The Number Ones

The Number Ones: Irene Cara’s “Flashdance… What A Feeling”

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

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Irene Cara – “Flashdance… What A Feeling”

HIT #1: May 28, 1983

STAYED AT #1: 6 weeks

MTV first went on the air in August of 1981. A year later, the channel had already started to make a huge impact on the pop charts. A year after that, the MTV influence had spread to cinema. That’s probably the best way to explain what happened with Flashdance.

Flashdance is a pretty ridiculous movie — a retelling of the Rocky fairytale that subs out Sylvester Stallone’s down-on-his-luck mob-enforcer boxer for Jennifer Beals’ nervously striving steelworker and aspiring dancer. But Flashdance is also an MTV movie. The cinematic style of Flashdance is pure cocaine-dust-cloud MTV decadence: Clouds of dry ice wafting everywhere, big haircuts shown in backlit silhouette, editing cut to the beat of the pop songs on the soundtrack. Something like half the movie is montage, and the whole thing takes place in a beautiful, ecstatic otherworld.

In cribbing its techniques from the music-video world, Flashdance more or less invented the ’80s movie, or at least the non-Spielbergian variety of ’80s movie. You can draw a direct line from the look of Flashdance to the neon sheen of the Brat Pack movies and to the oiled-up muscularity of the Stallone/Schwarzenegger school of action flicks.

Flashdance was huge. Critics hated the film, but it did monster box office. Flashdance had a budget of about $7 million, and it made more than $200 million worldwide — enough to make it the #3 movie of 1983, behind only Return Of The Jedi and Terms Of Endearment. Producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, teaming up for the first time, immediately became one of the most powerful teams in Hollywood, and they continued to dominate at the box office even after Simpson’s cocaine habit caused his death 13 years later.

The English director Adrian Lyne had only made commercials before Flashdance, and Bruckheimer and Simpson only offered him the job after David Cronenberg and Brian De Palma turned it down. (Let’s all pause for a second and enjoy thinking about the version of Flashdance that Cronenberg would’ve made.) Flashdance also made Lyne a star, and he spent the next few years essentially defining the erotic thriller, when that was still a category of movie that Hollywood made.

Weirdly, though, Flashdance didn’t really make stars out of its actual stars. Jennifer Beals is still working, and she still looks almost exactly the same way she did in 1983, but she’s had very few big roles since Flashdance. Michael Nouri, Beals’ love interest, was one of the leads of The Hidden, a low-budget 1987 sci-fi flick that I absolutely fucking love, and he had a few years as a recurring character on NCIS, but he didn’t really set the world on fire, either. Similarly, the Flashdance soundtrack was a titanic success that didn’t exactly launch any stars. That soundtrack album sold six million copies in the US, and it briefly knocked Thriller out of the #1 spot on the album charts after its 17 weeks on top. But the people who sang those songs didn’t launch huge careers. Consider Irene Cara.

Irene Cara’s song “Flashdance… What A Feeling” isn’t just the main theme from Flashdance; it’s one of the main characters of the film itself. “Flashdance… What A Feeling” plays during the movie’s opening, a gleaming montage of Beals biking through Pittsburgh and going to work at her heavily stylized steel mill. And it plays during the film’s most famous scene, when Beals dances for the snooty judges at the Pittsburgh Conservatory Of Dance. Since the movie’s whole aesthetic was so close to music videos already, the “Flashdance… What A Feeling” video — no Irene Cara at all, nothing but cut-together scenes from the movie — could play just fine on MTV and help promote Flashdance to its intended audience.

On “Flashdance… What A Feeling,” Cara, who didn’t act in Flashdance, takes on the perspective of the Jennifer Beals character, and she sings about the freedom of surrendering her body to dance. Cara was ideally suited to both tasks, since she was both an actor and a dancer. Irene Cara Escalera was born in the Bronx, the daughter of a Puerto Rican factory worker and a Cuban-American movie-theater usher. (The #1 single in America when Cara was born: Frankie Avalon’s “Venus.”) Cara started out acting and singing young, and she was on the Broadway stage by the age of eight. At 10, she sang at a Duke Ellington tribute at Madison Square Garden. At 12, she was part of the cast of The Electric Company on PBS.

In 1976, when Cara was still a teenager, she played the lead role in Sparkle, a cult-favorite movie about a Supremes-style group. Four years later, Cara played one of the leads in Fame. That 1980 movie tells the story of a group of driven theater kids at a New York performing-arts high school, and it remains beloved among theater kids decades later. Cara played the role of Coco Hernandez, and she also sang the film’s title song and “Out Here On My Own,” another track from the soundtrack. Both songs were nominated for Oscars. “Fame” won, beating out Dolly Parton’s “9 To 5.” (“Fame” peaked at #4. It’s a 6. “Out Here On My Own” peaked at #19.)

After Fame, Cara starred in the pilot for Irene, an NBC sitcom that didn’t get picked up. She was in Sister Sister, a TV movie written by Maya Angelou, and in DC Cab, alongside Mr. T. Then she became a part of the Flashdance soundtrack. In putting together Flashdance, Jerry Bruckheimer had made the no-brainer decision to bring in Giorgio Moroder. Moroder had scored the Bruckheimer-produced movie American Gigolo, and he’d produced “Call Me,” the massive Blondie hit from that film’s soundtrack. Moroder liked Cara’s work in Fame, so he brought her in for the big soundtrack single. At first, Cara wasn’t sure about working with Moroder, since she already got so many comparisons to Moroder’s old collaborator Donna Summer. She got over it.

“Flashdance… What A Feeling” has a lot of input from Moroder’s fellow Euro-disco veterans. The keyboardist was Sylvester Levay, half of the duo behind Silver Convention, whose “Fly, Robin, Fly” had hit #1 before any of Moroder’s Summer collabs pulled it off. Backup singer Joe “Bean” Esposito had been a member of Summer collaborators Brooklyns Dreams. (I’ve seen some reports that Esposito was originally supposed to sing lead on “Flashdance… What A Feeling,” but I can’t confirm them. Brooklyn Dreams’ highest-charting single, the 1978 Donna Summer collab “Heaven Knows,” peaked at #4. It’s a 9.) Keith Forsey, who co-wrote “Flashdance… What A Feeling” and played drums on it, had been Donna Summer’s drummer, and he’d also co-written Summer’s 1979 chart-topper “Hot Stuff.”

In some ways, “Flashdance… What A Feeling” works as powerful evidence that disco never really went away. Moroder wrote the music, and he pulls off a lot of the same tricks that had worked for him so well a few years earlier with Donna Summer. “Flashdance… What A Feeling” opens with melodramatic slow-motion keyboard flourishes and elegantly breathy vocals before kicking into a huge dance beat. The drama swells and swells on the way to its belted-out bulletproof chorus. The beat isn’t the huge and simplistic thump of disco, but it’s not that far removed. Cara sings it just as Summer would’ve sung it. (This is not a complaint.) Moroder tracks had always sounded futuristic, and Moroder didn’t even need to switch his style up much to meet the 1983 zeitgeist.

Cara and Keith Forsey wrote the “Flashdance… What A Feeling” lyrics together while riding in the car to the studio. On paper, their words look like pure inspirational gibberish: “All alone, I have cried silent tears made of pride/ In a world made of steel, made of stone.” But Cara sells the hell out of those lyrics. And as far inspirational gibberish goes, I don’t know if you could come up with a more direct and effective six-word phrase than “take your passion, make it happen.”

As with Donna Summer, Cara’s delivery has a whole lot more to do with Broadway than with soul or gospel. There’s a bit of Streisand in the way Cara elegantly bends and stretches the notes on the intro, but when the chorus hits, she stays right in the pocket of that beat and cuts right through it. The song, like the movie it soundtracks, is fundamentally silly. (The backing vocals, especially, get goofy with it: “I am music now! I am rhythm now!”) But Moroder and Cara bring theatrics that elevate that silliness.

It’s hard to imagine Flashdance working as well as it does without “Flashdance… What A Feeling.” The next year, “Flashdance… What A Feeling” won the Oscar for Best Original Song, beating out two of the Streisand-sung numbers from Yentl and another Flashdance song that’ll soon appear in this column. This was the second of Moroder’s three Oscars, but he wasn’t at the ceremony to pick up the award. Cara and Keith Forsey accepted the award from Jennifer Beals and a very young Matthew Broderick, and Cara gave a speech that was sort of charmingly overwhelmed.

As both writers and producers, Giorgio Moroder and Keith Forsey will appear in this column again. But Irene Cara won’t. Even after she won the Oscar, Cara didn’t get too many more chances at stardom after “Flashdance… What A Feeling.” Flashdance hit theaters in March of 1983, and Cara’s own album What A Feelin’ didn’t come out for another eight months. That LP had one more hit: The Moroder-produced dance-craze jam “Breakdance,” which peaked at #8 in 1984. (“Breakdance” is an 8.)

Cara starred with Clint Eastwood and Burt Reynolds in the 1984 movie City Heat, but that was her last big film role. Eventually, Cara became a backup singer for people like Lou Reed. Lou Reed obviously rules, but it must sort of suck to go from having one of the biggest hits of 1983 to doing the doot doot doots on “Walk On The Wild Side.” Cara’s still singing now; she’s got a band called Hot Caramel. She continues to take her passion and make it happen.

GRADE: 8/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s the not-good-at-all live cover of “Flashdance… What A Feeling” that Céline Dion released in 1985:

(Céline Dion, you will not be surprised to learn, will eventually appear in this column.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Ashton Kutcher and Cameron Diaz dancing to “Flashdance… What A Feeling” in the 2008 romantic comedy What Happens In Vegas:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Producer JR Rotem interpolated a whole hell of a lot of “Flashdance… What A Feeling” on Jason Derulo’s 2010 single “The Sky’s The Limit.” Here’s the video:

(Jason Derulo will eventually appear in this column.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the bit from the 2013 comedy The Internship where Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughan lead some kind of pizza-based Google-intern rebellion — I haven’t seen the movie, I don’t fucking know — while “Flashdance… What A Feeling” plays:

THE NUMBER TWOS: Eddy Grant’s harsh, bleepy new-wave reggae banger “Electric Avenue” peaked at #2 behind “Flashdance… What A Feeling.” It’s an 8.