Music

Cyndi Lauper: She's So Unusual: A 30th Anniversary Celebration

Three decades later, Cyndi Lauper's calling card is showing its age, but it still features enough iconic moments and sweet surprises to keep spinning it time after time.


Cyndi Lauper

She's So Unusual: A 30th Anniversary Celebration

Label: Sony Legacy
US Release Date: 2014-04-01
UK Release Date: 2014-03-31
Amazon
iTunes

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.

7
Music


Books


Film


Television


Recent
Music

The 10 Best Experimental Albums of 2015

Music of all kinds are tending toward a consciously experimental direction. Maybe we’re finally getting through to them.

Books

John Lewis, C.T. Vivian, and Their Fellow Freedom Riders Are Celebrated in 'Breach of Peace'

John Lewis and C.T. Vivian were titans of the Civil Rights struggle, but they are far from alone in fighting for change. Eric Etheridge's masterful then-and-now project, Breach of Peace, tells the stories of many of the Freedom Riders.

Music

Unwed Sailor's Johnathon Ford Discusses Their New Album and 20 Years of Music

Johnathon Ford has overseen Unwed Sailor for more than 20 years. The veteran musician shows no sign of letting up with the latest opus, Look Alive.

Jedd Beaudoin
Music

Jazz Trombonist Nick Finzer Creates a 'Cast of Characters'

Jazz trombonist Nick Finzer shines with his compositions on this mainstream jazz sextet release, Cast of Characters.

Music

Datura4 Travel Blues-Rock Roads on 'West Coast Highway Cosmic'

Australian rockers Datura4 take inspiration from the never-ending coastal landscape of their home country to deliver a well-grounded album between blues, hard rock, and psychedelia.

Books

Murder Is Most Factorial in 'Eighth Detective'

Mathematician Alex Pavesi's debut novel, The Eighth Detective, posits mathematical rules defining 'detective fiction'.

Music

Eyedress Sets Emotions Against Shoegaze Backdrops on 'Let's Skip to the Wedding'

Eyedress' Let's Skip to the Wedding is a jaggedly dreamy assemblage of sounds that's both temporally compact and imaginatively expansive, all wrapped in vintage shoegaze ephemera.

Film

Of Purges and Prescience: On David France's LGBTQ Documentary, 'Welcome to Chechnya'

The ongoing persecution of LGBTQ individuals in Chechnya, or anywhere in the world, should come as no surprise, or "amazement". It's a motif undergirding the history of civil society that certain people will always be identified for extermination.

Television

Padma Lakshmi's 'Taste the Nation' Questions What, Exactly, Is American Food

Can food alone undo centuries of anti-immigrant policies that are ingrained in the fabric of the American nation? Padma Lakshmi's Taste the Nation certainly tries.

Film

Performing Race in James Whale's 'Show Boat'

There's a song performed in James Whale's musical, Show Boat, wherein race is revealed as a set of variegated and contradictory performances, signals to others, a manner of being seen and a manner of remaining hidden, and it isn't "Old Man River".

Music

The Greyboy Allstars Rise Up to Help America Come Together with 'Como De Allstars'

If America could come together as one nation under a groove, Karl Denson & the Greyboy Allstars would be leading candidates of musical unity with their funky new album, Como De Allstars.

Music

The Beatles' 'Help!' Redefined How Personal Popular Music Could Be 55 Years Ago

Help! is the record on which the Beatles really started to investigate just how much they could get away with. The album was released 55 years ago this week, and it's the kick-off to our new "All Things Reconsidered" series.

Music

Porridge Radio's Mercury Prize-Nominated 'Every Bad' Is a Wonderful Epistemological Nightmare

With Every Bad, Porridge Radio seduce us with the vulnerability and existential confusion of Dana Margolin's deathly beautiful lyricism interweaved with alluring pop melodies.

Music

​​Beyoncé's 'Black Is King' Builds Identity From Afrofuturism

Beyoncé's Black Is King's reliance on Afrofuturism recuperates the film from Disney's clutches while reclaiming Black excellence.

Reading Pandemics

Colonial Pandemics and Indigenous Futurism in Louise Erdrich and Gerald Vizenor

From a non-Native perspective, COVID-19 may be experienced as an unexpected and unprecedented catastrophe. Yet from a Native perspective, this current catastrophe links to a longer history that is synonymous with European colonization.

Music

John Fullbright Salutes Leon Russell with "If the Shoe Fits" (premiere + interview)

John Fullbright and other Tulsa musicians decamped to Leon Russell's defunct studio for a four-day session that's a tribute to Dwight Twilley, Hoyt Axton, the Gap Band and more. Hear Fullbright's take on Russell's "If The Shoe Fits".

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.