Cyndi changes everythingWritten by Michael Miller | Editor in Chief Emeritus | firstname.lastname@example.org
Cyndi Lauper, like so many musicians who debuted during the ’80s MTV era, could have been — should have been — a one-hit wonder.
“Girls Just Want to Have Fun” was almost too perfect a single to kick off a career. Its anthemic chorus, delivered with a vocal blend of determination, defiance and humor, could have found itself on lists beside “Come On Eileen,” “Take On Me,” “Tainted Love” and other hit singles that served as both introduction and permanent retreat for their performers.
But the New York-born Lauper was too talented a writer and too savvy a performer to gracefully fade into pop star trivia. Her debut solo album, “She’s So Unusual,” charted five singles, including “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” the instant classic “Time After Time” and the censor-defying ode to female self-gratification, “She Bop.” “Unusual” was nominated for the Album of the Year Grammy and won Lauper that year’s Best New Artist trophy. Its stature has grown as time has passed; Rolling Stone named it one of the top 500 albums in rock history and historian Dave Marsh tapped three of its songs — “Girls Just Want to have Fun,” “Time After Time” and “Money Changes Everything” — for his book “The Heart of Rock & Soul: The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made.”
To mark the 30th anniversary of “She’s So Unusual,” (which was actually released in 1983) Sony Legacy has released a deluxe remastered CD with demos, remixes and B-sides. Lauper discussed the album’s impact on her life and career during a recent interview with Toledo Free Press.
Lauper said the swagger she brought to the vocals of her debut came from her confidence in who she was as an artist.
“I was very confident going into the making of this record,” she said. “You have to remember I was 30 years old when the album was released and I had been around. I had been in bands and had played live for almost 10 years. I had a record deal with my band Blue Angel before my solo deal. When I got signed to Portrait [Records] as a solo artist, I knew exactly the kind of record I wanted to make, what I wanted it to say, what I wanted it to sound like.”
While a lot of ’80s-era music is trapped in its MTV sound chamber, “She’s So Unusual” has aged well and Lauper said that is in large part due to her production choices.
“Growing up I was influenced by the blues and then by rock music and then later electronic music and then pop music and reggae, and I think all of those influences came to bear on this album,” she said. “It wasn’t just an ’80s album, it was an album that incorporated different sounds from different periods and maybe, for that reason, it doesn’t sound dated. I never wanted to follow music trends. Because you want all of your albums to sound good 30 years later and beyond.”
Lauper said that at first, she did not react positively to the recording of “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.”
“The first time I heard ‘Girls’ I didn’t like the mastering on it. I thought at first my voice was a little buried,” she said. “In retrospect, it worked well that way because of the key it was in but I wasn’t thrilled at first. I got used to it. The spirit of the music and my voice was there. And then it became a hit.
“Not everyone was convinced ‘Girls’ should be the first single. It was important to me to have a hit with an uptempo song first because if we led with a ballad I would be known as a ballad singer only, and not a rocker. I had seen it happen with a few of my friends who never could get out of that space. I also knew going with an uptempo first would give the album longer life. Then we followed ‘Girls’ with ‘Time After Time,’ which sounded good the first time I heard it.”
One of the album’s gutsier choices was a gender-bending cover of Prince’s “When You Were Mine,” which had recently charted for Mitch Ryder in a version produced by John Mellencamp.
“I’ve never heard the [Ryder] version,” she said. “Rick Chertoff played me the Prince tune and I just really loved it. I wanted to sing it how it was written, never really thought too much about it.”
Giggling all the way
Lauper said she “giggled all the way to the top 5” when “She Bop,” an envelope-pushing song about female masturbation, became a hit.
“Eventually, of course, we were found out and the song became one of the poster songs for Tipper Gore’s Parents Music Resource Center,” Lauper said. “It’s funny, I met her a few years ago and we had a really good conversation. I think the PMRC complaints actually helped the music become a bigger hit.”
With the whirlwind of touring, videos, magazine covers and wrestling cameos at the time, Lauper said the peaks of “She’s So Unusual” passed by in a blur.
“I did so much promotion and publicity during the life of the album that I probably was out on the road working it when [‘Time After Time’ hit No. 1],” she said. “I remember the first time I heard ‘Girls’ on the radio. I was in Boston in the car of the local label guy there. I got my first real spins in Boston on ‘Girls’ but that’s the only vivid memory I have from that time. And for ‘Time’ to be the second single off the album and go to No. 1 was gratifying because I had to fight really hard to get songs that I wrote on the album.”
“She’s So Unusual” earned six Grammy nominations, but in a year honoring Prince’s “Purple Rain,” Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” and Tina Turner’s comeback “Private Dancer,” Lauper’s debut went a painful 2-for-6.
“When the Grammy nominations came out and I got six, including best cover art (which went to Lauper’s art director Janet Perr), we were so excited because, at the time, we were the little engine that could,” Lauper said. “When the actual Grammys happened and I lost each one, including Song of the Year [to Turner’s “What’s Love Got to Do with It?”], I felt worse for the people at the label who worked so hard to make the record a hit. Just to watch their faces as each category came and went and we didn’t win. I did get Best New Artist Grammy that year. But the Grammy I really wanted to win was Song of the Year, which ‘Time After Time’ was nominated for. But 30 years later, the song is still so widely covered, that is award enough.”
Following up a legend
Despite the success and pressure of a top 5 debut album, more top 5 singles than any woman had achieved at that time, influential videos, Grammy awards, a Weird Al parody and a Rolling Stone cover, Lauper said she did not fret about a follow-up.
“I did not think about that but a lot of people kept saying that to me. I was thrilled to have so much success off of my solo debut album, but I was familiar, too, with not having success,” she said. “So yeah, of course I wanted my second solo record to be a hit, too, but I was more excited to be back in the studio than nervous about it following up ‘She’s So Unusual.’
“When we recorded that second album [‘True Colors’] it was just not a great experience because there were a lot of people around me saying exactly that and a lot of second-guessing and less creative control for me than I had on ‘She’s So Unusual.’ But I unfortunately think that is really common, that once you have a hit, everyone wants in on the next project, everyone wants to give their two cents and it can be distracting.”
Thirty years later, Lauper said she is happy with ‘She’s So Unusual’ and its legacy.
“I wouldn’t change a thing!” she said. “Listening to it again, I mean really listening to it again, after Sony approached me about the 30th anniversary, cemented that. It still sounds good to me.
“And you can hear how much fun we had making it.”
Michael S. Miller is editor in chief of Toledo Free Press and news director for 1370 WSPD. Email him at email@example.com.
Tags: "True Colors", 80s, Blue Angel, Cyndi Lauper, Grammy, MTV, New York, Parents Music Resource Center, PMRC, Portrait [Records], SONY legacy, Tipper Gore, Weird Al, “Girls Just Want to Have Fun”, “Money Changes Everything”, “She Bop”, “She’s So Unusual”, “The Heart of Rock & Soul: The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made”, “Time After Time”