Eleven years ago, Cyndi Lauper was bigger than Madonna. What happened?
And, with those words, Cyndi Lauper did something she doesn’t often do – she apologized, in that inimitable Queens (N.Y) English of hers, for being a little too colorful.
As co-grand marshall of last month’s gay pride parade, the float-riding singer had thrown the shiny stuff at a rate of a dozen handfuls per block, making a glorious mess along Fifth Avenue, and breading her fans as they marched happily behind.
For days they’d be pulling high-tech dandruff from their hair, each fleck a reminder of their reunion with a pop star who seemed more like an old friend – a straight-girl gal pal – than a new-wave icon whose glory days were behind her.
On that June afternoon, dressed like a cartoon Calamity Jane, her hair the color of an optic-yellow tennis ball beneath a five-gallon hat, and later that balmy evening when she took the stage at the annual pier dance wrapped in a rainbow flag, Lauper was surrounded by a bevy of cross-dressing beauties and performed before an audience she recognized as “the same people who were at the concerts” way back when. “I didn’ t realize how much `True Colors’ meant to the whole movement,” she said.
As the drag queens cavorted to a chorus of “Hey Now, Hey Now,” a hook borrowed from Redbone’s 1974 hit “Come and Get Your Love,” Lauper debuted her newest song, singing her heart out as she’d done the year before at the Gay Games closing ceremonies. That performance and her recent one proved 11 years after she burst upon the pop music scene that girls (real and otherwise) still just wanna have fun.
And, these days, none more than Lauper herself.
Although she hates the word “comeback” – “They called `True Colors’ my comeback record,” in 1986, she says – Lauper could use one. She has been seen on the TV comedy “Mad About You” recently, but the American public has forgotten that the kooky cookie with the Technicolor hair was once the most popular rock singer in America. Her latest single is a reggae-tinged reworking of her oldest hit. Dubbed “Hey Now (Girls Just Want to Have Fun),” the new/old song is the first to be taken from “Twelve Deadly Cyns. . .And Then Some,” a 14-song career retrospective album that hits stores Tuesday; the same night she’ll play the Academy on West 43rd Street.
Already a smash in Europe, Asia and South America, “Twelve Deadly Cyns” has sold almost 3 million copies since its overseas release last fall. The compilation (slightly revised for its domestic issue) includes the best songs from Lauper’s four albums, plus two new songs: “I’m Gonna Be Strong,” a soaring vocal take on the Gene Pitney classic, a song she has sung since her days fronting the band Blue Angel, and one which, in live performance, Lauper now heart-wrenchingly recasts as an AIDS elegy; and the singer’s own “Come on Home.”
Come home is exactly what Lauper has done, so to speak, with her newest album. The 42-year-old performer and Epic Records are hoping “Twelve Deadly Cyns” will reacquaint hometown audiences with a singer they never really stopped liking but did stop thinking about.
“Not everyone is aware of how incredibly talented she is,” says David Massey, vice president of A&R (artists and repertoire) for Epic. “This album reveals just how much she can do.”
People have needed a reminder since the late 1980s. Except for the Top 10 single “I Drove All Night,” Lauper’s third album, “A Night to Remember,” was forgotten soon after its 1989 release. (Lauper herself is not enamored with the record or that time in her life. “I just wanted to flush myself down the toilet at that point,” she says.) Her fourth and most recent album, 1993’s “Hat Full of Stars” – which she believes is her finest and most personal – sold only about 300,000 copies and received little radio airplay. But she calls it a “monumental” achievement, because it was exactly the record she wanted to make.
Lauper’s people know there’s a perception problem in America – she’s remembered more as a appealing goofball than a serious artist. “We’re very aware that she needs rebuilding here,” Massey told Billboard magazine last month. They’re hoping that “Twelve Deadly Cyns” – something brand new but familiar – has the potential, though, to put Lauper back on top and banish, once and for all, any lingering memories of the singer’s ill-fated foray into the world of professional wrestling. That mid-’80s career blunder cost Lauper much of her credibility. Other career setbacks – abdominal illness in 1985, a messy breakup with her original manager Dave Wolff – didn’t help.
But, Massey says, “The company is very committed to Cyndi. We’ re really hoping the public `gets’ this record.” To help make sure they do, “Hey Now (Girls Just Want to Have Fun)” will be featured in the upcoming film “To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar,” the big-budget drag movie starring Patrick Swayze to be released this fall. In the best-case scenario, as Massey sees it, each of the new songs on “Twelve Deadly Cyns” will be released as a single and the name Cyndi Lauper will enjoy the same kind of dignified return to popularity that Tina Turner saw in the late 1980s.
Lauper wouldn’t complain if that came to pass. “The kind of success I want wouldn’t be like what I had,” she says. “I want to be allowed to be myself all the time. That would really be success.”
LITTLE MORE than a decade ago Lauper had more success than she could have ever imagined when she first picked up a guitar at age 12. Her debut album, 1984’s “She’s So Unusual,” which sold 4.5 million copies, produced four Top 5 singles and earned Lauper a Best New Artist Grammy award. By the time she made the cover of Newsweek in March, 1985, with a story on “Rock and Roll Woman Power,” there wasn’t anyone who didn’ t know all the words to “Time After Time,” “She Bop,” “All Through the Night” and, of course, “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” Cyndi was the “It” girl.
Her only real competition back then was a tarty upstart who rolled around in a gondola like no virgin the world had ever seen. Her name was Madonna Louise Ciccone. Anyone guessing who would be the bigger star of the two picked the orange-haired oddball in the mismatched vintage clothes rather than the Marilyn Monroe wannabe in the underwear. Not only could Lauper sing, she was a good actress and funny, too.
“Of them all, the most exciting and unusual star is certainly Cyndi Lauper,” raved Newsweek. “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.” The world was hers. “It was really a miracle that something like that could happen to me,” Lauper says. “But you get to the top of the mountain and plant your flag, and you say something, and the movie credits don’t roll. It wasn’t the end of the movie.”
Lauper continued to write and record after her initial success, releasing 1986’s “True Colors,” an album whose title track went to No.1 on the pop charts and was nominated for a Grammy. She went on a world tour and co-starred in a film called “Vibes,” which was not successful but garnered good notices for her. (As an actress she has appeared in several other films since then and last year was nominated for an Emmy for her recurring role on “Mad About You”).
She never matched her first success, however. Over the years Madonna eclipsed Lauper, of course, reinventing herself with every passing fancy, proving herself to be the savvy marketer Lauper never was. “The business stuff, the big strategy, that’s not my field,” Lauper admits. “My job is to make the music and the album covers and the videos.” That she has done with “Twelve Deadly Cyns,” directing the video for “Hey Now (Girls Just Want to Have Fun)” and co-producing the three new tracks. Her appearance Tuesday should help to get the ball rolling back toward mainstream success for a singer who has always appealed to anyone who ever felt like a misfit.
Lauper has always been cast as the Catholic girl who rebelled against straitlaced society, the strong one who refused to bend, the funny one whose offbeat beauty triumphed in the end. She still doesn’ t think she’s pretty – “I’m not beautiful. I fix up good” – and explains away the unique sartorial style that leads her to wear a colorful Moroccan vest, a baby T-shirt with the word “Cookie” on it and vintage men’s pants at the same time. “I never thought it looked nice enough or dressy enough, so I just kept adding. When I had enough money to buy stuff that matched, I didn’t want to.”
Her feistiness hasn’t changed either, even if she has mellowed a bit more than her hair color (“It’s yellow. . .”) would lead you to believe. Although Lauper says she is learning to deal with her anger, she still rails against the “lack of gentleness and compassion” of the Catholic church – the religion in which she and her sister Elen, now an acupuncturist, were raised – toward not only gays, but women in general. The church taught her “hatred of self,” she says, and that “women are evil,” and she’s been fighting back ever since. When she passed St. Patrick’s Cathedral in the gay pride parade, she says, “I was thinking about all my [Catholic] stuff. But I’m recovering.” She recorded the original “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” as a response to her parochial education – she and her sister attended a convent school for a while – and sexism in general. “I wanted to get even for what was done to me and countless others. It was one for the girls!”
That spirit is not lost on the remake.
“I’m trying to see life differently and get to where I don’t take things personally at all,” she says, waxing philosophical. “When you’ re creative, you’re really sensitive and self-centered. Maybe I was so sensitive that my skin became so thin that I shut down. But maybe that sensitivity is what allows me to open up so much when I’m singing.”
A successful relationship has helped her, too. Four years ago Lauper was married to actor David Thornton in a ceremony performed by Little Richard. Patti Labelle sang. Since then, the couple, along with their dog and several cats, have divided their time between Manhattan’s Upper West Side and a country house in Connecticut, where the locals don’ t always know what to make of Lauper. “I was used to being iced and not being talked to before I was famous. . .but they’re used to me now. They’ve seen my hair go through purple, yellow, blond and brown.” Besides, she likes Connecticut. “I loved New England ever since the Pepperidge Farm commercials,” she says.
Today, positively Cyn-ful, Lauper knows she couldn’t blend in there or, for that matter, anywhere else on the planet (except perhaps the East Village) even if she tried. “I can’t walk in the same parade as everyone else,” she says, as glittery as ever, “But I know there’s a parade out there for me to walk in.”