September 2013

Arts & Letters

Cyndi Lauper at 60

By Anwen Crawford

Cyndi Lauper, whose 1983 hit ‘Girls Just Want To Have Fun’ has soundtracked my life, is now 60 years old. In my head Lauper is still the young dervish photographed by Annie Leibovitz for the cover of her debut album, She’s So Unusual, caught mid dance with elbows and knees akimbo, wearing a violently pink prom dress and fishnet tights.

Lauper might never have eclipsed that moment, but neither has she languished in it. She’s So Unusual remains her best-known work – so much so that she’s touring Australia this month for the album’s 30th anniversary, playing the whole thing in sequence – but there are another 10 studio albums in her catalogue, and in June this year she won a Tony award for her work on the Broadway musical Kinky Boots, making her the first woman to win for Best Score as a solo composer.

I was two when ‘Girls Just Want To Have Fun’ was released – the first single from an album that has gone on to sell roughly 16 million copies worldwide – and the song shapes some of my earliest, blurriest memories. It remains one of the most recognisable, and beloved, hits of the 1980s. Put it on at any party and within seconds the room will be up and dancing, much like the assembled crowd in the song’s video clip, who cram themselves into Lauper’s bedroom while her parents (onscreen mum played by Cyndi’s real mum, Catrine) shake their tired heads in disapproval. Like so many great pop songs, ‘Girls Just Want To Have Fun’ is an ode to teenage rebellion: stay out late, act silly, annoy your folks. Yet the song’s longevity suggests something more than this. Lauper intended it to be a potent feminist anthem, and it remains one.

The song was originally written by Robert Hazard, but Lauper altered the arrangement and the lyrics to reflect, in her own words, “a woman’s key”. In Hazard’s version the central refrain really meant “girls just want to get laid”, but in Lauper’s take fun meant fun, as dazzling as you could imagine it. Sex might be a part of this but it didn’t have to be, which is why, as Lauper recalls in her self-titled memoir, “I saw three generations of women come to my concerts: grandmothers with rhinestones, mothers with spray-dyed hair, and little kids dressed as some weird-ass version of me.”

Thirty years later the song’s exuberance still shines through. Musically, Lauper drew on the reggae influence that filtered into new wave pop through British punk, most obvious in groups like UB40, The Police and Culture Club (my other great toddler passion). ‘Girls Just Want To Have Fun’ has a rhythmic skank that chops steadily but not obtrusively through the mix, beneath the main riff, and a bassline that follows in the reggae style, emphasising the first and third beats of the bar. An eccentric keyboard solo, which sounds something like a steel drum, follows the second chorus.

And then there’s the backing vocal, the part that begins “Girls / They wanna / Wanna have fun / Girls / Wanna have” and sounds like The Crystals grafted onto Annie. Fitting, really, as the vocal arrangement was suggested to Lauper by veteran Brill Building songwriter Ellie Greenwich, who co-wrote The Crystals’ peerless ‘Da Doo Ron Ron’ and The Shangri-Las’ ‘Leader of the Pack’. It’s the last third of ‘Girls Just Want To Have Fun’ that makes the song a piece of pop genius, with Lauper’s lead vocal carousing through the backing vocal – “Oh, when the working day is done (They just wanna / They just wanna-ah-ah) / Girls just wanna have fun” – as if she’s leading a victory parade. “I put it in the key of F,” Lauper reminds us, “just like a trumpet.”

Like The Shangri-Las, Lauper is from Queens, New York, and her vocal style was a throwback to the ’60s girl groups or perhaps even further – critic Greil Marcus once compared Lauper’s voice to Buddy Holly’s, while Lauper herself name-checked Shirley Goodman of the early R&B duo Shirley & Lee. Her register was high, her tone was bright, and her volume was loud, loud, loud. Compared to thinner, bubblegum voices like those of Belinda Carlisle or Madonna, Lauper sounded odd, even irritating, and yet her forceful singing elevates ‘Girls Just Want To Have Fun’ above the throwaway and gives lines like “I want to be the one to walk in the sun” a declamatory power. When she claims that at the heart of the song were her mother, her grandmother, her aunt, and other working-class women in families just as ordinary, you believe her. “I’d make it work for every poor sucker whose dreams and joys were dashed out,” Lauper writes. In many ways ‘Girls Just Want To Have Fun’ is a woman’s version of ‘Born To Run’, which does not make it inferior to Springsteen’s song, or a lesser achievement in the history of pop music.

‘Girls Just Want To Have Fun’ might be Lauper’s most famous song, but she can hardly be described as a one-hit wonder. She’s So Unusual spawned no fewer than seven singles. The first four went Top 5 in the US, which was unprecedented for a female solo artist. Apart from the music, the most important element of Lauper’s success was MTV, which had launched in August 1981.

The music video station helped to make Lauper – and she, it – though in the long run it constrained her. Her rise as a pop star coincided with a sharp spike in MTV’s popularity; John Landis’ landmark clip for Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ premiered in December 1983 and, suddenly, music videos were cultural events. Lauper, too, was a pioneer. Her videos were zany, joyous, colourful and scattered with references to cinema history: the Marx Brothers’ A Night At the Opera in ‘Girls Just Want To Have Fun’, Jacques Tati’s Mon Oncle in ‘She Bop’. Contemporary pop stars who treat the music video as performance art owe a debt to Lauper. But where Madonna proved adept at spectacular reinvention with each clip, Lauper’s eccentric visual presence became her straitjacket.

Perhaps it was the comparative tameness of the clip for ‘Money Changes Everything’, the fifth single from She’s So Unusual, that helped to stall Lauper’s chart-topping run. I say comparative because, while it is a straightforward concert video, it does capture Lauper taking off over the audience in a flying garbage can, for all the world like Dorothy in the hot-air balloon waving goodbye to the citizens of Oz. It’s silly and surreal, yet the studio recording of the song – which opens She’s So Unusual – is arguably Lauper’s finest moment.

All the musical elements are there in the song’s original version, recorded by Atlanta band The Brains in 1978 – the keyboard line, the driving rhythm, the clear-eyed, hard-earnt lyrics – but Lauper pushes each element further and understands the song more deeply. It begins with a crack (gated snare, the telltale drum sound of the 1980s, is all over this album) and builds from there, the ballad of a woman who leaves her lover for another man because, well, money changes everything. Lauper’s vocal phrasing is superb, and when she holds the second syllable of “money” on the song’s outgoing coda, so high and unflinching, there is an intimation of the female vocalists who would follow in her wake: Courtney Love, Pink, Gwen Stefani and, in particular, the riot-grrrls (Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hannah, Heavens to Betsy’s Corin Tucker), who spent the early 1990s redefining what women in bands might sound like. Though Lauper has delivered sentimental songs in her time, this moment is stripped of sentimentality. Three decades on, the voice of a woman who is angry yet in full command of her anger is still, in pop music, unusual.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford was The Monthly’s music critic from 2013–21.

© Stephanie Schneider

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