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Cyndi Lauper Is Still The Feminist Pop Star We Need
The '80s are known as a decade of excess and extremes. These characteristics are certainly present in the musicians from that era—both male and female— who flamboyantly boasted big hair and shimmery makeup, whose shoulders were padded and accessories were of the quantity-over-quality variety. By today's standards, some lyrics of the time may read as problematic, as far as sexual politics are concerned. However, Cyndi Lauper's music remains uniquely empowering and inclusive in the 21st century.
On the surface, Lauper is a quintessential example of an '80s pop star: bubbly songs with narrative music videos, wacky clothes plus wild hair and makeup. Her 1983 debut album, She's So Unusual, spawned four Top 5 singles on the Billboard Hot 100 and hit the No. 4 spot on the Billboard 200 album chart. She was nominated for five GRAMMYs in 1985 and took home the coveted Best New Artist award. The memorable, colorful cover art also helped the project earn Best Album Package. It has gone six times platinum in the U.S. and sold 16 million copies globally in 1984.
At the time of the album's release in October 1983, Lauper was 30 years old and nobody's pushover. Lauper knew who she was and what she wanted to portray, which was not a sex toy, but rather, a fearless and outspoken feminist voice at a time when the Equal Rights Amendment still had not been passed.
She insisted on writing her own songs, and when she was presented with "Girls Just Want To Have Fun," written by Robert Hazard, she only agreed to record it if she could change the lyrics, which were originally about getting girls into bed. She flipped the song on its head and put her four-octave voice to work to shout girl power and the right to have the kind of fun you want to have.
This is reflected in the song's funky, punky video where a noisily clad Lauper with half-shaved orange hair declares that she and her gal pals—a vibrant multicultural group of women—wanted to do whatever they deemed fun, on their terms. The message can be a rallying cry for today's young women, who live in a society where porn and much of other media still depict the male point of view of what fun entails: pleasing the man.
If the message wasn't clear enough on "Girls Just Want To Have Fun," the tiny-yet-loud Lauper spelled it out in no uncertain terms with "She Bop." The song, with its nonsensical chorus: "She bop, he bop, a we bop/I bop, you bop, a they bop/Be bop, be bop, a lu bop," is all about masturbation. In it, Lauper makes fun of every masturbation cliché such as, "They say I better stop or I'll go blind." She double entendres the hell out of her nether regions with "I wanna go south and get me some more" and "I can't stop messin' with the danger zone."
The daring video for "She Bop" went over the top in its risquéness, taking the chance of being banned from MTV, upon which pop stars were deeply dependent. To start, Lauper is having a great time by herself in a car with steamed up windows and "the pages of a Blueboy magazine." When she gets out of the car to a biker dude and his revved up hog, she's more interested in "picking up the good vibrations" of the engine than anything the biker has to offer. When the video, now in animated form, shows them pulling up to "Fill 'Er Up" gas station, cartoon Lauper points to the "self service" sign. The closing scene shows a blind Lauper doing an impressive soft-shoe with a cane because, apparently, she bopped so much she actually did go blind—but she did it on her terms.
While it was not banned from MTV, the song set off the radar of the Parents Music Resource Center, the now-defunct committee led by Tipper Gore, responsible for the parental advisory labels on albums. "She Bop" is one of the PRMC's "Filthy 15," a list of songs the organization deemed most objectionable at the time of its forming. It should be noted that two-thirds of the list is comprised of sex-related songs, including three songs penned by Prince: his own "Darling Nikki," Sheena Easton's "Sugar Walls" and Vanity's "Strap On 'Robbie Baby.'"
Speaking of the song, Lauper told Vice in 2016, "I kept saying, 'Look, I don't wanna mention anything to do with hands.' I want little kids to think it's about dance and grown-ups to have a chuckle when they hear it. That's how I wanted it so that's how we did it."
Featured with contemporaries Madonna, Pat Benatar and Joan Jett, all feminist symbols in their own right, in Newsweek March 4, 1985 story Rock and Roll Woman Power, it was Lauper who graced the cover. She is quoted in the story as saying, "I'm glad to have a girl following because I want to encourage them. I try to beget strength and courage and purpose. I want to show them a new woman."
She is not just an icon for women, but also a stalwart advocate for the LGBTQIA community. "True Colors," the title track from her second album, was inspired by the death of a friend due to AIDS. It was also her second No. 1 (her first was "Time After Time" from She's So Unusual). The song's legacy rivals that of "Girls Just Want To Have Fun." Lauper even named her non-profit, True Colors United, after it. The organization is dedicated to ending youth homelessness—which Lauper experienced personally—and which counts a large percentage of LGBTQIA amongst its numbers. Among True Colors United's efforts are Lauper's annual Home for the Holidays benefit concert. Lauper is also on the board of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, which seeks to end hate crimes.
In 2013, Lauper's drag queen Broadway musical "Kinky Boots" was nominated for 12 Tony Awards and won six, including Best Musical and Best Original Score. The music and lyrics are wholly written by the pop queen. The following year, the Kinky Boots Original Broadway Cast Recording won the GRAMMY for Best Musical Theater Album. She has penned music and lyrics for the musical adaptation of the 1988 comedy Working Girl, set to take the stage after theaters reopen.
She's So Unusual was likely named as such because of Lauper's edgy, punk-inspired aesthetic. She was the person outcasts and outsiders could look to and see that it was not only okay to be different, but it could be celebrated. Later versions of her showed up in Katy Perry, Lady Gaga and even Billie Eilish. 40 years ago, no one could have predicted just how unusual, exceptional and lasting Lauper would prove to be.