Goodbye, Laura Brannigan and/or Unpacking Flashdance: Narratives of Femininity and Failure

Laura Brannigan died this past August, at the early age of 47, of a brain aneurysm in her bed in Quogue. I was saddened to hear this. Laura Brannigan gave us the song “Gloria.” Not “Gloria” the Van Morrison song, “Gloria” the Laura Brannigan song. It went platinum in 1982 and was notably featured in the movie Flashdance.

Flashdance (tagline: “What a feeling.”) is a movie about the making and breaking of people with big dreams. “Gloria” plays in the scene in which Jeanie, the ice-skating friend of Alex, the Jennifer Beals character, gets her big break but blows it by wiping out in that spectacular way only ice skaters can (gasp-inducing sound of skate edge catching ice to launch jump followed by moment of slightly off-kilter spinning in air followed by extremely painful-looking skid of bare thigh and ass along ice). Though her friends are murmuring “get up, Jeanie, come on, Jeanie, get up,” from the stands, Jeanie sits broken, on the ice, as the song “Gloria” reverberates in the frigid rink.

If we begin to unpack Flashdance (and I would like to suggest here that Flashdance has not been unpacked enough by film critics and semioticians to date) we see the ice-skater subplot as a kind of might-have-been, a cautionary tale to be redeemed by the main plot of the film. The ice-skating friend falls down and doesn’t get up. This moment is both a foreshadowing of and counterpoint to the moment when Alex falls down and does get up, in the climactic ballet school audition scene.

Though she performs her avant-garde dances to an unappreciative crowd in a strip joint and supports herself as a welder by day, Alex gets an audition at a fancy ballet school, through the connections of her boyfriend, a presumably influential boss-of-people-who-weld. Perhaps he is a merchant of welded things? What is the correct title of the rich people in the welding cities of the world? Is it “robber baron?” Alex’s boyfriend is a modern-day (well, mid-1980s) robber baron, one who prefers the company of much younger women who wear the bow tie and upper third of a tuxedo shirt and nothing else to a dinner date.

In a memorably lit room, before the requisitely stony faces of the foreboding ballet school admissions board, Alex begins her unorthodox and electrifying dance routine but falls down after the first few bars. “Can I start again?” she asks, registering the painful mix of hope and devastation any eighteen-year-old welder with a heart of gold and a furnace of raw, untrained dance potential would feel if she had just fallen down in a heap during her once-in-a-lifetime shot at the training that could catapult her from the unsavory stage of the strip joint, where her femininty is sold as a commodity, to the stage of the opera house, where it will be respectfully exalted. She starts again and dances the piece to completion, culminating in an unorthodox and electrifying tumbling sequence I was urged by my parents not to try to recreate in our living room without a stunt double.

The audition scene has since been immortalized shot-for-shot in a J.Lo video, used to teach the welders how to strip in The Full Monty and referenced with typical HBO Original Series genius in a dream sequence in the second season of Six Feet Under, in which Claire, who is applying to art school, places herself in the audition scene and then dreams that her limbs are grotesquely snapping off while she tries to perform. The Six Feet Under reference in particular demonstrates that the Flashdance audition scene occupies a niche in our cultural memory. The scene serves as a receptacle for and articulation of anxiety about performance, judgment, failure, and paralysis. It also provides us with the narrative possibility of overcoming these fears in a way that culminates in an electrifying tumbling sequence.

We can read Alex’s “getting up” at her audition not only as the literal resurrection of Alex, the dancer, but a symbolic re-creation of Alex, the woman. The physical act of her falling indicates that she is a “fallen” or “incomplete” woman, a notion confirmed by Alex’s unladylike occupation, marginal place of residence (a loft), suggestive outfits and sexually liberated behavior, and ownership of a menacing, masculine dog, . She seeks entrance to the ballet academy, but she also seeks entrance to the more legitimate self-expression–within more legitimate paradigms of femininity–that the ballet academy offers.

When Alex gets up in the audition scene, she is reborn like a phoenix from her old life along the margins, to her new life inside more conventional forms of dance and womanhood. In the final scene, the Robber Baron brings Alex flowers and ties a feminizing celebratory bow around the menacing dog’s neck, representing the neutralization of Alex’s shadow masculinity. To further enforce the parallel stories, Jeanie–the permanently fallen woman–is left by her comedian boyfriend after she falls down on the ice. She receives neither the big break nor the romantic love that will rescue her from obscurity, poverty and lonliness.

The soundtrack to the audition scene and the final scene that immediately follows is, of course, “What A Feeling.” “What A Feeling” is an exuberant ode to the familiar theme of triumph over difficult odds. “Gloria,” in contrast, is a much darker work. Tying “Gloria” to the character of Jeanie while “What A Feeling” belongs to Alex further emphasizes their opposite fates. While “What A Feeling” is about a woman’s re-creation, “Gloria” describes a woman’s undoing.

For those of us looking for a heroine, Flashdance provides one, ready to dance off into the Pittsburgh sunset in her pink satin slippers. But for those of us who would rather sing with–and about–the losers, the underdogs, the broken and the lonely, as well as the paranoid and the unhinged, Laura Brannigan, with “Gloria,” gave us an anthem.


by Laura Brannigan

lyrics reprinted without any permission whatsoever


You’re always on the run now

Running after somebody

You gotta get him somehow

I think you got to slow down

Before you start to blow it

I think you’re headed for a breakdown

So be careful not to show it

You really don’t remember

Was it something that he said

All the voices in your head

Calling GLO-RI-A


Don’t you think you’re fallin’?

If everybody wants you

Why isn’t anybody calling?

You don’t have to answer

Leave ’em hangin’ on the line

Oh-oh-oh Calling GLO-RI-A

Gloria (GLO-RI-A)

I think they got your number (GLO-RI-A)

I think they got the alias (GLO-RI-A)

That you been living under (GLO-RI-A)

But you really don’t remember

Was it something that they said

All the voices in your head

Calling GLO-RI-A


How’s it gonna go down

Will you meet him on the main line

Or will you catch him on the rebound

Will you marry for the money

Take your lover in the afternoon

Feel your innocence slippin’ away

Don’t believe it’s coming back soon

And you really don’t remember

Was it something that they said

All the voices in your head

Calling GLO-RI-A

2 Responses to “Goodbye, Laura Brannigan and/or Unpacking Flashdance: Narratives of Femininity and Failure”
  1. Zapruder says:

    Hi – hate to have to say this, but Laura did not give us Gloria – she merely covered the song- it was originally an international hit for Umberto Tozzi, who was the actual composer.

    From Wikipedia:
    “1978 saw the release of Tu, and the followng year Tozzi recorded perhaps his most famous song, “Gloria”. The interpretation by American singer Laura Branigan first brought Tozzi’s name to attention in the USA in 1982. Branigan worked with the arranger and keyboardist of Tozzi’s own version, Greg Mathieson, who co-produced her version with Jack White, to give the song what she called “an American kick,” which punted the song to the top of the charts, going gold and platinum in several countries. She would go on to record two more Tozzi compositions, “Mama”, and “Ti amo”, her version of which went top 5 in Canada and Australia two years after “Gloria”. The early years of the 1980s saw the release of the album Tozzi, recorded in concert with a band of American musicians – his first live record.”

  2. ronniepeterson35 says:

    I know that falling in love is wonderful. But always a gentle song I listen to in the 1980s. Casey Kasem told you how to love him and to support him and sometime posing your feet maybe the only thing. I didn't get to see your pictures of you because it was under constuction. I wanted you to come back and do another. for 5 years and the next millenium. But I'm sorry to say we have to lose you now that you're dead on August 24th, 2004. How am I suppose to live without you and your song? All song from many radio stations will be play during Laura Brannigan weekend. That's who you are. I was sad to see you go up in heaven and sometimes when you had faith, your heart carries a song among the high clouds and over to you. When we went to bed on august 23rd, I was turning off the set and there I listened to the news knowing what wrong with this sad news. When we woke on that same August 24th, we heard the day of tragedy when you were suffered from a brian anusrym and sometimes when you are shaking your head, then you said you couldn't move and just this morning I heard on the news that you were dead. 5 years later, it took forever for us to have you rest in peace. But as Dick Bartley, Casey Kasem, Scott Shannon and Kid Kelly know we listened to Self Control. All radio station about feel good music that came to our stations 5 years later. Drew Barrymore had a pleasure to play you in the mini series that show you how you will live to become what called an irish pop star. Laura Brannigan. We'll go to our film about your life it has a road for over your 47 years. I care about and now you're in heaven and earth. Thank you, Laura Brannigan, you are simple the girl with self control Born July 3, 1957 and passed away to many other on August 26th, 2004 at your 47 years of age. Delilah will request me a song called 'Solitaire' and Delilah was asked for it and it goes to all campers of camp royall. Again, we could not hear that istead of your true professional voice. You'll be history as well as others know how your song went. I loved your songs and it goes to know. You're special. Though you're now angel up above. Your songs lives.

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