30 Years of Pop Perfection: Why Cyndi Lauper's "She's So Unusual" Holds Up

30 Years of Pop Perfection: Why Cyndi Lauper's "She's So Unusual" Holds Up

Today marks the 30th anniversary of Cyndi Lauper's She's So Unusual. We wonder, what made the album so great?

Written by Maura Johnston (@maura)

With brash red hair, outlandish dresses plucked from the racks of the downtown vintage shrine Screaming Mimi's, and a Noo Yawk accent that announced itself almost as soon as she opened her mouth, Cyndi Lauper was (and continues to be) a day-glo pop star whose oversized personality was well-suited to the nascent MTV age. It helped, too, that the songs on the cover of her 1983 debut She's So Unusual were tailored specifically to her personality—the effervescent girl-power anthem "Girls Just Want To Have Fun," the sober "Time After Time," the sweetly wistful (and Prince-penned) "When You Were Mine."

On the cover of She's So Unusual, Lauper's captured (by famed photographer Annie Leibovitz) dancing and shoeless, her body jerking to one side as her arm flings in the opposite direction, her gaze fixated somewhere outside of the frame. She's presenting herself as defiantly herself—lost in her music, not really caring whether any observers can watch her succumb to its charms. And really, who's to say they won't too? The 10 tracks fuse together much of what was going on in pop at the time—blippy New Wave, lean rock balladry, lithe funk-pop—in an irresistible way, Lauper's delighted yelp leading the charge.

 

The 10 tracks fuse together much of what was going on in pop at the time—blippy New Wave, lean rock balladry, lithe funk-pop—in an irresistible way, Lauper's delighted yelp leading the charge.

 

She's So Unusual opens with "Money Changes Everything," a riposte to the consumerism that was only beginning to rear its head during the Reagan era. At one point she gulps, "Everybody's only looking out for themselves"—a statement that could be read as cynical, particularly as part of an opening musical salvo. But Lauper's generous spirit turns that line from world-weary into street-smart—after all, she was a girl from Queens who dropped out of art school and headed north to find her calling, working odd jobs along the way, which eventually led back to New York and to music.

Lauper was 30 when She's So Unusual came out, and her hard-won life experience is apparent in every note of each performance. "When You Were Mine" is given a slower, moodier spin than the version that appeared on Prince's Dirty Mind; the end result feels like a last-ditch plea that's offered by someone who knows she's doomed.

The ode to sexual self-gratification "She Bop," meanwhile, cloaked its sexuality with winks and scatting, and was coquettish enough to get on MTV with all its lyrics intact—not to mention a video that was part Orwellian fast-food fever dream, part double-entendre-riddled liberation story. (It did eventually make the Parents Music Resource Center's dirty-song hit list known as the "Filthy 15," alongside Prince and Madonna and W.A.S.P.)

At its frothiest, Lauper's voice has a flirtatiousness about it, an implied come-hither pose in every hiccupped syllable—a 45-second clip of Lauper singing "He's So Unusual," a late-20's track originally recorded by Betty Boop inspiration Helen Kane, makes her inspirations for her pop-tart poses plain.

But she can also get surprisingly tender, reaching down into her lower register and dredging up sadness and pain. "Time After Time," the second single (and second of four No. 1s) from She's So Unusual, is a spare, steady ballad with lean guitars; Lauper's voice cracks as she tells a lover that she'll be there for him, a pledge of fealty underscored with sadness and confusion. Even 30 years on it's surprisingly affecting, its spare instrumentation and Lauper's mostly understated vocal putting into musicality the melancholia that can accompany communication breakdowns. On the sparkling "All Through The Night" Lauper takes a diva turn, her voice swooping and pleading until the end, when it wordlessly takes on an almost angelic air.

"Unusual" is normally a pejorative when applied to women, but Lauper bucked that convention with a particular glee. "Girls Just Want To Have Fun" is Lauper's signature hit, and with good reason: The whoops and crowds of ladies singing in unison harness the joy that defines so much of her output, from her earliest solo work to the music she penned for Broadway's Kinky Boots.

But there's also a big clue to her lasting appeal in its final verse: "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 Hazard's original, the final line is "All my girls are gonna walk in the sun"—a change that implies not only ownership of, but a chilling sameness to the women who he'll encounter in his life. With that one subtle shift, though, Lauper's song becomes an anthem for any woman who want to break free from the expectations placed on her shoulders—whether by dancing or singing or simply heading out on her own, the sun's warmth hitting her face as she contemplates freedom.

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