The word “comeback” has lost its potency, at least in a pop-culture sense.
There is one performance, though, that reflects the incredible and transformative power the word can contain. It’s a power I didn’t fully realize until I started writing this post.
By 1990, Gloria Estefan had become one of the world’s biggest pop stars. With the Miami Sound Machine, she dominated the charts with a Latin pop hits like “Conga,” “1-2-3,” and “Rhythm is Gonna Get You.” More than a dancefloor diva, Estefan scored her first two #1 singles with the ballads “Anything for You” and “Don’t Wanna Lose You.” She was an engaging, dynamic performer. One only needs to look as far as her performance at the 1990 American Music Awards, a medley of “Here We Are” and Get on Your Feet.”
Two months after that performance, Estefan’s life changed forever. On March 20th, while on tour, a semi-truck collided with her tour bus during a snowstorm in Pennsylvania. Estefan suffered a fractured spine, her back essentially broken. Medical personnel airlifted her the next day to New York. At NYU Langone Medical Center, surgeons implanted two titanium rods in her spine. She spent months in intensive physical therapy and recovery to regain her strength and beat the odds of never performing again.
Perform again, she did. American Music Awards producer Dick Clark flew to Miami to invite the singer to perform on the same stage she had dazzled audiences on the year before. After some initial hesitance, Estefan agreed.
On January 28th, 1991, Jon Bon Jovi took to the American Music Awards stage. He introduced a clip package recapping Gloria Estefan’s rise to the top of the charts, the accident, and her extensive recovery. Afterward, the stage backdrop lifted, and a spotlight shone down on Estefan in a blue floor-length gown. Greeted with a standing ovation from the audience, Estefan was visibly moved. She bowed her head and pinched her nose to regain her composure before looking up with a smile.
Estefan soon began “Coming Out of the Dark,” the lead single from her upcoming album Into the Light. Listening to the song’s first lines and observing Estefan on stage makes for a somewhat dissonant experience. She sings, “why be afraid when I’m not alone,” and it’s certainly true: she isn’t alone. She has a loving, supportive audience in front of her, two choirs behind her, and millions of fans watching across the country. You can see her fear, though. She’s tentative: she clenches her fist and closes her eyes, losing herself in the heady, emotional lyrics.
It’s sobering to witness: the rebirth of a pop superstar in front of the world. It is indeed a rebirth, in real-time. She stays steady in one spot for the song’s first half, but she holds your attention. It feels like a triumph when she takes two or three steps forward. With every sway and rhythmic step in one spot, you can feel her confidence building, the flame that a Pennsylvania blizzard nearly extinguished burning brighter and brighter. She closes the song with a definitive, almost punchy declaration of its title, reaching up to the sky. It’s a moment that rings with emotional truth. Even the most cynical can watch and see that, yes, she indeed did come out of the dark.
Gloria Estefan has delivered plenty of incredible performances, some easily exceeding this one. She would perform at the Super Bowl (twice), the 1996 Olympics, and the Oscars (twice, including her nominated ballad “Music of My Heart” with *NSYNC). She would be among the first women to perform at VH1 Divas Live. (Alongside her own medley, she performed “You’ve Got a Friend” with Carole King, Celiné Dion, and Shania Twain.)
However, Gloria Estefan’s performance at the 1991 American Music Awards resonates on a higher level, at least for me. I can’t claim to know what Estefan experienced. Still, I know what it’s like to wonder if you’ll ever do what you loved because of a terrible health crisis. (I spent mine in NYU Langone Medical Center as well.) To wonder if you could ever do it the same way. Every face and tentative movement she makes is achingly familiar, as is the crescendo of confidence. (Mine is a bit longer, over months.)
It’s difficult to come back from a medical catastrophe, whether you’re a musical icon or a writer with nerve-damaged fingers and feet. The months and years of physical and mental recovery feel immense, too much to bear at times. If you can find your way through the dark, the feeling can be tremendous, no matter how big or small your “comeback” is.
It’s in that moment when you feel the power of that word.
You can view more articles in the Performances That Pop series here.