In 1983, pop music was forever changed by two debut albums: in the summer, Madonna released her self-titled debut, and in the autumn, Cyndi Lauper released her first album, She’s So Unusual. Both records could be seen as siblings or sisters. Lauper and Madonna brought a Downtown Arts sensibility to mainstream pop music. Predictably, the music press pitted both artists against each other, highlighting their shared pop-punk thrift shop aesthetic and unabashed affection for poppy dance music.
Dance-pop was the result of the evolution of disco from the 1970s. The excesses of the 1970s – marked by the eye-searing polyester aesthetic of variety television – became synonymous with disco music, and the backlash was definitive. In 1979, radio DJ Steve Dahl organized the Disco Demolition Night during a baseball game at Comiskey Park. At the event, fans were invited to bring disco records, which would be destroyed, symbolically killing disco. The ensuing riot was ugly and stupid. It spoke to racist, homophobic, and sexist anxieties among white rock fans who railed against disco music and its dominance in popular music throughout the 1970s.
But disco didn’t die. It simply changed, bringing in New Wave, rock, and punk sounds. Synthesizers, drum machines, and other technological tools were hallmarks of the pop music that emerged from the ‘death’ of disco. Madonna and Cyndi Lauper would emerge from this movement, creating sounds heavily reliant on the post-disco pop movement in the early 1980s. Other artists like CHIC, Donna Summer, and the Bee Gees would also look to the emergent synth-heavy dance-pop of the early 1980s to change with the time.
Part of the rebuke against disco was its close ties to queer communities, and Cyndi Lauper was a direct product and a committed ally of the queer community. When developing her sound, she approached making music like she did creating her thrift store persona: her music would become a wild, vibrant cacophony of clashing influences and sound, somehow tied together to make a surprisingly cohesive album.
Cyndi Lauper’s debut would define MTV pop and 1980s pop fashion. Pop music is as much about visuals as it is about the music, and this became even truer with the advent of MTV, which sought to marry the visuals with the sound. Pioneering videos on MTV recalled the MGM musical: pop artists brought film interpretations of their songs, finding a new way of telling their stories and another avenue for their creativity. She’s So Unusual is a highly visual album – from the album art to the music videos; the album and its artist cannot separate the visuals from the music – they’re bound together.
That’s not to say that Cyndi Lauper is style over substance. It’s just that the style is part of the substance. She’s more than just a pop singer but a performance artist whose creative muse is equally sated by her aesthetic creativity and musical work. Despite all the noise around She’s So Unusual, one of the most notable things to emerge from the record is Lauper’s incredible skills as a pop songwriter and her startingly powerful and emotional vocals. Though the record is a collection of bright, sparkly pop, Lauper’s artistry and talent shine through.
Before releasing She’s So Unusual, Lauper fronted a rock band, Blue Angel. They released their sole effort, Blue Angel, on the Polydor label in 1980. Influenced by punk and bouncy New Wave, Blue Angel released a string of singles and gigged in clubs around New York City, failing to find an audience. The band disbanded, leaving Lauper devastated, toiling away in clubs and working day jobs until being re-discovered by David Wolff, who got her a deal with Portrait Records.
Working with producer Rick Chertoff, Lauper assembled a lean, tight record that topped out at ten tracks, some originals, and some covers. Of the ten songs, Lauper had a hand in writing four, including the moody pop ballad “Time After Time”, the onanistic anthem “She Bop”, and two album tracks, “Witness” and “I’ll Kiss You”. She’s So Unusual‘s most enduring single, “Girls Just Want to Have Fun”, as well as its other hits, “Money Changes Everything” and “All Through the Night”, were then-contemporary pop-rock tunes that Lauper made her own. In a fit of bravery, Lauper also took on the Purple One himself, Prince, covering his 1980 single “When You Were Mine”.
Part of Lauper’s vision for She’s So Unusual was to showcase her skills as a pop tunesmith. She learned early in the record’s making that being a neophyte in the music business – particularly a female novice – meant labels, executives, and producers would be predisposed to dismiss and underestimate her talents, wanting her simply to be a girl singer.
Audiences were very fortunate that Lauper stuck to her guns and insisted on writing some of the songs on the album because had she not, we would have been robbed of the pop classic “Time After Time”. Easily one of the greatest songs of the 1980s, “Time After Time” shows off Lauper’s deep, sentimental soul. It’s a heartbreaking song of everlasting and enduring love that endures despite time and distance. The love song was written with Rob Hyman (who would go on to perform with the rock band the Hooters), who remembers writing the tune with Lauper in a relatively short time.
“With ‘Time After Time’, we wrote that very quickly.” Chertoff directed Lauper and Hyman to put together one more song, so Hyman and Lauper “sat at the piano one night, and after the sessions, we would just stay in the studio. It was over several days. We would start after the session; we would just stay.” Hyman also credited Lauper with the song’s bruising melancholy, remembering that his original version of the song was a jovial, reggae-pop number, but Lauper’s lyrical contribution made the song “a little more bittersweet and a little deeper in its feeling and a little more poignant.”
The other classic from She’s So Unusual, “Girls Just Want to Have Fun”, would become a contemporary feminist classic. Feminism and pop music have an interesting relationship, particularly in the 1980s. Though Helen Reddy’s anthem “I Am Woman” would become a standard bearer of pop feminism, the 1980s saw a growing number of mainstream pop records that embraced feminism. Songs like Dolly Parton‘s “9 to 5”, Aretha Franklin and the Eurythmics‘ “Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves”, Janet Jackson‘s “Nasty”, and Madonna’s “Express Yourself” urged female listeners to assert themselves and claim their rightful space, but did so with a gleaming pop sheen and a catchy beat.
Though Olivia Records had been putting out feminist music for about a decade by the time of Lauper’s ascendance, its output was largely niche and indie; one of the reasons why tunes like “9 to 5” or “Express Yourself” were popular among mainstream audiences was that the songs were marketable (as were the artists). Also, the feminism in these songs wasn’t threatening. The hooky pop production and the eye-catching MTV visuals ameliorated the messages in these tunes.
“Girls Just Want to Have Fun” would become one of Lauper’s most long-lasting classics. Written by Robert Hazard in 1979, the song’s original take was a hedonistic pop trifle about a rock and roll Casanova. Lauper took it and reworked some of the lyrics, removed several stanzas, and emphasized the empowerment inherent in Hazard’s words. Instead of being about a playboy contending with all these fun-loving girls, the song becomes an anthem for girls who are content to live on their terms without needing a man. Switching some of the perspectives from the third person to the first person also affirms the feminism of the track, particularly in the bridge, when Lauper belts, “Some boys take a beautiful girl and hide her away from the rest of the world / I wanna be the one to walk in the sun.”
In the pogoing original, Hazard sings, “Some boys take a beautiful girl and hid her away from the rest of the world / All my girls have got to walk in the sun,” centering his relationship with these girls and how he treats them (note, that in Hazard’s original, he isn’t singing about just one girl, but a series of girls). Lauper recognized the song’s potential as a power anthem. Still, she also saw its limits given the lyrics’ perspective and decided that she “had to change a few things from the original… it had to be different. ‘Cause it was by a guy, and a guy’s not gonna sing it how a girl does.”
The music video to “Girls” is just as crucial in its legacy and success as the song itself. Directed by Edd Griles on a shoestring budget (a reported $35,000), the song introduced Lauper’s visual image, a construct of wardrobe, hair, and makeup, and an amalgam of pop-friendly populism and feminism. As mentioned, none of what Lauper was pushing with “Girls” was scary or threatening to the conservative status quo because everything was done with such good humor and cartoony visuals that the feminism was rendered fun and light. Therefore, with Griles, Lauper had successfully removed the song from its original bad-boy context and remade it into a working gals’ anthem for self-empowerment.
In the video, Lauper – clad in a variety of clashing outfits that mix styles, patterns, and fits – is chafing under the watchful eye of her parents (portrayed by her mother and wrestler Lou Albano) and wants to break free and rebel from her working-class environs. The lyrics “When the working day is done” take on a different meaning when we see images of Lauper on the phone, gabbing with various young women. The lyrics and the song become a working-class anthem, celebrating the freedom working-class women have once they clock out of their pink-collar jobs. Lauper held several gendered positions before succeeding as a pop star, having to leave a troubled household as a teen and, therefore, being forced to provide for herself at a young age. (Lauper’s affinity for working-class feminism has also extended into her theatre work, as she’s reportedly working on a musical version of the Mike Nichols comedy Working Girl.)
Because the cartoonish visuals so heavily defined Lauper’s image, it was easy to dismiss her as an artist. When pitted against Madonna, she was seen as lacking despite being the stronger musician of the two. As Lucy O’Brien pointed out, “[Madonna and Cyndi Lauper] were hard-working products of the New York club scene, but whereas Lauper, alienated by the constant pressure to be ‘commercial’, lost momentum and direction after her initial huge success… Madonna made a point of restlessly building on every achievement.” O’Brien points out that Lauper’s success was hampered in a way that Madonna’s wasn’t because she was motivated by a desire to create art versus a desire to make money.
Lauper marvels at the reverence paid to She’s So Unusual, given how hard she worked to be taken seriously as an artist. The record has been canonized, which is “really wild” to Lauper. “…I remember during that time period, I had very important and iconic producers on TV shows and in the music industry tell me that what I did was disposable music.” She then added, “I said to them, ‘No, this isn’t disposable’.”
Lauper’s right. The music on She’s So Unusual isn’t disposable. It’s classic New Wave-influenced pop music. From the first notes of the album’s opener, her take on “Money Changes Everything”, we hear a different kind of voice – one never heard before. It’s a strange, muscular voice that can slide from a throaty belt to a high-pitched wail. Chertoff bathes the song in buzzy synthesizers and kicky electric guitars. In the driving “When You Were Mine”, Lauper embraces Prince‘s lyrics and makes them her own, finding the urgency in the tune. Horn-heavy ska-pop, “Yeah Yeah”, Lauper pays homage to Yoko Ono by mimicking Ono’s inimitable vocalizations. The album title is She’s So Unusual, and that is why it stands the test of time: it’s an eccentric record, a weird record that seems to revel in an oddness that feels subversive and quietly revolutionary.
She’s So Unusual becomes a beacon of hope and inspiration to all the weirdos who don’t fit in. When Lauper reveals her haircut in the video for “Time After Time”, she’s ostracized because it’s unconventional: her neon crimson hair is shaven on one side of her head. With her bright makeup and brightly colored outfit, she looks like a tropical fish. In the video, she’s made fun of and othered because she’s so strange. She’s a kook, which is why Lauper fostered a fan base of fellow misfits who identified with her inability to conform. Though she was often compared to Madonna – especially in the early days – in many ways, she’s more akin to 1960s-era Barbra Streisand, another supremely gifted singer whose unconventional looks and idiosyncratic style made her a heroine for the oddballs.