This one-time Blue Angel lead vocalist blew the door down in 1983 with her solo outing, She’s So Unusual. Somewhere between the femme fatale rock of Pat Benatar and the self-aware dance-pop sex of Madonna, Lauper’s thrift, pluck and voice put her in a mold all her own.
Don’t believe me? A visit on Youtube with the evergreen of “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” proves that despite the period of its genesis, its spirit is just as valued (and commercially viable) as it was when it dropped in 1983. Excusing a few questionable career detours (WWF, ‘Celebrity Apprentice’), Lauper’s musical niche remained resolute even if it meant a sales slide over time. Circumventing that “sales script” by maintaining popularity in certain formats and regions, Lauper’s recent successful turn on Broadway (via ‘Kinky Boots’) proves that she isn’t going anywhere.
This year, if you haven’t already gathered, marks the 30th anniversary of Lauper’s stated debut. It also is the 20th anniversary of Hat Full of Stars (1993) and the 10th anniversary of At Last (2003), two of her other engaging platters.
Rather than trying to do three separate essays, I decided to do a brief, but filling, run through of Lauper’s discography. The only exclusions will be best-of packages and her holiday long player, sorry Merry Christmas…Have a Nice Life! (1998). Some of you may know these records, most won’t, but you’ll walk away from this with a greater understanding of Cyndi Lauper and that her hold on pop music is still very firm.
Notable Singles: “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” “Time After Time,” “She Bop,” “Money Changes Everything,” “All Through the Night”
Synopsis: This is it. The set that put Lauper on the map and made her one of the many MTV-era stars that defined a generation. But is the record really that good? It is actually. While Lauper’s pen didn’t touch but two of the singles released (“She Bop,” “Time After Time”) and a small slew of the album fare, when it came to interpreting she proved her mettle. Listen closely to her cover of Prince’s “When You Were Mine”; Lauper doesn’t change the sex in the song, a unique twist.
Upon further spelunking you’ll happen upon the new wave fit of “I’ll Kiss You” and the ska sway of “Witness.” In all, She’s So Unusual was the high energy pop debut that just wouldn’t quit. Legendary as She’s So Unusual is, it was only the beginning of a career that’d make even more stylistic switches than found here.
[Listen/Watch “She Bop“]
Notable Singles: “True Colors,” “Change of Heart,” “What’s Going On?,” “Boy Blue,” “Maybe He’ll Know”
Synopsis: Two years separated True Colors from She’s So Unusual, Lauper was eager to share the changes in her professional and personal life on wax. True Colors wasn’t the sophomore slump many try to write it off as now, but it had a middling feeling in spots. Its weakness mainly dealt with Lauper trying to find direction out of the (slight) camp element (s) of her debut and into the “mature” songwriter she aspired to be.
At its worst, the duo that concluded True Colors was nonsensical pop fluff (“911,” “One Track Mind”). At its best, Lauper steered “Calm Inside the Storm,” “The Faraway Nearby,” and (the sorely unsung) “Boy Blue” into perfection. It was on these cuts that her writing ability shined.
When given material written by others, Lauper’s interpretive streak continued to wow on “Change of Heart”; its dark beauty immediately signified the change of direction in Lauper’s sound at the album’s opening. Of course no one can forget the title track, a song Lauper stamped immediately rendering each cover in its wake ineffective and calculated. A collection of odd, but pleasant covers in “Iko Iko” (James “Sugar Boy” Crawford) “What’s Going On?” (Marvin Gaye), and “Maybe He’ll Know” (Blue Angel) made the few growing pains of True Colors pleasant.
[Listen/Watch “Change of Heart“]
Notable Singles: “I Drove All Night,” “My First Night Without You,” “Heading West”
Synopsis: Lauper made a slight error in trying to, at that time, segue into film. The result was 1988’s ‘Vibes’, starring Jeff Goldblum as her romantic opposite. The kooky rom-com bombed and so did its corresponding single “Hole In My Heart (All the Way to China).” Say what you will about the movie, but “Hole…” was a fantastic surf-rock-pop-punk panache that holds as one of Lauper’s most underrappreciated moments. It didn’t bridge the changes she began on True Colors though.
Her third LP, initially entitled Kindred Spirit, was pushed back one year and reworked as A Night to Remember. The album possessed her last U.S. Top 10 hit, a powerhouse take of the Roy Orbison penned “I Drove All Night”; the LP also looked deeper into the idea of Lauper as the singer/songwriter she yearned to be. The latter piece came to a head on two moving ballads, the wanderlust of “Heading West” and the evening-time radio of “My First Night Without You.” One can’t omit the all-to-clever “Insecurious” as one of her finest relationship observations. Yet, something was amiss.
Epic Records, Lauper’s enduring label, fought with her on what the ideal “singer/songwriter” should be in 1989. Hence, there is an over-gloss to some of the work that shorted out their emotional potency (see the title track). That said, being raw wasn’t necessarily the key to authenticity. Close to her goal, Lauper just needed push harder past her label’s machinations.
Ranking: Above Average
[Listen/Watch “My First Night Without You“]
Notable Singles: “Who Let In the Rain,” “That’s What I Think,” “Sally’s Pigeons”
Synopsis: In the three years between Lauper’s third and fourth recordings, she married and recorded a European hit called “The World is Stone.” “Stone’s” roots were based in a 1978 French-Canadian musical entitled ‘Starmania’; Lauper’s version was recorded for the film rendition of the play called ‘Tycoon’ (1992). Those wondering if Lauper had lost her pipes in the interim between albums were quickly proven wrong. However, Lauper’s major coup came with Hat Full of Stars. The album was an autobiographical piece that managed to be both artistically relevant but cognitive of the shift that had taken place in popular music. What Lauper had attempted with her second and third LPs, she accomplished here.
On “Who Let In the Rain,” the entry allowed people to not only listen to Lauper’s own life-situation but plug-in their own relatable experiences. The musical map of Hat Full of Stars was a fiery fusion of folk, hip-hop loops, house and classic R&B all tied together with a the perfect pop bow that somehow made it all work. The record stiffed on the charts thanks to Epic Records inability to market Lauper’s transformation.
Later, Lauper shared that alternative chanteuse Alanis Morissette once remarked that Lauper’s fourth album was the inspirational compass for her breakout junior record, 1995’s Jagged Little Pill. Socially conscious (“That’s What I Think”), sexy (“Like I Used To”), darkly confessional (“Broken Glass”) and humorous (“Feels Like Christmas”), Lauper landed her first post-She’s So Unusual masterpiece.
[Listen/Watch “Who Let In the Rain“]
Notable Singles: “Sisters of Avalon,” “You Don’t Know,” “Ballad of Cleo & Joe”
Synopsis: Fitting puzzle-perfect into a period remembered as the “Lilith Fair”-era of the mid-to-late 1990’s, Lauper’s fifth LP Sisters of Avalon was spacious. Whether imparting the cocktail-hour jazz of “Say A Prayer” or the world-music-meets-Euro-disco fever of “Ballad of Cleo & Joe” (more on that later), Lauper wasn’t afraid of pop or its power of reinvention. Lyrically it was uniformly strong, the title song reaching (and grabbing) the same kind of Venusian venerability Tori Amos had been toying with since Little Earthquakes (1992).
Drawing the spotlight back to the “Ballad of Cleo & Joe,” Lauper took to the subject of transgender reality in a fascinating way that gripped the psyche and the feet. This seed of dance music being explored so brazenly wouldn’t flower for another decade. Further same-sex tales played out on “Brimstone and Fire,” a lesbian fable of happenstance romance.
Though at times heavy-handed in its sound of the time, “Love to Hate” taking the crown for that, Lauper’s last effort for a continually (and unfairly) dismissive Epic Records took her out of there on a high.
Ranking: Above Average
[Listen/Watch: “Sisters of Avalon“]
Notable Singles: “Shine”
Synopsis: Free from Epic Records after her Christmas recording in 1998, Lauper made the plunge to record her first album of the 2000’s independently. Shine, due to be handled by the soon defunct Edel Records, never saw the light of day as intended in 2001. Rather, an EP including the titular cut and three other songs from those sessions was released into world. Japan, one of Lauper’s big markets, received the full-length project exclusively in 2004.
The raw energy shown here benefitted and hindered the long player. Shine was all over the place: tornado-like dance-pop (“Higher Plane”), early Noughties urban-pop (“Comfort You”) and intelli-chill (“Madonna Whore”). Lauper as the singer- songwriter and producer were on display unapologetically, but without any focus were her abilities being showcased at their best?
Many of the tracks felt trapped in a melting pot of Lauper’s previous two studio efforts from the 1990’s; “Valentino” and “Wide Open” didn’t feel fresh or nostalgic, just stale and directionless. There was also an ill-advised redo of the Hat Full of Stars track “Who Let In the Rain” that added nothing to the superior original. Despite the obvious missteps, Shine did have a clutch of classics in “Shine,” “Rather Be With You” and “This Kind of Love.”
The appeal of Shine was in the ear of the listener. Some may have enjoyed the roughness of “It’s Hard to Be Me,” others longed for the succinct polish of her past works; Shine continually creates conversation for Lauper devotees even now.
[Listen/Watch “Shine” (live)]
Notable Singles: “At Last,” “Walk On By”
Synopsis: Returning to Epic Records, Lauper took a safe option with her first album of covers. With a range of choices (some obvious, some not) Lauper dove into works by Édith Piaf, Stevie Wonder, Dionne Warwick and Etta James to finger a few members of the cast. The backdrops were restrained and prim, because of this it limited the effectiveness of the readings. At times, the quiet music made Lauper’s voice come across loudly (“At Last,” “If You Go Away”).
When the arrangements matched the power of Lauper’s voice, as on her swinging rendition of “Until You Come Back to Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do),” she hit the ball out of the park. Additional victorious takes on “Stay” and “On the Sunny Side of the Street” brought those Lauper colors to At Last, piloting it out of its monochromatic mood.
As an album, At Last was a long coming commercial reprieve that (again) showed Lauper’s varied sides as a performer. It also operated as an effective cleanse from the muddled sounds of Shine, even if it wasn’t as interesting on the surface.
[Listen/Watch “At Last“]
Notable Singles: “Into the Nightlife,” “Same Ol’ Story,” “Set Your Heart”
Synopsis: Lauper and dance music wasn’t so much an unheard of idea, but one not totally pursued. Lauper’s singles had been the recipients of many remixes throughout her career; it wasn’t until the “Ballad of Cleo & Joe” and her Grammy nominated cover of The Trammps “Disco Inferno” in 1999, that Lauper thought to take a true dance-pop excursion. After a year of work in England and Sweden, Lauper knocked the competition out of the water with Bring Ya to the Brink.
Outside of its aesthetic sound, it was Lauper’s finest realized recording from top-to-bottom since Hat Full of Stars. With a variety of moods, vocals and sonics Lauper showed no mercy. “High and Mighty,” “Into the Nightlife” and “Rocking Chair” moved from quiet-riot, to frenetic, to eccentric with fireworks to spare.
Lauper turned in some of her best emotionally concentrated songwriting on “Echo” and “Lyfe”; both songs also veered into general electro-pop territories that weren’t beholden to just the dancefloor. In all, Bring Ya to the Brink was one of Lauper’s boldest musical makeovers.
[Listen/Watch “Into the Nightlife“]
Notable Singles: “Just Your Fool,” “Early In the Mornin'”
Synopsis: Where could Cyndi Lauper take her music now? She’d done everything that you could imagine. Except the blues. While Lauper had always had a respectful, soulful tone to her pop, she’d never done a complete rhythm and blues recording, modern or otherwise. This head-scratching venture did allow Lauper to embark on her largest tour ever, visiting almost every corner of the globe with this unique collection of blues covers. The songs included had been recorded by greats such as Little Walter, Louis Jordan and Robert Johnson.
At times the songs dragged, a symptom that plagued the bulk of At Last; visit with “How Blue Can You Get?” for an example. Still, Lauper slipped into her new blues persona with ease on the low groove of “Romance In the Dark” and the jive workout of “Don’t Cry No More.”
Memphis Blues, released on Downtown Records after her second, temporary Epic Records run, managed to be another album that kept Lauper in a variety of Billboard charts, blues based as they were.
Ranking: Above Average
[Listen/Watch “Just Your Fool” (live)]