“I wanna be the one to walk in the sun. Oh girls, they wanna have fun.”
By the summer of 1983, Cyndi Lauper, born Cynthia Lauper in 1953, had just turned 30 years old and was likely thinking that the window of opportunity to make it big in the music industry was rapidly closing. Her new wave/rockabilly band, Blue Angel, had broken up, and to top it off, she was in financial trouble due to a lawsuit filed against her and the band by their former manager. Despite these setbacks, Cyndi never gave up the dream to perform. Continuing to sing in New York City clubs as a solo artist eventually led her to a new manager and a record deal with Portrait Records.
She’s So Unusual is the go-for-broke album, produced by Rick Chertoff, that she made in 1983 with the help of various musicians and songwriters, most notably Eric Bazilian & Rob Hyman of The Hooters. The Hooters would go on to moderate success after the release of She’s So Unusual, thanks to the increased exposure that resulted from their work on the album. Lauper’s record label was likely a bit nervous handing complete creative control over to an unproven artist such as Cyndi, so her signing deal came with the stipulation that she receive significant songwriting help, to the point where completed songs were handed to her to perform, or previously recorded songs were given to her by other artists. Wisely, Cyndi did what she could within the constraints of that deal and put her own spin and personality in the lyrics, making slight tweaks, ultimately giving her more control over the final product. I can imagine that if Cyndi perceived this as her last shot, she at least wanted to create something with her unique viewpoint.
Before getting into the music that made up Lauper’s debut album, I would be remiss not to make note of her visual style. Cyndi’s look was part punk rock, part teenybopper, part “Cyndi Lauper,” something brand new. The idea was to create a visual image as striking as the voice bursting out from the songs. In the burgeoning MTV era, appearances were just as important as the music itself, so this would be Cyndi’s chance to create a loud, unique, and utterly memorable image. Cyndi’s dyed orange hair, shaved close on the side, while wearing frilly and loud dresses or skirts, black pantyhose, and tons of makeup and accessories, would be the uniform of an art-punk gone pop. This visual representation of the music within She’s So Unusual gave Cyndi the freedom to play around with her image and ensure that her one-of-a-kind voice was paired up with a one-of-a-kind aesthetic.
“When the working day is done. Oh girls, they want to have some fun.”
So now that the music was written and recorded, and the visuals were in place. It was time to unleash She’s So Unusual onto the world on October 14, 1983. The lead single, “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” was a reworked cover of a song initially written (but never officially recorded/released) by Robert Hazard in 1979. Sung from a man’s perspective, the song comes off as a bit dismissive towards women who aren’t ready to embark on a serious relationship, which has been done many times before and since. However, from a woman’s perspective, and with some slightly reworked lyrics, “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” comes off as a bit of a feminist anthem. Cyndi’s version implies that women are expressing their desires to let loose and “have fun” without worrying about our patriarchal society negatively or dismissively labeling them as tarts or party girls. It didn’t hurt that Cyndi’s version included sing-along choruses, catchy keyboards, and an iconic music video that catapulted Cyndi to pop culture stardom in late ’83 and early ’84.
The album opens with “Money Changes Everything,” a rock song originally written by Tom Gray of The Brains. After hearing songs made by The Hooters once the She’s So Unusual recording was complete, I can hear the influence of their production style on this track. There’s harmonica, synths, and rootsy-sounding guitar within the 5 minutes of this song. I haven’t heard the original Brains version, but Cyndi’s version is very pop-friendly, and it’s a clear choice for a single and makes for a nice lead-off track. Cyndi belts out the lyrics regarding the effect money has on relationships with passion to spare. “Money Changes Everything” was the 5th and final single released off the album and wound up hitting the top 30 in early 1985, a year and a half after the album’s release.
After the album’s second track, “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” we get our third cover in as many songs. This time, Cyndi takes an unreleased but well-regarded Prince song, “When You Were Mine,” that was recorded and released off 1980’s Dirty Mind album. As always, Cyndi puts her spin on the song, as do the producers, adding a steady, slower drum track and lengthening the song’s run time. Cyndi doesn’t change the lyrics; initially about a guy who obsesses over a girl he once had, to the point where he follows her new beau around after she’s left him. Sung from a female perspective, “When You Were Mine” loses none of its effectiveness and the gender confusion that originally stemmed from lines like “I know that you’re going with another guy” and “I never was the kind to make a fuss when he was there, sleeping in between the two of us” is still present as we don’t know if Cyndi is referring to a former male or female lover. No wonder the LGBTQ community has embraced Cyndi (and vice versa) throughout her career. The seeds of that mutual support were planted early in her career by including such tracks. Cyndi and Prince didn’t give a fuck that those lines were going to instigate rumors about the singers’ sexuality, especially considering that both were unknown commodities when they recorded it.
“If you fall, I will catch you. I’ll be waiting. Time after time.”
The final track on side 1, “Time After Time,” is arguably (but not arguably, in my opinion) Cyndi’s most enduring song. It’s the first track we’ve heard thus far that was originally written for the album, and it also gives Cyndi her first co-writing credit along with The Hooter’s Hyman, who also provides additional vocals. “Time After Time” is a ballad about a deep and lasting devotion, and as a result, the song’s message can be applied in just about any situation, any relationship. “Time After Time’s” combination of beautifully written and sung lyrics, the killer and memorable chorus, and music that fit the mood provided Cyndi with her first #1 single. “Time After Time” utilizes guitars, keyboards, and subtle yet effective ticking clock effects to propel the song forward while creating a lasting musical memory. As with “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” the music video for “Time After Time” was just as memorable as the song. It tells the story of a girl, played by Cyndi, who leaves home to be with her boyfriend. Together, they endure financial and relationship struggles, and Cyndi begins to miss her family left behind. The final scene of the video, where Cyndi leaves her boyfriend and their trailer home squalor so she can take a train back (where we presume to be) home, is one of those time capsule tear-jerker moments from the 80s. Cyndi looks sadly out the train window with tears rolling down her cheeks at her soon-to-be ex-boyfriend, whispering “time after time” and pointing to her wrist as the song fades. No, I’m not crying. I simply have allergies.
“They say I better get a chaperon, because I can’t stop messin’ with the danger zone.”
Flip the tape or record over to side two, and you’re treated to a complete audio opposite of “Time After Time.” “She Bop” is a synth-laden pop masterpiece not about dancing “the bop” but, as we’ve all come to understand, female masturbation! Or, more accurately, as the chorus goes, “she bop, he bop, we bop,” so the story’s moral is that everybody masturbates! As a 9-year-old in the summer of 1984, when the song was released as the third single off the album, I had no clue about “She Bop’s” true meaning. The subtlety of the lyrics was meant to go way over my grade-school head. Still, it must have caught some powerful parents square between the eyes since it landed on the PMRC (Parents Music Resource Center) list of Filthy Fifteen songs that ultimately led to the creation of the parental advisory labeling. Despite the lyrical content, the song was a smash, reaching #3 on the pop charts, which gave Cyndi her third consecutive top 5 hit.
“We have no past, we won’t reach back.”
The next track from side 2, “All Through the Night,” was yet another cover, this time from the singer/songwriter Jules Shear. “All Through the Night” was the 4th single released from the album in the fall of 1984 and wound up being Cyndi’s 4th consecutive Top 5 song, a first for a female artist’s solo debut. The song begins slowly, with watery keyboards and Cyndi singing in a lower register. Once the chorus hits, the tempo picks up, the drums kick in, and Cyndi’s register goes up a few notches. It’s worth noting at this point that Cyndi Lauper has one of the most distinct and versatile vocal ranges, which always set her apart from lesser singers or those who can only sing well in one or two octaves. “All Through the Night” is a perfect example of this talent, and she once again took a song that may have died in obscurity and turned it into a successful and memorable hit song.
“Witness” follows on the track listing, and this ska-influenced, mid-temp track was co-written by Lauper and former Blue Angel bandmate John Turi. “Witness” allows Cyndi to look back at her previous work and is ultimately a nice nod to the sound she and her band had created before her solo career. It’s a pleasing, bouncy song that flows well with the track listing of Side 2.
The next song on the album, “I’ll Kiss You,” is another upbeat Lauper co-written track with a similar sonic palette to “She Bop” in terms of being drum beat and synth-heavy with guitars sprinkled in. In the song, Lauper makes another case for female empowerment, this time from the standpoint of being a romantic or sexual aggressor. Sure, she uses the excuse of love potions and gypsies, but the bottom line is that Cyndi will “kiss you,” and you’ll like it.
“When I want some lovin’, and I gotta have some lovin’, he says, please stop it, please.”
“He’s So Unusual” is a short, 45-second track that mimics the Tin Pan Alley era of songwriting and performing and was written by a trio of songwriters from that era. Cyndi takes on the role of a 1980s Betty Boop-style singer who appears to lament how her handsome and intelligent boyfriend won’t give her any loving. Singing, even if for less than a minute, about being in a relationship with a closeted gay man was undoubtedly unusual in 1983.
The album’s final track, “Yeah Yeah,” was co-written by a member of the ’60s band The Hollies, but Cyndi takes yet another unique vocal take than what is often found on the album. Her vocal mannerisms during the “Yeah Yeah” verses are reminiscent of Carrie Brownstein of the band Sleater-Kinney’s singing voice. She ends each line with a punky-bratty tone, then adds more vocal acrobatics throughout the choruses, including her high-pitched and extremely New York on helium speaking voice. “Yeah Yeah” is a fun song that ends the album on a high note.
Memory Bank Withdrawal
Like most people, my introduction to Cyndi Lauper was through the single “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” It slowly worked its way onto radio station playlists nationwide throughout late 1983 and early 1984. By the time it was being played on my small-town Wisconsin radio station, it was already a worldwide smash. I caught a glimpse of the music video on one of those late Saturday night shows (I think it was called Saturday Night Videos) that allowed kids without cable a chance to see musicians perform the music we’d been listening to all week long. I would have been around 8 or 9 at the time, but the song immediately struck me as catchy and easy to sing along to, so my sister and I tried to record it off the radio with her new boom box and a blank cassette.
Once “Time After Time” was released that spring of ’84, I was well aware of Cyndi’s look/aesthetic from the few opportunities I had to view the “Girls…” video. This particular track was different than her first hit, and the music video showed Cyndi in a more regular person light instead of the New York party girl Day-Glo punk rock chick she presented herself as. She wasn’t hamming it up for the camera this time because “Time After Time” required a more sincere and subdued performance to be taken seriously and appreciated. I really liked the song from the beginning, and the music video cemented my interest in Cyndi and this particular album. Each subsequent single appealed to me, but I was ready for something different by the time single #5 rolled around. While the five songs released on this album were all amazing, the deep cuts on She’s So Unusual are well worth seeking a copy and listening to yourself. It took over a decade after the album’s release before I finally bought a used cassette copy as a late teenage nostalgia trip back to my grade school years. Still, decades later, Cyndi’s brilliant debut will always have a place in my tape collection.
“Flashback, warm nights…almost left behind.”
My order of preference of She’s So Unusual tracks from most favorite to least favorite with my personal ratings next to them.
- Time After Time 5/5
- Girls Just Want to Have Fun 5/5
- She Bop 5/5
- All Through the Night 5/5
- When You Were Mine 4.5/5
- Money Changes Everything 4.5/5
- Yeah Yeah 4/5
- I’ll Kiss You 3.5/5
- Witness 3.5/5
- He’s So Unusual 3/5
Overall Score: 4/5