Cover story: Original Cyndi

28 August 2013 Clem Bastow

Cover story: Original Cyndi

Clem Bastow, Ed#437, July 2013

Star with her smash debut album, She's So Unusual, "that wacky chick" from Queens, New York, is back as a serious talent on broadway. Clem Bastow offers a personal account of the music, career and causes of the inimitable Cyndi Lauper on the eve of her Australian tour.

If you were going to rank the social events of the calendar year for four-and-a-bit-year-olds living in Port Melbourne in 1987, the St Joseph’s School disco had to be number one. (Filling the minor placings: ‘being allowed to buy a fluorescent-coloured jelly cup at Coles New World on Bay Street’, ‘smelling the biscuits baking at the Swallow & Ariell’s factory’ and ‘looking in the bins outside Debden Diaries’).

The St Joseph’s disco was held in the church hall next door to the tiny state school (now long gone), and though it was arguably old news by 1987 – given that the song had been released in 1983 – Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Girls Just Want to Have Fun’ played a key role in the evening’s events. 

We danced ourselves into a lather when the song played. Not only that, but there was a distinct shade of Lauper to the ensemble I wore back then, which I remember to this day: black tights with frilly Minnie Mouse ankle socks over the top, a chambray ra-ra skirt, and a grey cardigan with bright pink buttons shaped like tiny pencils. 

You see, in addition to the role Lauper unknowingly played in this major social event of my young life, as I’ve grown old enough to see past the Classic Hits wasteland to which her legacy is often relegated, I’ve also been able to appreciate the influence she had on me as a young girl. Indeed, the video for ‘Girls Just Want to Have Fun’ is one of my oldest memories (alongside the considerably less paradigm-shift-inducing ‘Stuck with You’, by Huey Lewis and The News). And the way ‘Girls…’ is now often wrongly dismissed as some sort of vaguely embarrassing but nostalgia-inducing ’80s frippery works rather well as a metaphor for the false assumptions made about Cyndi Lauper’s own place within the pop music canon. 

Look at the song’s video, in fact: it cost just over $30,000 and featured a mostly volunteer cast of Lauper’s real-life friends and family. It says a lot about Lauper’s personal politics that the video, shot in 1983, represents a far more diverse New York (ie, the actual New York) than the mystifyingly white one depicted by Lena Dunham’s TV series Girls in 2012. So many people were distracted by Lauper’s ‘kooky’ persona and wardrobe that they missed the message. 

In the case of ‘Girls Just Want to Have Fun’, Lauper (now 60) took an existing song written from a man’s perspective (it was originally composed and recorded by Robert Hazard in 1979) and transformed it into an anthem of self-empowerment – much like Aretha Franklin’s definitive take on Otis Redding’s ‘Respect’ in 1967. The video, with its supremely ’80s spa-bath full of women of all ethnicities, demonstrated that to Lauper, empowerment and feminism weren’t just for middle-class white women. Quite a statement, really, though you wouldn’t know it from the daft “Remember when...” coverage the video usually gets on cable TV channels these days. 

Even back in the decade it came out, Lauper was aware of the song’s misinterpretation as little more than a song about date-crazy girls, telling Interview magazine in April of 1986: “That’s what people thought in the beginning, and that made me say, ‘Hey, listen here, I’m a feminist, pal. I burnt my bra when I was 14. Don’t give me that sexist crap.’ … There’s been sexism since the beginning of time. A woman is a sex object when someone else makes her into that object. If a woman feels sexual, she has as much right to being sexual as a man does.” 

In that same interview, Lauper discussed being occasionally mistaken for Madonna while out and about. Lauper hit the scene at the same time as the former Madonna Louise Ciccone (Lauper’s album She’s So Unusual was released in 1983; Madonna’s self-titled debut release had hit the shelves just over three months earlier), meaning comparisons between her (born Cynthia Ann Stephanie Lauper) and the future Queen of Pop were inevitable – and, inevitably, as dull as you might expect. 

Consider Camille Paglia’s New York Times essay of 1990, ‘Madonna – Finally, a Real Feminist’, in which Paglia, an American cultural critic, set the two artists against each other in the interests of feminism. “In 1985,” she wrote, “Ms. magazine pointedly feted quirky, cuddly singer Cyndi Lauper as its woman of the year. Great judgement: gimmicky Lauper went nowhere, while Madonna grew, flourished, metamorphosed and became an international star of staggering dimensions. She is also a shrewd business tycoon, a modern woman of all-around talent. Madonna is the true feminist... [She] has taught young women to be fully female and sexual while still exercising total control over their lives. She shows girls how to be attractive, sensual, energetic, ambitious, aggressive and funny – all at the same time.”

Yes, you could argue it is true that, based only on a superficial reading of pop history, Lauper “went nowhere”. But while Madonna appropriated cultures left, right and centre – borrowing from the Harlem ball scene of the late-’80s for ‘Vogue’; Desi culture for the exoticism of Ray of Light’s ‘Frozen’ video in the late 1990s; Orthodox Judaism in the ‘Die Another Day’ video in 2002 (the list is long and as varied as a Benetton ad campaign) – Lauper’s politics remained admirably steadfast. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the way the pop machine works, it was Madonna, not Lauper, who became the superstar. 

Unlike Paglia, I have little interest in playing the “Who’s a better feminist?” game. But it’s worth noting that only Lauper has regularly and expressly identified as such, writing in her memoirs, published last year: “I specifically spoke up for women’s rights. In the beginning no one really came out and said they were a feminist. I did.” By contrast, Madonna’s personal relationship with feminism, if she has one, is more inscrutable.

Beyond feminism, Lauper’s commitment as an ally to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community has been a hallmark of her career, though the extent of what you might have heard likely begins and ends with her song ‘True Colors’ (1986) being adopted as an anthem of hope. The True Colors concerts of 2007 and 2008, and the cabaret shows of the same name the following two years, raised money for various LGBTI support groups. Lauper was also a vocal advocate for a hate crimes prevention act that was signed into law by US President Obama in 2009. 

But the truth is, Lauper’s politics had been front and centre far earlier than that. Proceeds from sales of the single ‘Boy Blue’, from the True Colors album, were donated to AIDS research funds. Of the song, written for a friend who had died of AIDS, Lauper said: “I tried to write about my friend. I knew he really loved [the song] ‘That’s What Friends Are For’. I know that maybe he would have liked me to do a song like that. Instead, I wrote about him personally. I don’t know that my lyrics were good enough, I don’t know that anything was good enough. Maybe it was too personal. I don’t know. But I wrote it for him. It was because of him that I keep trying to do stuff. And other friends. So many talented people, so many of our friends and so many gifted people have passed on. Or struggle everyday. Just to live. And it was because of my friends and others that I do this.”

Consider her 1996 record, Sisters of Avalon. That album covered everything from political backflipping and the arrogance of the mainstream media (‘You Don’t Know’) to LGBTI issues (‘Ballad of Cleo and Joe’) to AIDS (‘Say a Prayer’). Lauper’s co-writer, Jan Pulsford, said of the title track: “Cyndi and I were inspired by a news report played over and over on CNN about a 10-year-old girl in Egypt being circumcised. Women all over the world felt her pain, heard her screams and helplessly shuddered in empathy. It is a song about sisterhood: how when a woman cries we can all feel her pain. How we are all connected globally.”

Despite a positive critical response, that album sold poorly, and marked the end of Lauper’s relationship with the record label Epic. Indeed, as her performance style and songwriting matured, critical praise for Lauper’s records (including a Memphis blues album three years ago) increased exponentially while her sales took a downturn. It’s a great shame, then, that all too often Lauper is still thought of solely as “that wacky chick who had a few great songs in the ’80s”. 

So it’s heartening that Lauper has seen such a spectacular return to the spotlight through the Tony Award-winning success of Kinky Boots, the Broadway musical adaptation of a 2005 film about a struggling shoe factory that reinvents itself by making shoes for drag performers. For Lauper, the musical was a project that combines all of her great loves. That the committed feminist who burned her bra at 14 and raised funds for her LGBTI friends became, just recently, the first solo woman to win the Tony Award for Best Score, for a heartfelt musical about a hard-up cobbler and his drag-queen business partner, just makes it all the sweeter. 

Broadway legend Harvey Fierstein (Torch Song Trilogy), who wrote the book for Kinky Boots, knew what a boon the gig would be for Lauper. Prior to the show’s preview season late last year, Fierstein said: “I’ve always known that she loves Broadway, the tradition of Rodgers and Hammerstein, but she has such a range of writing and what she can tell and I think she’s never had a chance to really show it. She gets that chance in Kinky Boots and she’s done an amazing job. Every character has their own voice. She’s giving you a score that’s unlike anything you’ve heard before.”

And, really, when you go back over Lauper’s catalogue, that’s the hallmark of her songbook: pop music unlike anything you’ve heard before. The fact that her career has also incorporated a highly artistic approach to music videos (I still can’t watch ‘True Colors’ without weeping at its beauty), plus an uncompromising commitment to both creative fulfilment and personal politics, only makes her longevity all the more impressive. 

In that same Interview piece in ’86, Lauper said of her concert audiences: “I knew there were a couple of oddballs out there; I just never realised how many of us there were. I love the fact that the music that I’ve done so far has made little children want to sing so much... They say, ‘Thank you, because I felt very different and odd, and when you came along you made it easier for me to be myself, and even made that a good thing to be’.”

Just a year later, in the Australian suburb of Port Melbourne, there was a certain four-and-a-bit-year-old girl at the St Joseph’s School disco dancing to ‘Girls Just Want to Have Fun’. She would like her 31-year-old self to note that she would have said the same thing. 

Clem Bastow is a former Music Editor of The Big Issue.

Cyndi Lauper is performing around Australia in August and September.