Each week, Frequency Rotation probes a different song with a speculative-fiction theme. Genre, musical quality, and overall seriousness may vary.
Ask any actor: Getting typecast sucks. But even the bitterest Star Trek cast member has to admit, albeit grudgingly, that being typecast as a science-fiction actor has at least a few perks. After all, a steady paycheck is a steady paycheck, even if it does entail taking more roles within the confines of SF—a genre many actors get stuck in by accident rather than out of any preexisting love for lasers and aliens. But actors aren’t the only ones who get typecast; it’s far less common, but singers can also slide down the slippery slope of SF, especially if they happen to be practicing thespians as well as chart-topping musicians. Case in point: the operatic, starship-loving superstar of stage, screen, and song, Sarah Brightman.
Sarah Brightman is well-loved across the globe for her Broadway work in Cats and The Phantom of the Opera; for her marriage to Cats and The Phantom of the Opera writer Andrew Lloyd Webber; and for quite a few accomplishments that have nothing to do with Cats, The Phantom of the Opera, or Andrew Lloyd Webber whatsoever. In fact, she was cranking out hit singles in her native England long before she ever met Webber and rocketed to fame. For instance, at the age of 18 she fronted a dance-troupe-turned-disco-group called Hot Gossip that made a minor splash in 1978 with the song “I Lost My Heart to a Starship Trooper.”
Hot Gossip, of course, wasn’t the only disco band to hitch a tractor beam to the ’70s science-fiction boom. Meco’s disco-ized “Star Wars Theme” remains the best-selling instrumental single of all time, and there’s an entire musical subgenre known as space disco (a rabbit hole I definitely recommend venturing down whenever you have an hour to kill). Few songs in the space-disco canon, though, scramble together as many SF references as “I Lost My Heart” does. The progressive-rock band Yes had already beaten Hot Gossip to the punch when it came to namedropping Robert A. Heinlein’s novel Starship Troopers (Yes’ sprawling “Starship Trooper” came out in 1971). But Brightman and crew made up for it by cramming damn near everything else—Star Wars, Star Trek, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and even Flash Gordon—into their tinfoil-plated, dance-floor-of-the-future mashup.
The lyrics of “I Lost My Heart” try, and mostly fail, to make sense of the mess. “Tell me, Captain Strange, do you feel my emotion? / Or are you like a droid, devoid of emotion?” sings Brightman in a voice fairly devoid of emotion itself. It’s hard to say whether Brightman had any kind of genuine affection for the source material she was stealing from at the time, but it’s perhaps telling that Hot Gossip followed up “I Lost My Heart” with a Superman-themed single titled “The Adventures of the Love Crusader”—no doubt meant to capitalize on Richard Donner’s 1978 blockbuster—which was backed by another space-disco song, “Lost in Space (The Nurgon Zone).” It’s not as flashy as “I Lost My Heart,” but it’s a surprisingly involved SF narrative with catchy couplets like, “Unit 4 is the Nurgon Zone / I’m doomed to eternity.”
From there, Brightman’s career entered its own high orbit. Fame and acclaim followed her Broadway success throughout the ’80s, and by the time the ’90s rolled around, she was ready to start recording solo albums. And although few people at that point remembered her teenage love affair with starship troopers, Brightman herself seemed intent on reminding the world that—despite her newfound glamour—she was still a bit of a geek. Her solo debut, 1993’s Dive, was an ocean-themed album that included the single “Captain Nemo”—and although she didn’t write the song, she seems very much in her element as she sings beautifully (and kind of Kate Bush-ly) about the epic antagonist of Jules Verne’s SF cornerstone, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.
Since then, Brightman’s star has continued to rise, with hit album after hit album solidifying her position as a daring artist who can cross over from pop to goth to opera. So what made her decide to bring her career full-circle a couple years back and star in a science-fiction film? Maybe, deep down, she still holds a lingering love of SF campiness from her disco days—which would explain her role in 2008’s Repo! The Genetic Opera. If you haven’t seen the instant-cult-classic yet, it’s well worth at least one viewing; a dark, lush, over-the-top musical about organ repossession in a dystopian future, the film stars Brightman as Magdalene “Blind Mag” Defoe, a sightless singer who finds out the new eyes she’s leased from an evil corporation may have cost more than she realized.
The contrast between “Aching Hour”—one of Brightman’s edgiest songs from Repo!—and “I Lost My Heart to a Starship Trooper” is like night and day. Still, they show that Brightman, by all accounts an exorbitantly popular vocalist who can pretty much write her own ticket, has a science-fiction itch that she can’t stop scratching. No one has to typecast her; she does it herself. In case her geek-cred is in any doubt, note that Brightman is among the 300-plus tycoons and celebrities (among them Stephen Hawking and X-Men director Bryan Singer) who have booked suborbital spaceflight reservations on the Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic SpaceShip Two. Branson’s first two ships in the line, naturally, are named Enterprise and Voyager in honor of Star Trek. Which just goes to show: You can take the girl’s heart out of the starship, but you can’t take the starship out of the girl’s heart. Or, um, something like that.
Jason Heller writes for The A.V. Club, is working on a novel, and thinks disco and science fiction are two great tastes that taste great together.