In 1984, a bohemian diva in orange hair and thrift shop clothes named Cyndi Lauper came out of nowhere and declared that “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” Her big, yelping soprano proved so irresistible that the single became not just a No. 2 hit but an anthem for a younger generation of women who believed feminism should involve pleasures as well as sacrifices.
Two years later, an all-female Los Angeles quartet, the Bangles, joined the fun crusade with a pair of Top 5 hits, “Manic Monday” (“I wish it was Sunday ’cause that’s my fun day”) and “Walk Like an Egyptian.” For the rest of the decade, the two acts set up residence in the Top 10 with a steady diet of giddiness, adolescent longing and juicy pop melodies.
It’s a thin line between advocating fun and appearing frivolous, however, and by 1990 Lauper and the Bangles were on the wrong side of the border. A 1991 solo album by the Bangles’ most appealing singer, Susanna Hoffs, and a 1993 album by Lauper barely dented the public consciousness. Chastened, both waited years before releasing any new projects. Now the new albums are out. They’re neither triumphs nor disasters but find both women in transition.
Cyndi Lauper: `Sisters of Avalon’
Lauper has made the more radical changeover. Gone are the bubbly, squealing chorus hooks and the novelty-song lyrics that seemed so well suited to her high-pitched voice. In their place are songs written around rhythm patterns rather than melodies. In recent interviews, Lauper has praised house and bass-and-drums records, and she uses similarly stark and muscular beats as the basis for her new songs.
On top of these rhythm tracks she has placed moody, cabaret-tinged, lower-register vocals as if she had been reborn as Marianne Faithfull. It’s an unexpected but oddly appealing new direction, for Lauper reminds us that she’s a special singer, whether she’s belting out anthemic refrains as in the past or smudging impressionistic harmonies as she does here.
By deemphasizing melody, however, Lauper (who opens for Tina Turner at Nissan Pavilion June 21) puts more weight on the words of her songs, and that’s where “Sisters of Avalon” (Epic) runs into problems. Ten of the dozen songs were written by Lauper and one of her producers, Jan Pulsford, who are too willing to talk about “mystery,” “dreams” and “nightmares” without actually evoking them. Yet whenever Lauper tackles a story grounded in the details of reality — as in the disco tale of two working-class dancers, “Ballad of Cleo and Joe,” and in the bouncy narrative about a lesbian romance, “Brimstone and Fire” — her new musical approach works like a charm, for it combines the urgency of the beat and the subtleties of interpretive singing.