Irene Cara's 'Fame' (& the pop, hip-hop aesthetics of kitsch/camp)

In 1964 Susan Sontag wrote a now famous essay 'Notes on camp' which rather radically at the time (and perhaps since) presented an all-encompassing descriptive argument as a list; spiralling off, riffing on various examples of 'camp' she described an aesthetic that 'incarnates a victory of "style" over "content," "aesthetics" over "morality," of irony over tragedy.'

Among the many definitions, this one connects with me the most ... 

23. In naïve, or pure, Camp, the essential element is seriousness, a seriousness that fails. Of course, not all seriousness that fails can be redeemed as Camp. Only that which has the proper mixture of the exaggerated, the fantastic, the passionate, and the naïve.

To appreciate pop music, and let's include hip-hop here too, is to recognise this 'mixture of the exaggerated, the fantastic, passionate and the naive' ...

Staying with hip-hop for a minute: just think of any of the production greats from the 90s, where the joy was to be found in the detail and discovery and the sense of abundance, while the emcee did his/her best to present something real and sincere. 

Something essentially joyful is found in the inter-mingling, the mix of high/low where the sounds and samples co-exist on an equal plane (there is 'heat' to be found everywhere). Such a space that allows for the subtle and excessive to co-exist is where the genius lies. Notions of good/bad taste are no longer relevant, if it feels right. There is pleasure to be found here. It's playful and pure at the same time.

So how does the hit song by Irene Cara, from 1980, fit into all of this?     

(Fame) I’m gonna live forever
I’m gonna learn how to fly (High)
I feel it coming together
People will see me and cry
(Fame) I’m gonna make it to heaven
Light up the sky like a flame
(Fame) I’m gonna live forever
Baby, remember my...
(Remember, remember, remember, remember)
(Remember, remember, remember, remember)

That big-bang beginning of the spacey effects and distorted synth and that sublime bassline (I'm serious, really) sets the scene for Cara's screechy vocals, so imperfect but sincere as if she means every single word. The track's true genius comes via the wonderfully theatrical backing vocals of the chorus, and the distinctive, exaggerated echo effect suggested by (a not yet famous) Luther Vandross, according to Songfacts:  

Vandross was not yet a solo star, but was in demand as a backup vocalist. He was the contractor on this session, meaning he was in charge of the backup vocals. Dean Pitchford explained: “He came in, listened down to the track. We got to the end of the chorus and he said, ‘Back it up, back it up! Check this out.’ And Irene Cara sang, ‘Baby remember my name,’ and he went, ‘Remember, remember, remember...’ and we all went, ‘Oh! That’s terrific!’ Luther Vandross is the one who not only came up with ‘remember, remember, remember...’ but he also stacked the voices on top of, ‘I’m going to learn how to fly high.’ He did that. He made a couple of other contributions around the edges, but the ‘remember’ was the major one.”

You could call this track 'kitsch' in its camp self-consciousness, the way it draws attention to all the different elements - the whole time - even though the singer appears to be oblivious.

But unlike so much post-x, y & z that has come since, where groups refer to past 'looks' - while also demonstrating their innocence via an over-idealisation of the past and dismissal, wholesale, of the present - the original impulse, or feeling is often lost. Here, thanks to Cara's performance, despite the ironic musical flourishes, the sentimental core remains pure, constant.