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 ...
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?
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:
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.