Album of the Week, February 7: She’s So Unusual by Cyndi Lauper

LauperShesSoCyndi Lauper grew up in Queens, developing an eclectic fondness for music from an early age. Her older sister gave her a guitar for her 12th birthday, and she soon started writing her own songs. She left a difficult home life at 17 and began wandering the northeast, working odd jobs. Eventually she wound up back in New York, fronting a number of covers bands. Wanting to sing her own songs, she hooked up with sax player John Turi and formed Blue Angel. Their demos landed Lauper a number of solo offers, but she stuck with the band. They eventually signed with Polydor, but their eponymous debut sold so poorly that Lauper has joked “it went lead.” After an acrimonious split with their manager left Lauper bankrupt, the band dissolved. She battled vocal problems and worked more odd jobs, then finally decided to go solo. New manager David Wolff landed her a deal with Portrait, and she created one of the high points of American New Wave pop.

Title She’s So Unusual
Act Cyndi Lauper
Label Portrait Release Date October 14, 1983
Producer Rick Chertoff
U.S. Chart  #4 U.K. Chart  #16
Tracks
[U.S. Hot 100]
  1. Money Changes Everything [#27]
  2. Girls Just Want To Have Fun [#2]
  3. When You Were Mine
  4. Time After Time [#1]
  5. She Bop [#3]
  6. All Through the Night [#5]
  7. Witness
  8. I’ll Kiss You
  9. He’s So Unusual
  10. Yeah Yeah

Lauper still wanted to sing her own songs, but the label insisted on a balance of covers, due in part to the regional success of Blue Angel’s version of I’m Gonna Be Strong featuring a stunning Lauper vocal. Portrait supplied a few outside options, Wolff tracked down some, and Lauper picked her own. Adding some strong originals, she put together an impressive set of songs. She also landed a great studio band, including Eric Bazilian and Rob Hyman of the Hooters. With a wash of synths, a Grammy-winning cover image, and a dizzying array of styles, She’s So Unusual lived up to its title.

Things open with one of the covers, the Brains’ Money Changes Everything. Lauper tweaked the lyrics  and turned in a gritty performance. Perhaps the darkest track on the disc, it’s a strange opener, but a powerful delivery. It would be the album’s fifth Top 40 single. Lauper and company buried the lede, saving her signature song for track two. Another cover — from a demo by Robert Hazard — Girls Just Want to Have Fun became a joyous anthem of independence. With sparkling synths and an infectious vocal, Lauper delivers the goods. She also rewrote this song — finding parts of the original version sexist — and has regularly thanked Hazard for letting her rearrange his song.

A prescient pioneer, Lauper covered Prince before it was cool. In fact, the Purple One had barely dented the Top 10 for the first time when she entered the studio. This time keeping the lyrics intact, she made When You Were Mine a ballad of bisexual heartbreak. She also turned in a Monroe-style vocal, keeping things simmering. The album’s centerpiece — and Lauper’s first #1 hit — was a track she wrote with Rob Hyman. Time After Time is a flawless pop ballad, a slow groove of yearning. Released on the heels of Girls’ success, it proved how versatile the singer was.

Side two opens with another startling moment, the masturbation ode She Bop. Lauper wrote it in code, “so the little kids could dance to it,” allowing it to work on many levels. When it went to #3, it cemented her star status. Surging with dance energy, it’s a subversive track that really works. Lauper selected her friend Jules Shear’s All Through the Night to cover. She transformed his solid pop approach into something delicate and fine. It’s #5 ranking made her the first woman to land four Top 5 singles from one album.

Witness is the album’s hidden gem. Written with Blue Angel’s Turi, it’s a reggae influenced track. Bursting with dance grooves and a gritty, determined vocal, it’s one of the strongest tracks on the album and a clear sign of the singer’s eclectic power.

The last three tracks continue that trend while slowly running out of steam. I’ll Kiss You, written by Lauper and Shear, is a pleasant enough twist on Love Potion #9. A bit of a rocker, it changes things up nicely but doesn’t offer much more. He’s So Unusual — the de facto title track — shows off the Betty Boop inspiration for Lauper’s best known vocals with a charming retro feel. Things wrap up with the very unusual sound collage Yeah Yeah, written by Swedish rocker Mikael Rikfors. It’s interesting, but a bit of a let-down as the closer of an otherwise delightful album.

Lauper was awarded the Best New Artist Grammy, achieved multi-platinum sales, and influenced girls’ fashion choices for a couple of years. More importantly, she turned out a fine, diverse set of songs that holds up admirably three decades later.

FURTHER LISTENING: Unfortunately, her strong persona made building on that success difficult, especially because she was interested in so many forms of music. Her recordings continued to be diverse, sometimes confusing fans. True Colors was a solid — if less magical — second outing. After that, the offerings have been sporadic and inconsistent, although everything she releases has some magic moments. The strongest discs are the standards album At Last and the unique dance outing Bring Ya to the Brink. Lauper has also been anthologized heavily. The best collection — unless you insist on having The Goonies ‘R’ Good Enough for some inexplicable reason — is 1994’s Twelve Deadly Cyns.

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About Robert Hulshof-Schmidt
Freelance writer, researcher, online comic vendor, and project manager. Fan of a wide range of music -- especially folk and 80s pop -- vintage comics, British TV, and LGBT fiction.

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