Especial: Cyndi Lauper Newsweek 1985

cyndi-newsweekIf you listen to the radio, you’ve heard them. If you watch TV, you’ve certainly seen them. An electrified cartoon of a red careering through a kooky party. A tarted-up floozy flirting in a gondola. Dressed in lingerie or lace or in regal gypsy regalia, singing in a girlish peep or a banshee wail, they’re the new women of rock and roll. Cyndi Lauper and Madonna are setting the pace. But they’ve got a lot of company: Chaka Khan and Donna Summer, Sheila E. and Apollonia Kotero, Joan Jett and Pat Benatar, Sheena Easton and the Go-Go’s, Teena Marie and Laura Branigan, Chrissie Hynde and Annie Lennox and -perhaps the godmother of them all- the great Tina Turner.

Rarely have so many women performing rock had so many hit records on the charts. Never have so many women with such strong images so dominated the music videos shown on MTV, the rock-and-roll cable network. Madonna’s new album, “Like A Virgin” (Sire), recently No. 1 for three weeks, is already “triple platinium”. In 14 weeks, it’s sold some 3.5 million copies -a staggering amount,particularly since her first tour doesn’t start until April. Turner, the Pointer Sisters, Pat Benatar and Chaka Khan all have current albums, that have topped the million mark. And after 63 weeks, Cyndi Lauper’s album, “She’s So Unusual” (Portrait), is still charted in the Top 30, with nearly 4 million copies sold. Lauper’s recordings have earned five Grammy nominations and her album has produced four Top Five Singles – a new record for female singers.

As one of the most influential strongholds of knee-jerk misogyny, the rock scene has long cried out for women with power, ideas and an independent sense of style. Now, it seems, they’re emerging one after another. Many of the new women rockers do a lot more than sing. They play their own instruments, write their own songs, control their own careers. Musically, they run the gamut: they’re into funk and soul, pop and new wave, even heavy metal. With their costumes and come-ons, their thoughtfulness and their wit, their dopey hairdos and varied musical styles, they’re turning old ideas about pop’s feminine mystique inside out and upside down.

The current upsurge, however, has many different and even contradictory facets. Striking figures like Cyndi Lauper -whose anthem, “Girls Just Want To Have Fun”, offers a funny, subversive image of the liberated woman as screwball -flourish beside much more traditional starlets like Madonna. In her new hit, “Material Girl”, Madonna exploits her feminine wiles like a determined gold digger: “The boy with the cold hard cash is always Mr. Right”.

Some insiders point to Madonna’s steamy image and argue that little has really changed for women in rock and roll since the days of “girl groups” like the Ronettes. Citing her own experience -and rejecting vehemently any patronizing talk of “woman rock”- Joan Jett, perhaps the hardest rocker of them all, says that sexism runs rampant in “every facet of the music industry, starting with the audience”.
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Some insiders point to Madonna’s steamy image and argue that little has really changed for women in rock and roll since the days of “girl groups” like the Ronettes. Citing her own experience -and rejecting vehemently any patronizing talk of “woman rock”- Joan Jett, perhaps the hardest rocker of them all, says that sexism runs rampant in “every facet of the music industry, starting with the audience”.

But others think that a real revolution is under way. To Pat Benatar, a veteran hard rocker like Jett, the most striking change has been in her fan mail: “Most of my letters used to be from girls saying how glad they were that we emerged because it really helped them with their boyfriends. Now when i get letters, the girls aspire for themselves.”

Applauding the fresh new atmosphere at some rock concerts, Gloria Steinem, an editor at Ms. magazine, says: “You don’t feel like you’re arriving in a room filled with testosterone. I must have been un my 30’s or more before I ever saw a woman give a downbeat. I still remember how exciting that was.” “When I started,” says Donna Summer, “I was a tool in the hands of a carpenter… The business guys said, ‘We want more T&A, more boobs,’ Now women have come into their own; they’re given much more room to be creative.”

Startling Yelps: Of them all, the most exciting -and unusual- star is certainly Cyndi Lauper. She’s a maverick -a new wave Betty Boop with the heart of Janis Joplin, the lungs of a screaming punk and the unflinching spirit of a never-say-die feminist. “I’m glad to have a girl-following,” says Lauper. “Because I want to encourage them. I try to beget strength and courage and purpose. I want to show a new woman.”

Lauper’s musical methods are as uncompromising as her convictions. The startling yelps that punctuate “Girls Just Want To Have Fun” come out of left field. They prompt the listener to think: who is this woman and why is she singing this way? Those are precisely the kinds of questions – of identity and purpose- that women in rock have traditionally dodged.

Part of Lauper’s offbeat approach can be laid to a simple factor: her age. Although she tipically shrugs off questions about it with a joke (“I’m not a car”), a record-company biography for her first band, Blue Angel, lists her birth date as June 20, 1953. Unlike Madonna, who is 24, Lauper is old enough to have experienced the heady early days of the women’s movement and to have undergone her own personal struggle to win respect.

Brought up by her mother ahter her parents were divorced, she stills bridles at the memory of how the women in her extended Italian-American family were stuck in the kitchen during holidays. Forced to attend convent school in New York City’s borough of Queens, where she was raised, she rebelled furiosly against the holy trinity of church, familiy ans state: “You know what I learned? Those are the three biggest oppressors of women that will ever come along.”

After dropping out school, she studied art, poetry, politics. The guys she met always seemed to marry someone else: “I was an oddball,” she says. “No matter how hard I tried to look normal there was always something that wasn’t right.” She worked as a waitress, a singing geisha, a judo-lesson sales clerk. “I started singing for a living,” she says, “because when I sing I really do feel free.”

In 1974 she began singing backup vocals for a bar band on Long Island. For nearly a decade, she fought for a break: “I had the desire to show them,” she says, “like ripping open your shirt like Isadora Duncan and saying, ‘Here i am’,” It wasn’t until 1983 that she released her first -and, so far, only- solo album: “She’s So Unusual.”


Wrestling Manager: With her musical career now firmily established, Lauper has lately been free to indulge perhaps her oddest passion: pro wrestling. “Both rock and wrestling,” she explains, “have colorful characters. They’re both popular forms of entertainment.” She was introduced to the sport by Capt. Lou Albano, a former wrestler and prominent manager who has appeared in several of her videos. Tongue in cheek, Lauper credits her own success to Cap’n Lou’s “P.E.G” principle: politeness, etiquette and grooming. Las year she began to manage Wendi Richter, 24, formerly the World Wrestling Federation’s female champion.

“I am very serious about wrestling,” maintains Lauper. But she also obviously loves the sport’s hokum. Al a match between Richter and wrestler Leinlani Kai last week that was televides live by MTV, 22,000 fans roared in delight when Lauper punched Kai’s fearsome manager -with a circus clown’s spring-loadesd rubber fist.

“If you get too serious,” Lauper says, “you could die of starch.” But she does have a message and takes pride in using her music and fashions and video image to express her convictions. In her bittersweet ballad “Time After Time”, she tried, she says, “to project real emotions, real life – I was surprised that real life became popular.”
Consider also her version of “Girls Just Want To Have Fun.” Originally a fairly routine ditty, it was written from a masculine point of voew by Philadelphia songwriter Robert Hazard. “Oh, mother dear,” Lauper sings in her rewritten version of the song, “we’re not the fortunate ones.” In the video for the song, she made an effort to show “the way women really look -not unglamorous, but more street culture.” Such efforts have not gone unnoticed: Ms. magazine in January named Lauper one of its Women Of The Year. Says she: “I’m not trying to be different. I’m just saying it’s OK to be yourself, and if you have a few quirky things, that’s OK, too.”

That’s the kind of sentiment that could never come from Madonna, the other best-selling female rock star in America today. Superficially, Lauper and Madonna have a lot in common. Both sport shocks of wild hair, dress in mix-and-mismatch and flea-sale fashions and project cartoon images of themselves. But the similarities end there -witness Madonna’s old-fashiones sex-siren act on the MTV rock-video-awards show last October. Swathed in diaphanous white, Madonna descended from the top of a gigantic wedding cake and launched into “Like a Virgin.” Tossing back her bride’s veil to reveal a strapless gown, she purred the lyrics. lay down on the satge and began to writhe. No dow-eyed bride in “The Chapel of Love” -and certainly no “new woman” a la Lauper, Madonna promised a lot more than an invitation to dance.
“I get so much bad press for being overtly sexual,” sighs Madonna. “When someone like Prince, Elvis or Jagger does the same thing, they are being honest, sensual human beings. But when I do it: ‘Oh, please, Madonna, you’re setting the women’s movement back a million years’,” Lauper agrees: “How can you criticize a woman for having a sexuality when men for years and years have been singing about nothing else? She’s just doing her thing. My thing happens to be different. Women have a sexuality that shouldn’t be surpressed.”

Far from suppressing it, Madonna flaunts it -to devastating commercial effect. Hey coy, seductive videos have helped sell over 2 million copies of her debut album, “Madonna” (Sire). They also landed her work in Hollywood. Two weeks ago, “Vision Quest,” in which she appears as a singer in a bar, was released, and “Desperately Seeking Susan,” in which she has her first major acting role, will be released this spring. “I’m very career oriented,” she says. “You are atttracted to people who are ambicious that way, too, like in the song ‘Material Girl,’ You are attracted to men who have material things because that’s what pays the rent and buys your furs. That’s the security. That lasts longer than emotion.”

Disciplined: Madonna Louis Ciccone was born in Bay Mich., in 1960. She was named for her mother, who died when the girl was six. Both disciplined and determined, she first became interested in performing through her junior-high-school ballet teacher: “Once, [when] I wrapped a towel around my head,” she recalls, “he told me I had a beautiful ancient Roman face. No one had ever talked to me like that before. I latched on to him like a leech and took everything I could from him.”

After a year at the University of Michigan, she left for New York, where she first learned to play guitar: “It was the most exhilarating feeling. I felt very powerful.” Resolving to seek her fortune in the music business, Madonna set out to crack the New York scene. “I’m a very strong person,” she says. “It’s inevitable I would be taken as a ruthless sex kitten. By chance, most of the men I’ve fallen in love with have turned out to be helpful to my career.”

Her big break came at Danceteria, a Manhattan club. Hoping to gran attention, Madonna made a point, she recalls, of dancing in front of the music booth and requesting a lot of records. Mark Kamins, the club’s influential deejay, finally noticed her, listened to her demonstration tapes and began to play them in the club. The dancers liked the music. So did Sire Records, which signed her in 1983 at Kamin’s urging. Madonna remembers her reaction: “Give me the money. Take me, I’m yours.”

Dumping Kamin and the musicians she had been rehearsing with, she hired veteran soul producer Reggie Lucas, cut an album of glossy dance music and launched her career with her rock videos. Still, for all the jump-cut cheesecake, it it Madonna’s music that has pushed her over the top. Her sexually charged ambition gives her best records a tensile, beguling strength. Nile Rodgers, her current producer, concocted a relentless rhythm track for “Like a Virgin” that suggest a bright, major-key version of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.” The lyrics -all about how true love makes a girl feel “shiny and new, just like a virgin” -fit like a glove. So does Madonna’s vocal. Her singing evokes the pie-eyed kid in “Bobby’s Girl”, the pert Marcie Blane hit of 1962. But when Madonna summous a nervous, fey hiccup on the chorus, she sounds more like giddy vixen of the video version. It’s a perfect pop epiphany -pure erotic fluff.

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