She’s the superstar big sister who could be your own best friend—and who belongs in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, period. Any questions?
By the time Cyndi Lauper made her solo debut in the fall of 1983, the year had already delivered some of ‘80s culture’s greatest hits: Michael Jackson had performed the moonwalk on the Motown 25 TV special; Sally Ride was the first woman to fly into outer space, and a black Miss America, Vanessa Williams, was crowned for the first time ever. Madonna was still a yet to be and in the process of defining herself on a debut that just skimmed the radar. Lauper however was fully formed, comfortable in her own skin and clothes, wrote her own songs and had enough chutzpah to take others’ songs and make them her own. She was also an extraordinary singer, then and now, her voice an expression of pure joy and an assertion of her freeness, two of the very best parts of She’s So Unusual, a record that isn’t so much stuck in the ‘80s as it’s a simultaneous survey of what was brilliant and what could’ve been done better that decade.
“Money Changes Everything,” was a hip pick: Atlanta’s Brains had already scored an underground radio “hit” with the song. Lauper’s own take of Tom Gray’s composition (with Rob “Hooter” Hyman on Melodica) manages to make it less robotic and electro than the original, a bit janglier, and just as tough. With her mind on her money following a bankruptcy (a suit was laid on by her former band, Blue Angel) Lauper’s song about power and relationships made the perfect match for her new marriage—a label deal with Portrait/Epic. And with her characteristic bounce and hiccup, “Money Changes Everything” serves not only as an echo but as a warm-up to the big one: “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” the zing of its chords carved so deep in the psyche of people of a certain age (whether they like it or not), a refresher is hardly necessary. Though if it’s been awhile, you may want to revisit just how powerfully Lauper delivered her far-from-frivolous song, insisting that women be allowed to lead lives unbound.
Her icy take on Prince’s “When You Were Mine” strips the soul and hyperkinetic tempo from it, but adds a new twist on modern love in what had just become the age of AIDS. “She Bop” suggests a girl is better going it alone than risking heartbreak or death, while also tipping the hat to the time-honored tradition of rock’n’roll nonsense (be bop a lula).
Collaborator Hyman and she came up with a song for the ages. “Time After Time,” and Jules Shear’s ballad, “All Through the Night,” is equally sustainable (though suffers a bit under the weight of electronics). The ska-lite “Witness” and the new wave “I’ll Kiss You” recede into the background, though it’s no fault of Lauper’s consistently gold standard vocals. “Yeah Yeah” combines the best of Yoko Ono, Johnny Rotten and Betty Boop in a powerhouse ultimate performance (the free jazz horn blasts make up for the fact the twee keyboards weren’t checked at the door).
Three unreleased bonus tracks accompany the reissue—a remix of “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” by Yolanda Be Cool, and two remixes of “Time After Time,” by Nervo and a house-ish percussive track by Bent Collective. Whether the 30th anniversary remastered edition actually sounds better than the original is debatable: If only “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” roared off the turntables like “Rip Her to Shreds” by Blondie or if only it had the intimacy of the Pretenders’ “Brass in Pocket”…Instead, Lauper’s tracks are tamped down, muted in a vinyl mix that’s only slightly improved on the digital recordings. While it’s been said many times by fans and critics that ‘80s studio technique and production practices haven’t weathered the years well, I suppose it’s a matter of taste. But here especially, the then-new sound of the drum machine doesn’t enhance Lauper’s gutsy vocal antics and sheer excellence; rather, they clutter the tracks and the synthetic quality makes me want to send the needle skidding across the record.
Lauper’s release got its share of awards and recognition; her videos were virtually ubiquitous on MTV throughout 1984 and the album remains a classic of the era. The facts are irrefutable, so why comment or criticize further? Because 30 years on, Lauper still hasn’t received her due in some quarters. This girl’s girl, the superstar big sister who could be your own best friend belongs in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame yesterday. Other than that and her ginormous voice, heart and talent, there’s really nothing so unusual about her at all.
Top photo by Annie Leibovitz, natch.