Lauper, Cyndi (1953—)

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Lauper, Cyndi (1953—)

The mid-1980s heralded the coming of age of the music video as a mainstay of the rock music industry. Cyndi Lauper erupted into the music scene in 1984, bringing a color, vitality, and sassiness that seemed made for the new video medium. She made her dynamic songs into vibrant videos, full of kitchy, campy energy. Lauper's own appearance was a sort of camp, with asymmetrical hair dyed in bright fuchsias and magentas and flamboyant thrift-shop-chic outfits. That, along with her nasally New York voice, caused some critics to call her "Betty Boop" or "kewpie doll" and to dismiss her as a novelty act. However, behind the day-glo hair and the bohemian clothing, Lauper is a serious artist with a social conscience and a pragmatic approach to changing the world.

Lauper's first big hit, "Girls Just Want to Have Fun," is a riotous anthem to personal freedom for women that appealed to everyone from middle-aged feminists to girls just entering adolescence. It was not only for her irrepressible pro-woman lyrics that she was named Ms. Magazine's Woman of the Year in 1985. It was also for the issues she tackled in her songs and her actions to change the role of women in rock. Los Angeles-based Women in Film honored Lauper in the mid-1980s as well, for hiring women in all aspects of her music videos, staging, costumes, design, and editing, as well as casting. "I tried to give women a different face," Lauper said, "a stronger, more independent one, and that's what 'Girls Just Want to Have Fun' was all about."

Lauper grew up with a strong, supportive female role model. Born in Queens, New York, to working-class parents who divorced when she was five, Lauper, her brother, and sister were raised by their mother, Catrine Dominique. Though life was hard raising three children while working as a waitress, Lauper's mother actively encouraged creativity and independent thinking in her children. Struggling through parochial school, Lauper was a lonely child who always felt like a misfit. She escaped into music, feeling a "drive to sing" first along with her mother's records, then, around age 12, her own folky compositions, accompanying herself on the guitar. Around the same time, she began the wild color experiments on her hair, making the most of her misfit status by becoming an eccentric. She attended four separate high schools, dropping or flunking out of each, until she earned her high school equivalency. After an unhappy year at a Vermont college, she came back to New York to try for a singing career.

In 1977, she released an album with the band Blue Angel. The album was well received by critics but sold poorly and the band broke up, sending Lauper back to singing in bars and picking up odd jobs. She had just declared bankruptcy in 1983 when she got her own recording contract with Portrait Records.

Her first album, She's So Unusual, released in 1983, sold almost five million copies. It was the first debut album in history to have four top-five hit songs. Lauper's quirky personal style and her high-pitched, yet tough singing voice immediately clicked in the bubbly world of 1980s pop. She rocketed to instant popularity, receiving a Grammy, an MTV Music Award, and an American Music Award. Rolling Stone named her Best New Artist in 1984.

Though some pundits speculated Lauper would be a "one-hit wonder," more discerning critics heard the quality and flexibility of style and voice in her multi-octave range. She released other albums with less dramatic success: True Colors in 1987 sold a million copies, A Night to Remember in 1989, half a million. Lauper, however, does not measure her success by sales alone, and she continued to produce albums, taking more and more control of her own career. Because as many as four years can go by between albums, she was constantly said to be making a "comeback" during the 1990s. Well respected in the rock music world, Lauper has been credited grudgingly by the most sneering of critics in her range of sound, be it squeaky, earthy, soulful, or sweet. By the end of the 1990s, she continued to write "social issue" songs about such topics as incest, domestic violence, abortion, and racism, managing to be passionate without becoming preachy. In "She Bop," she even pulled off a feisty and funny reclamation of female masturbation.

Lauper has also branched out into movies, proving to be an accomplished actor who has been often pointed out by critics as the bright spot in an otherwise negligible film. She has also made guest appearances on television, most notably on the popular 1990s sitcom Mad about You, for which she received an Emmy nomination.

Lauper remains down to earth and gutsy, continuing to identify with her working-class roots and with other women. Even in the early days of her career, she resisted media attempts to pit her against another rising star, singer Madonna, explaining "I don't want to compete with a sister." Married since 1991 to actor David Thornton, Lauper had her first child, son Declyn, at age 44. She lives with her family in rural Connecticut and continues to make music while trying to avoid the pitfalls of the superstar lifestyle. "I'm an entertainer," she reflected, "trying to express the fact that you can liberate yourself and say, hell, yes, I can do it. Life is not a prison sentence."

—Tina Gianoulis

Further Reading:

Cocks, Jay. "These Big Girls Don't Cry." Time. Vol. 29, July 1,1985, 42.

Jerome, Jim. "Cyndi Lauper: Verve and Videos Turn an Outcast Oddball into a Musical Phenomenon." People. Vol. 22, September 17, 1984, 82.

Kamen, Philip. Cyndi Lauper. New York, McGraw-Hill, 1986.

Morreale, Marie. The Cyndi Lauper Scrapbook. New York, Bantam Books, 1985.

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Lauper, Cyndi (1953—)

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