TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT May 1984

FREE SPEECH

CYNDI LAUPER'S “GIRLS JUST WANT to Have Fun” was the across-the-board hit of the new year—if you haven’t heard it you don’t own a radio. The day after Lauper sang it on “Late Night with David Letterman” a woman in San Francisco called up her favorite FM station to complain. “I had the TV on and I just drifted off, you know? And then, oh, it was hours later, there was this, this noise. I mean, that woman woke me up out of a sound sleep!”

If Cyndi Lauper accomplishes nothing else in the years to come, she can savor that moment. It calls for headlines:

TOP FORTY SONGBIRD REALIZES AMBITIONS OF MODERN ART!

Painters in Shock; Suicide Rate Jumps in NY, SF, LA;

NEA Announces Halt in Museum Construction Grants

Heater, CA, March 15: Famed artist Arnold Brodsky was discovered today hiding in this tiny desert hamlet. Brodsky agreed to speak to reporters only on the grounds that he “might be able to help” other victims of “Lauperism.”

“Suicide is for quitters,” said the 1971 winner of the Bypass Award. “It’s just what she wants. I’m not taking the easy way out. I just came here to think it over. I heard the story about the woman phoning the radio station, everybody heard it, and before anyone knew what was happening everything began to fall apart. You understand, don’t you? I’ve been trying for 20 years to get people to blink!”

What is there in “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” to threaten anyone? Lauper is cute, her songs are catchy, and she wears interesting clothes. Combined with her Slavic features, her gypsy outfits seem more shtick than weird. Her debut LP, She’s So Unusual (Portrait), is so shiny, so superbly produced, that it’s easy enough to write her off as this season’s Galatea. The record’s cover, on the other hand, where Lauper is to be seen dancing in some New York City street, is queerly lacking in movement. Lauper is anything but possessed by the Surrealist abandon promised by the back-cover montage, where, against the Coney Island Parachute Jump, bobby-soxed feet in white shoes fly through the air, shoes with Van Gogh’s Starry Night on their soles. She looks worried; she’s holding a bunch of flowers the way a tightrope walker holds a bar, for balance. She looks like she’s trying not to fall down.

Put the record on and Lauper sounds like she looks. The woman on the radio was right: you can’t use Lauper for background music. The saturation airplay given “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” is beginning to get on people’s nerves. Maybe it’s the froufrou sexism of the lyric (written by a man); maybe it’s the squeaks and blips in the mix and the vocal; maybe it’s that there is so much pathos and desire secreted in this piece of squeaky blippy froufrou sexism that it calls for a redefinition of the word “fun,” if not “girls,” if not “just.” I don’t know—let’s ask Elvis Costello. “My ultimate vocation in life,” he once said, “is to be an irritant. Someone who disrupts the daily drag of life just enough to leave the victim thinking there’s maybe more to it all than the mere humdrum quality of existence.” This is a real vocation; is it why so many are happy to dismiss Lauper as Betty Boop, Olive Oyl, Ethel Merman, or Pia Zadora?

Criticism in rock ’n’ roll is generally as compartmentalized as criticism everywhere else: thus Lauper is only talked about in terms of other women. No, she isn’t much like Joni Mitchell/Carly Simon/Pat Benatar. She shares more than a bit with London punk Lora Logic, but the singer she brings to mind most immediately is Buddy Holly. Twenty-five years after his death Holly remains fascinating because the composite image created by his reassuringly ordinary appearance and the strangeness of his sound remains unresolved. His silly/violent vocal shifts from mid range to high to low and back again were never set up, were never called for by the song, never seemed to make musical or emotional sense; in 1957 they made people laugh, and since then they have brought forth every response from delight to terror.

In pop music high and low voices signify different emotional languages, and it’s the clear transition from one to the other that signifies the signifiers, that allows them to communicate. Holly leaped over the process and confused the categories; so does Lauper. Her music doesn’t wake people up because her voice is scratchy and piercing, though sometimes it is. She wakes people up because, in the context of arrangements that are as reassuring in their familiarity as were Buddy Holly’s glasses, she so relentlessly demolishes the expectations that would seem to follow from whatever it is she’s just done.

The Brains, a four-man Atlanta post-punk band, released “Money Changes Everything” as a homemade production in 1978. It never made the Billboard charts, was played often on the independent stations that ignore them, and got the Brains a major-label contract which quickly led them back to Atlanta, where they broke up. “Money Changes Everything” was their one moment and they made it stick: as a stately, bitter, hopeless account of idealism and innocence ground into dust, it was a perfect example of the punk impulse to reveal the world-historical (here, more or less the “all that is solid melts into air” section of The Communist Manifesto) in ordinary life. It was hard, it hurt, and Cyndi Lauper’s version makes the original sound compromised. She makes you wonder if Brains composer and singer Tom Gray knew what he was talking about.

“Money Changes Everything” opens with a woman leaving her man for a prospect with a thicker wallet. Gray sings as the man; with right on his side, he wins your sympathy automatically, puts you in the song. Lauper sings as the woman.

I said I’m sorry baby, I’m leaving you tonight
I found someone new, he’s waiting in the car outside
Oh honey how can you do it, we swore each other everlasting love
I said yeah I know, but when we did there was one thing
We weren’t thinking of
And that’s money
Money changes everything

“It’s all in the past now,” runs the most chilling line of the song, even worse than that gruesomely frigid “yeah” in the fourth line, which is no happy improvisation: Gray wrote it. He gave the word a sardonic curl; Lauper seems to dump her childhood in the course of saying it. You might realize she didn’t have to take this role; she could have made the song’s victim female. But then she wouldn’t have had the chance to stamp her foot through her lover’s porch.

You don’t hear any of this right away. You hear a celebratory instrumental pastiche, a mnemonic tease—the synthesizer fanfare is from the Brains, the rhythm guitar from the 1964 British Invasion–era Searchers, the lead guitar part from Barry McGuire’s 1965 “Eve of Destruction,” the bass from Fleetwood Mac’s 1977 “Go Your Own Way”—a typical recycling of the old to hide the absence of the new. In the middle of it all is a mindless warbler seemingly bent more on hitting notes than singing the song. The production is attractive and the vocal almost repellent, But soon the attraction of the pastiche begins to fade, to separate into its parts, and by then the warbler is beginning to explain herself. She takes over the composite sound until it seems not as if this were a neatly constructed bid for airplay (which, among other things, it is), but as if all the radio music of the last twenty years were being brought to bear in a single five-minute performance.

Lauper never does completely explain herself. She moves too fast to keep a fix on, there’s blood all over the song, but finally the reassuring composite of the arrangement works as the anchor necessary to translate Lauper’s free speech, an instinctive version of Futurist parole in libertà. She sings at least half of “Money Changes Everything” from hell—you can hear her get there, learn its rules, and then rip her fingers trying to crawl her way out—but she comes off the instrumental break, which is played on a hooter (I don’t know what it is; the name is perfectly descriptive), like the Devil on a recruiting drive, or like a girl who can’t wait for the clock to strike 12 on New Year’s Eve. She communicates philosophy with a flounce, self-loathing with a screech. When, to end the number, she holds a note for a good 11 seconds, you can’t tell if she’s showing off or possessed by the song. Whether or not money changes everything, it’s patent that singing this song changed Lauper, if only into more of a singer—which is to say that a confrontation with questions of value intensified her will to ignore the rational transitions of song-texts, to the point that the radio may be unable to transmit that will without suffering damage in the process. And that is finally to say—as, driving around town, I twist the dial in search of another Lauper media shock—that she can wake people up because she can herself be wakened.

Greil Marcus