performance of the night.
The female pop vocal category was highlighted on the show, with performances from all five of the nominees – Cara, Linda Ronstadt, Bonnie Tyler, Sheena Easton and – you guessed it – Summer. Cara seemed genuinely shocked when Bob Seger and Christine McVie announced her as the winner. “Are you sure?,” she charmingly asked, before saying, “Um, I can’t believe this.”
Five weeks later, on April 9, 1984, Cara performed “Flashdance…What a Feeling” on the Oscars. She was accompanied by 44 boys and girls from the National Dance Institute. The number was sensationally staged, and was interrupted by applause six times.
When Flashdance star Beals and Matthew Broderick announced “Flashdance…What a Feeling” as the winner, Cara became only the second person of color to win an Oscar for best original song – following Isaac Hayes for his 1971 classic “Theme From Shaft” – and the first woman of color to do so.
In her acceptance speech, Cara graciously saluted a legendary lyricist/composer team that was also nominated with two songs from Yentl. “Just to be nominated with the likes of Alan and Marilyn Bergman and Michel Legrand is an honor enough.”
In the wake of “Flashdance,” Cara landed just one more top 10 hit on the Hot 100. “Breakdance,” which Cara and Moroder co-wrote to capitalize on the breakdancing phenomenon, reached No. 8 in June 1984.
It’s hard to know why Cara didn’t sustain as a successful recording artist. Her two tentpole smashes were so ubiquitous they may have simply been too hard to follow. Summer dominated the dance/pop space in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s to the degree that it was hard for anyone else to step out of her shadow. Also, 1983-84 saw the emergence of a new MTV class of visuals-forward pop artists, including Madonna, Jackson, Prince, Cyndi Lauper and Culture Club. That may have left Cara, whose two big hits had visuals defined more by their movies than her own star power, trailing a little behind.
In the interview she did with me the week after winning two Grammys, she cited sexism in the music industry as a source of frustration, even then, at the pinnacle of her career.
“It’s very hard being female in this business,” she said. “They don’t want to know that you can play an instrument, which I do, or that you can write. They want you to look pretty and sing, and I’m not about just being a chick singer.
“That’s why I have tremendous respect for Donna [Summer] and Barbra [Streisand],” she continued, “and the women who are out there trying to have some control over their own careers.”
Cara saw the frequent comparisons to Summer – who was also 63 when she died in 2012 – as rooted in sexism. “A lot of people like to rival other female artists,” she said. “I listen to the radio and I hear one song after another by all the male artists and I can’t tell one voice from the next, but no one says anything about that.”
Whatever career frustrations and roadblocks Cara encountered, her talent and charisma at her peak — as seen in her recordings and those award show performances — are forever there for all to hear and see. She took her passion and made it happen.