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Friday, September 14, 2012

She Really Is So Unusual: Cyndi Lauper

When she burst onto the pop scene in 1983 with the timeless smash Girls Just Wanna Have Fun and the multi-million selling album She's So Unusual, Cyndi Lauper was heralded as the new female pop sensation. In the mid-1980s only Madonna rivalled her success and Cyndi competed toe-to-toe for a while. Cyndi became known for her very colourful outfits and hair and her occasionally Minnie Mouse-like vocals, but this enduring public perception masks a multi-layered, fascinating artist with a rich, versatile and unique voice. Cyndi eventually caved in the fake battle to be Queen of Pop and was then free to carve out an arguably more interesting career in music, exploring different genres and growing into a unique artist. Although the huge hits dried up, Cyndi has released many great and criminally overlooked singles over the last three decades, so rather than focus on gems like True Colors and Time After Time, today I want to celebrate those classic Cyndi songs that deserve similar praise and attention and underline why, frankly, she really is so unusual.



My First Night Without You (1989)

Cyndi's follow-up to the awesome I Drove All Night should have been another international smash, but inexplicably it flopped. It is a loving pastiche of a fifties style love song, think Peggy Lee at her rawest, clicking to a slinky beat. Cyndi is driving home to face her first night alone after a failed relationship, the vocal starts calmly enough, but becomes more and more distraught as the reality sinks in. It's not hysterical at all, but it is heartbreaking, you buy every word as Cyndi's fears grow. The song builds beautifully to its gut-wrenching climax: "will I be able to sleep... what if I forget and reach for you?". This was the song that took me from a listener to a fan. There are few singers able to deliver such operatic themes without descending into soap opera: Cyndi is one of those that can.


Sally's Pigeons (1993)

Heartbreak of a different kind awaits on this most affecting of ballads from Cyndi's criminally overlooked fourth album Hat Full Of Stars. This autobiographical tale recalls a childhood friendship and contrasts the innocence, freedom and promise of youth with the sometimes harsh realities of adulthood. With a poet's allusion, Cyndi mourns the loss of that friend to a botched back alley abortion, but the song is not sensationalist or morbid, it has true pathos. The melody is gentle and beautiful and Cyndi's vocal is honest and measured perfectly. It is hard to create such a nostalgic tale without tipping into sentimentality and this song shows Cyndi's songwriting abilities are equal to her vocal talents. It doesn't hurt that her co-writer on this track is the similarly gifted Mary Chapin Carpenter. Truly one of the most beautiful songs ever written.



Ballad Of Cleo & Joe (1997)

And now, as they say, time for something completely different. By the time she made her fifth album Sisters Of Avalon Cyndi had moved far beyond any desire to play to the mainstream. Always an individualist, she was fully embracing her place on the margins and alongside that using her music to address the marginalised. The album was a full-on attack on complacency in popular culture and the treatment of women and minorities. This is not to suggest that the material is preachy, it is among her most inventive work and a prime example is this fantastic (in all senses of the word) single. It tells the tale of blue collar Joe, who struggles through the working day so that at night he can transform into his totally fabulous alter ego, Cleo. Cyndi had always had a rock edge to her pop sounds, but on this she sounds like a gypsy Pat Benatar. The musical backing is frenetic and eclectic and wonderful. The lyrics take the form of a traditional ballad and Cyndi sings them with appropriate energy and urgency. The song is tremendous fun as well as being a great anthem for living a liberated life. Cyndi has been a tremendous supporter of the LGBT community and this is one of the tracks that shows she is more than prepared to put her money where her mouth is. A whirling dervish of a song, be warned it may have you heading for the wardrobe, but not the closet!



At Last (2003)

When assessing a vocalist's talents it is easier if you can compare them to widely recognised greats. That is often tricky with pop singers who mostly sing their own material. Cyndi gave her fans and her critics the chance to judge the quality of her voice when she released her 2003 album At Last, an inspired collection of standards and more modern songs done in a jazz style. The arrangements are pared back, allowing the songs to breathe and giving the sense of a live performance in an intimate club. Cyndi proves that she is that rarest of artists who can conjure comedy and tragedy with her voice and sound sincere at both extremes. The album was a justified success in many territories, including the US, but was sadly overlooked in the UK where she is perhaps still typecast as "kooky", making an album of standards a hard sell. One of the many standouts is the title track, where Cyndi wisely doesn't compete with Etta, but instead focuses on wringing all the emotion and meaning out of the lyric she can. That's not to suggest that this white girl doesn't have soul, her rip-roaring final note soars up there with the best of them. Proof, should it be needed, that Cyndi is as great an interpreter of song as she is a conveyor of her own music.



Into The Nightlife (2008)

For her tenth album, Bring Ya To The Brink, Cyndi decided to make an out and out dance album. To ensure authenticity she collaborated with current and cutting edge dance artists and the results are stunning. There are many diva fans who shudder at memories of great singers forced into making "disco" albums late in their careers, but let me reassure you this is not the case here. Cyndi sounds as fresh and energetic as when she just wanted to have fun in 1983. The album is so full of energy and spark it could power a city. A case in point is this most fantastic of singles, easily my favourite Cyndi song ever. A warped bass sound signals the start of the song with Cyndi feeling an "endless itch to ride" drawing her to the dancefloor. The chorus erupts in a sonic wave and has the most infectious lyric I've heard in a long while, suffice it to say this was on constant repeat on my iPod for about five months. The song is so brilliantly realised it can make the most dreary of surroundings seem like the most fabulous gay club. It also contains the best dance song lyric ever: shirtless wonders wreck my sight. If Britney had recorded it, it would have been a worldwide number one smash. With no mainstream airplay support Cyndi had to settle for a number one on the US Billboard Hot Dance Club Play Chart. Such is life.


Early In The Mornin' (2010)

As she approaches the end of her third decade as a recording artist, Cyndi shows no signs of fatigue. Her latest reinvention is as Blues artist and it is a natural fit. Her voice was so clearly made to sing the Blues, it's astonishing it took her this long to realise it. When listening to her album Memphis Blues you are transported back to a smoky underground club in the forties, with Cyndi holding the rapt audience in thrall. Showing the respect Cyndi is held in, she was able to attract true Blues legends to work with her on the album, including Allen Toussaint and B.B. King who feature on this great cover. The album has continued Cyndi's commercial renaissance, becoming her third highest charting album in the US, following her first two mega hits. Cyndi further proved her Blues chops by undertaking an acclaimed tour to support the album.




Cyndi Lauper is without question one of our most versatile female artists, who can seemingly succeed with ease at any genre she chooses to turn her hand to. Her next projects include a memoir and compositions for a new musical based on the movie Kinky Boots. One thing is certain, whatever Cyndi chooses to do in the future, it will be both unusual and, as usual, quite brilliant.


If you enjoyed reading this blog, please consider forwarding it or linking to it from your Facebook or Twitter account. You can post feedback below or to my Twitter account, @divasblogger. Sign up for alerts at divasblogger@gmail.com or follow me on Twitter. Cyndi's memoir is published on 18 September. Also you can hear the tracks mentioned in this week's blog on my Spotify account at the following link:She Really Is So Unusual

3 comments:

  1. Wonderful post! Cyndi has many "hidden gems" - like "You Don't Know", "The World Is Stone" and "Who Let In The Rain" are three that come to mind immediately. But your list and analysis is excellent!

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  2. I LOVE this!!! I'm shocked you didn't include "You Don't Know" as one of her criminally overlooked singles. That was one that could have rivaled (and was reminiscent of) the success of Alanis Morrisette in the last 1990's. And YES Tony (above) hits a couple other GEMS, "The World is Stone" and "Who Let in the Rain" which are brilliant songs lyrically, musically, and vocally. Cyndi is the BEST.

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  3. Great post! Very in-depth look at one of my idols. I'm pretty excited she'll be a judge for the http://www.unsignedonly.com competition. She might even hear one of my songs! *sigh*... plus, the $10,000 prize wouldn't be so bad either haha

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