[16 May 2014]
PopMatters Interviews Editor
A lot of people tend to forget that She’s So Unusual is one hell of a covers album.
At the start of the ‘80s, the post-disco comedown that America was experiencing was leading to a bit of an identity crisis in the realm of pop music. New Wave hits by Blondie were coming through radio dials, Hall & Oates were just warming up, and flashy singles from Soft Cell, Olivia Newton-John, and Kim Carnes were all doing boffo business. However, despite the commercial and cultural success of some of these tracks, nothing was really defining the era as of yet. Pop and rock were mingling on the charts with surprising ease, but artists like Tommy Tutone and Juice Newton were only adding color to the mix: The sound of the ‘80s had yet to be defined, and in the latter half of 1983, two very strong, independent women wound up releasing their debuts within months of each other, and invariably wound up providing the pop music zeitgeist many people had been waiting for.
Those ladies, of course, were Madonna and Cyndi Lauper.
Madonna’s self-titled debut came out that July, and although her initial singles fared well on Billboard’s dance charts, her straightforward, remarkably-appealing dance pop hadn’t yet had a chance to break through to a wider audience. Meanwhile, after numerous setbacks for her band Blue Angel (and numerous financial and vocal difficulties on top of that), a young New Yorker named Cyndi Lauper was prepping her full-length solo debut. Her album, She’s So Unusual, unleashed its lead single, “Girls Just Want to Have Fun”, on September 6th, 1983. The following day, Madonna released “Holiday”, her breakout chart entry. Both songs went on to be huge hits, and as the years rolled on, these women wound up defining not just the 80s, but the very template for female pop stars for decades to follow.
Thus, looking back on the release of Lauper’s debut album some three decades down the line in the form of a “30th Anniversary Celebration”, some would be surprised to learn that, in fact, half the album is made up of covers. Georgia cult rockers The Brains had their signature song “Money Changes Everything” picked as She’s So Unusual‘s opening salvo, while folk artist Jules Shear’s “All Through the Night” got a plumb role on Side B, and New Wave songwriter Robert Hazard saw his quirky one-off “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” transformed into a earth-shattering, Grammy-nominated chart topper. Toss in a cover of Prince’s “When You Were Mine”, and you have an album that doesn’t plays more as a personal mixtape than an album proper, but the mish-mash of styles—which is what the 80s were very much about—is what by-and-large gave Lauper’s solo album such a unique identity.
However, some 30 years down the line, certain parts of She’s So Unusual haven’t aged particularly well, and despite all the additional ephemera included here, there are still some problematic songs that continue to rub shoulders with tracks that have come nothing less than generational touchstones.
Take, for example, the controversial Top Five hit “She Bop”, a wry ode to female masturbation that also opened She’s So Unusual‘s flip-side. The gritty guitar and by-then-numbers synth roll that anchor the track’s hook feels tied down to then-trendy New Wave songwriting tropes, and feels far more dated than it does timeless, pop music’s equivalent to empty calories. “I’ll Kiss You”, similarly, has verses that are as jam-packed with more squiggly synth effects than you can shine a strobe-light at, but it’s barely saved by a strong, rubbery chorus, low bass voices anchoring Lauper’s Betty Boop squeak, which makes her empowering take-charge anthem all the more potent.
Yet even with those songs showing their age in sometimes painful ways (and “Yeah Yeah” truly feeling like a song that was tacked on to the end ‘cos no one could determine whether it was a B-side or album track), there are still more than enough highlights on She’s So Unusual to make it worthy of its iconic status. “Time After Time” continues its quiet campaign to be known as the single best song Lauper has ever written (its development chronicled in Jancee Dunn’s press-release-ready liner notes, which paints Lauper’s story with rainbow pastels and shies away from any real grit), and the reggae-affected guitar crunch of “Witness” is basically the blueprint for every No Doubt song ever written. Her full-bodied take on Prince’s “When You Were Mine”, meanwhile, is done in such a way that it feels like a tune Lauper herself has written, as her occasionally-sung, occasionally-conversational vocals show a true sense of ownership over the material.
From there, “All Through the Night” serves as a perfect mid-tempo synth ballad, “Money Changes Everything” is given a Springsteen-style swagger, and “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” remains to this day the very definition of what a joyous, effervescent pop song should be (although her tweaking of the original, which was sung from a male perspective, is what turns it from a horndog romp into a universal anthem, and it took some real smarts on Lauper’s and producer Rick Chertoff’s parts to notice the power of such a change).
That being said, for being as confident a debut as it was, the bonus material featured here is remarkably hit-or-miss. Not a single one of the modern-day dance revisions included here is worth your time, and even the included 1984 Arthur Baker remix of “She Bop” doesn’t tweak the original as much as just give it more amped up passages in the verses, the whole thing equating to nothing more than keyboard window dressing. However, a live rendition of “Witness” from 1984 proves to be a great showcase for Lauper’s vocal range (and although she’s a good songwriter, her chameleon-like vocal affections are very much a part of what made her so different from other singers of the era), and the off-beat B-side “Right Train, Wrong Track” makes for a fascinating historical curiosity if nothing else.
What’s most remarkable about the bonus tracks, however, is the number of demos included, and just how far removed from the finish studio versions they were. “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” has two versions, actually: a gritty early guitar demo that really plays up the guitar chords and comes off as surprisingly aggressive (which is an absolutely extraordinary thing to hear), and the stripped-to-the-basics demo that is closer to the finished version in structure and intent but shows Lauper still figuring out her the exact vocal inflections she wanted to use. Her rough take on “Time After Time” even has her using a lot generic “na na” phrases instead of lyrics during the second verse as it was still a work in progress, but features more than enough flashes of melodic genius even in its infant stage.
Ultimately, She’s So Unusual—and “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” especially—have become Lauper’s calling card, even with great songs like “True Colors” and a Tony win for her work on the musical Kinky Boots ensuring that her legacy is more than just a single archetype-destroying album. Yes, some of the songs are showing their age in a particularly unflattering fashion, but that still doesn’t diminish She’s So Unusual‘s power. It’s still a great pop album from a great diva, and even 30 years down the line, it remains an enjoyable listen time after time.