30 Years Later, Cyndi Lauper Is Still So Unusual

Three decades after the release of her debut album She’s So Unusual, Cyndi reflects on the album that made her an icon.

Photo by Annie Leibovitz/ Courtesy of Sony Legacy

She’s So Unusual was a fitting title for Cyndi Lauper’s breakthrough debut album; when she first burst onto the scene in 1983 with her eccentric thrift-store outfits, big bright orange hair, and exuberant personality, there was nobody like her. Fusing new wave, rockabilly, pop, and rock, the album spawned four top-five singles, including empowerment anthem “Girls Just Want To Have Fun,” masturbation ode “She Bop,” and the haunting “Time After Time.” Three decades after the album’s release, you still hear them in everything from film and television, to weddings and school dances. BuzzFeed talked with Lauper about the 30th anniversary of She’s So Unusual, her memories of making the album, and what her relationship to her most iconic songs is like today.

How do you remember the recording of the She’s So Unusual?

Cyndi Lauper: We had so much fun in the studio, and I think that comes across in the recording. It was a wonderful collaboration with an amazing bunch of people who I still have in my life today. We just brought the best out of each other. It was a great creative time for all of us.

I’ve heard that you didn’t love Robert Hazard’s original version of “Girls,” and that you rearranged some of the lyrics to make it work for you.

CL: I had a different take. Obviously, he’s a guy, he’s not going to write what a woman’s going to sing about. I was concerned about how it would be taken, and he said, “Well, think about what it could mean.” So the parts that were very masculine and didn’t pertain to what I wanted to say, I cut out. In the 1980s women were still struggling to be seen as equal to men. When the women’s movement really started, in the ’60s and ’70s, I felt so empowered and it was thrilling to me. But in the 1980s it seemed that a lot of the hard work by people like Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem was being forgotten and women were once again accepting the status quo. We had gotten far — but not far enough — so I sang “Girls” for all the women around the world to remember our power.

Thirty years later, are you surprised that the media still pits female musicians against each other?

CL: Not really. It’s still disappointing. They don’t do that with guys, EVER. And I don’t know most of these women, but if it’s like the “competition” Madonna and I supposedly had, these are most likely fiction.

Before the success of She’s So Unusual, you were a singer-songwriter as part of Blue Angel. During those earlier years, did you ever second-guess your career choice?

CL: No, I never second-guessed. I was told a few times to quit or be someone I wasn’t, but I always believed in myself and my music and just found a way around my detractors.

Do you remember hearing”Girls Just Want to Have Fun” on the radio for the first time?

CL: It took a while. We didn’t have a lot of support at radio out of the box. One programmer even said my voice was too high for radio, that I sounded like a Chipmunk and I would never have a hit. I went to wrestling [matches] and did a lot of promo with them, MTV came in, and then radio came in. The first time I heard it was on a radio station in Boston.

Photo by Annie Leibovitz/ Courtesy of Sony Legacy

How did the album’s iconic cover come together? Whose idea was it?

CL: Mine. When I explained my vision to Janet Perr, who was the art director, she suggested Coney Island. Janet and I went together to location scout with Annie Leibowitz who was the photographer — I was so lucky to work with Annie on my first album cover — and we came upon the Roberto Clemente building and we knew it would be the perfect backdrop. I wanted it to be a study of midday light. It’s my favorite time of day as far as lighting goes.

I wanted Annie to take a picture of the bottom of my shoes against the top of the Parachute Jump — [which is] also nicknamed the Eiffel Tower of Brooklyn, I love that — so that you could really see we were in Coney Island. One of my favorite paintings of all time is Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” so I brought that element out by painting the bottom of my shoe, and I wore yellow socks to pick up the colors of the Brooklyn Eiffel Tower to tie it all in.

How has your relationship with the She’s So Unusual songs changed since you first wrote and recorded them?

CL: Sometimes the change in the relationship with the song is an internal one and other times it’s an external one. When I recorded “Girls,” I did with the intention for it to be a song to uplift women and send a message of empowerment to women. That “Girls” continues to be important to young women even today, 30 years later, is something I am very proud of, and it has made me respect that song when I perform it live all the more.

For [“Time After Time”] to be a hit was very important to me personally, since it was a song I wrote and had to fight very hard for it to be on the album. So today it’s still exciting when the audience sings the song back to me when I play live. I also haven’t played many of the songs on the album live, outside of the hits, in years. So now that I am playing them again live, I am having so much fun doing that and remembering how much fun I had making that album.

Paul Natkin / Getty Images

Lauper performing in Chicago on April 24, 1984.

Are there any songs that you wrote for the album that you wish had made the cut, but didn’t?

CL: There was a tune called “Rules & Regulation” that we wanted to include, but we simply didn’t have enough space for. You have to remember, in the ’80s vinyl albums was the main format, so we only had 60 minutes of space and we had to decide to cut that song. On the deluxe version of the 30th anniversary [reissue], you can hear a demo of that song. It was a live recording from a rehearsal we did leading up to the recording session and I recorded it on a Walkman.

As a musician, have you changed much since the release of She’s So Unusual?

CL: Of course. You evolve as a musician just like you evolve as a human, through experiences. I am a far better songwriter [now] for sure. As a singer, I compare that to other forms of athletics: As you age you have to learn how to stay as strong as you were when you were younger, and that takes extra work. But I definitely do the work, so I feel I’m as good a singer as ever. I work at it all the time. I take vocal lessons three times a week every week and have for years. I’m still not a great musician. I play a bunch of different instruments, badly, but I do love to play.

Do you have a favorite cover of one your songs?

CL: I love Miles Davis’ version of “Time,” especially as jazz student. Most people don’t know this, but I went to Johnson State College School of Jazz before I became a singer.

Pink did a great live version on her last tour that I really loved… I also like what Starfucker did with “Girls.” I also really love the live version of “Girls” that The Killers did a few tours back.

The original songs you wrote for the musical Kinky Boots recently won a Tony and Grammy. Was writing for a show different than how you’d write for an album of your own?

CL: The biggest difference in writing songs for a musical is that the songs have to help propel the story along with the book. You have to be very specific. You have to write for different voices and characters, which is way different then when I’ve written songs for my own CDs.

Do you plan to continue writing music for Broadway?

CL: Absolutely!

What advice would you give people like Katy Perry or Lady Gaga, who have cited you as an inspiration?

CL: Be honest, follow your heart, don’t follow the trends.

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