I’m ashamed to admit that I once booed Cyndi Lauper. Her early band, Blue Angel, was opening for the Human League at that band’s New York City debut. (At the time, they were conquering America with “Don’t You Want Me.”) Dressed in my student-budget approximation of New Romantic duds, I, like the rest of the crowd, came anticipating synths, Brit cool — the future. Instead, Lauper’s band delivered rockabilly guitars, bridge-and-tunnel accents and the past. And so, on that night, they were hit with the full force of hip Anglophile kids’ wrath. A few months later, they split.
Lauper must’ve learned from that experience, because she soon bounced back with She’s So Unusual, which lodged itself in the US Top 40 for 65 weeks, sold an estimated 16 million copies worldwide, and in general went pop in all the right ways. The album drew from a myriad of disparate inspirations — bygone Brill Building drama, dance club drums, offbeat R&B, transatlantic post-punk, heartland power-pop, English reggae — and it remains, to this day, the essential text for understanding American New Wave at the moment it tipped from a largely underground movement to a constant presence in the mainstream.
It worked primarily because Lauper worked less like a pop star and more like an expert curator, or like a buyer for a funky vintage clothing store. (At the time of She’s So Unusual, in fact, Lauper was working for Screaming Mimi’s, a downtown NYC vintage shop that, miraculously, still exists.) The album is a canny mix of personal vision and intense collaboration. Remarkably, Unusual contained four covers of recently-released songs — the Brains’ acerbic anti-anthem “Money Changes Everything,” Prince’s cheeky lament “When You Were Mine,” Jules Shear’s wistful “All Through the Night” and one-time Hollies frontman Mikael Rickfors’s rambunctious “Yeah Yeah.” The covers were balanced by Lauper’s original material, and the result was a colorfully eclectic record that showcased Lauper as singer, arranger, songwriter and, ultimately, a star.
“Every song we did on that album, I changed it,” Lauper recalls via telephone between flu-inflicted coughs. “It had to sound like it came from me, not like I did a covers album. We had to have our own sound. I’d take this electronic thing, take the reggae thing and the pop songs, and mix it together.” Lauper could embrace such a willfully off-kilter style because she possessed the vocal chops. Blue Angel proved she could belt, but on Unusual, she twisted her technique with yelps, bleats, hiccups, birdcalls and Betty Boop squeaks. Nina Hagen and the B-52s simply visited terrain traveled by Yma Sumac and Yoko Ono, but Lauper reconfigured their quirks, fitted them into a pop lexicon, and made them hers.
“I was signed for my big voice,” Lauper recalls. “[But] in those days, women with big voices did not write. I did all these [covers], and I got really good at arranging them. And they pulled out another tape. ‘Are you gonna do this one?’ and I said, ‘No, I’m not. I’m gonna fuckin’ write a song with you guys.’”
“You guys” included Rob Hyman, keyboardist of the not-yet-successful Philadelphia band the Hooters. Hyman, along with fellow Hooter multi-instrumentalist Eric Bazilian, future Late Show with David Letterman drummer Anton Fig, and co-producer Rick Chertoff, a Columbia Records staffer, comprised Unusual‘s core collaborators. Alongside Hyman, Lauper wrote “Time After Time,” which quickly became what even established songwriters can only dream of — a standard. As she remembers it “everything involved in that album was a fight.” “I wanted Eric to play like the Police, like the Clash,” Lauper explains. “I didn’t want him to play some cheesy rock thing, and that was another fight. I wanted it to be really modern.” Bazilian’s percussive picking and sustained arpeggios may subtly evoke the Police’s Andy Summers, but the elegant result now remains as classic as it then was contemporary.
Ultimately, it was this clearly substantial track that ensured Lauper wouldn’t end up another New Wave one-hit wonder, and it laid the foundation on the radio, on MTV and in the public’s consciousness for the album’s other hits (including “She Bop,” another Lauper-co-written smash, one that masks its central masturbation topic with childlike giddiness so cleverly that many listeners still remain oblivious of its adult references). More importantly, it established her songwriting credibility. When asked which moment from this era most proud, the fast talker took a long pause and replied that it was when Miles Davis covered the tune. “That was like a nod, saying ‘You’re a good writer.’”
The album’s first single “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” meanwhile, established her as both a neon-bright personality and a savvy interpreter. Lauper brought so much meaning to a male composer’s song that 31 years later it lives on as a feminist anthem. Unusual‘s deluxe edition offers two demo versions of “Girls” that provide insight into how radically she rearranged material to suit her vision. Lauper had already rejected some of Robert Hazard’s original lyrics straightaway, but, according to her, the first demo version that appears on the reissue presents the song’s melody, rhythm, and genre as he originally conceived them. The result is a lot of things, but “fun” isn’t one of them.
“It wasn’t working,” Lauper says with characteristic bluntness. “Finally, we went into the rehearsal hall, and I [said to the musicians], ‘You play your Motown riffs, you play your reggae stuff, and ignore me for a minute.’ And I started singing another song from the ’50s in a very high voice, but with the words to ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.’” The liner notes identify that tune as Shirley and Lee’s “Feels So Good,” but its melody bears little resemblance to “Girls.” Instead, Lauper brought to “Girls” that R&B oldie’s overwhelming elation. Beneath the zippiness of its surface sheen, Lauper suggested that even those who shoulder too much responsibility deserve pleasure for pleasure’s sake.
Unfortunately for Lauper, another budding NYC-based pop icon embodied personal liberation at the exact same time — Madonna. Both walked through doors Debbie Harry had opened, and both employed dance-club beats and video imagery that accelerated their success just as MTV’s ability to revolutionize music and pop culture was peaking. If you lived in downtown Manhattan and participated in its bohemian/gay/club culture as I did, there was the sense that these women were sharing our story with the world, and they do so with eloquence and spunk. It was if we had two major-league teams of pro-woman pop. That was phenomenal. Yet it was also inevitable that folks were forced to pick sides.
“They started to pit me against Madonna,” remembers Lauper. “It was mostly Madonna’s company that came after me, and my company expected me to fight back. But that hit me right in the solar plexus. I believe that sisterhood is a powerful thing. I was always feeling badly because they’d knock her to me, and I’d think, ‘She is nothing like me, and I am nothing like her, so what are you doing this for?’ She had different ambitions than I did.”
Nowhere were those differing ambitions more apparent than in their videos. Whereas Madonna’s were fashion-spread slick from the get-go, Lauper’s remained deliberately homespun. “It wasn’t a big machine that put together this look,” she says of her indelible “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” clip. “It was like, ‘I worked at Screaming Mimi’s. Can some of the girls at Screaming Mimi’s come to the shoot that day? Great. We need a black girl. We need an Asian girl. Let me call up Myra.’ I asked my mother to be in it. I actually went under the radar of every sexist mofo in the world because we were laughing, but what I was really doing was bringing the races and generations of women together. That’s highly political. Every little girl was able to see herself in the video and know that she could be free-spirited.”
That remains She’s So Unusual‘s greatest legacy. It’s a record that rooted in the promise of early-’80s New York and all the racial, gender and class fluidity it once embraced. Like its iconic cover photo of the shooting star in Coney Island, it’s a bright and optimistic snapshot of the city before AIDS, crack and Reaganomics would forever change its face. It doesn’t take me back to my own downtown Manhattan roots the way her rival’s early records still do: Back then, I liked Lauper, but loved Madonna. Yet now, it’s the album I want my stepdaughter to have. It’s a part of my past that I’d most want her future to resemble.