Retro Review: Cyndi Lauper's Tribute to Her Gay Audience and Disco on Bring Ya to the Brink

Over her long career, Cyndi Lauper has been a voice of sexual liberation ("She Bop") and empowerment ("True Colors"). She has also devoted her music to speaking up for gay men ("Boy Blue," "Ballad of Cleo and Joe"). Though often under-appreciated, Lauper has remained a smart and affecting political songwriter because she filters her political sentiments through personal experience--she is Boy Blue's friend; she witnesses our true colors, even if no one else will. So it is fitting that as her profile as a gay rights activist rose, she released her most exuberant album about gay life: the ecstatic Bring Ya to the Brink. Released in 2008, the album is a quirky, blippy dance record that highlights the singer's considerable gifts.

Bring Ya to the Brink is not Lauper's most overt statement about gay culture, but the gay experience permeates the record. In the album art, Lauper cleans a disco ball, wearing rubber gloves, standing in a vintage 70s kitchen. Is she commenting on disco culture giving way to the AIDS epidemic and the resulting mainstream homophobia? Perhaps.



More importantly, though, this is an album about learning from the past and moving forward. Take, for example, the album-defining track, "Lyfe," in which the singer chants, "Life. It could shake ya. / It could break ya. / It could bring ya to the brink," amidst choruses about living "two steps forward / one step back." In light of such tracks that find Lauper looking over her shoulder, singles like, "Into the Nightlife," carry an unexpected resonance. In this quintessential gay anthem about shaking the dust off and dancing your blues away, Lauper acts as a wise guide, calling "I'll take you till you're all spun up / and in love." She continues this trend on "Same Ol' Story," in which she calls a lover out on his lies.

Similarly, "Set Your Heart" begins with a Barry White-esque intro, then breaks open to straight-up Studio 54 dance music about persevering against social pressures; again, in the track Lauper acts as a friend and guide to the lost ("When your heart is beating black and blue / and the whole world's looking down at you / and you're starting to become unglued, / don't go there baby. Come on / You know I love you.") She could be pulling a friend (or her listener) away from suicide, or perhaps, simply, despair. She is trying to save as many people as she can.

Beyond anthems, the album also fluctuates between moments of melancholy and disappointment. "Raging Storm" criticizes the media--namely its mishandling of Britney Spear's mental breakdown. "Rain on Me" hearkens back to who her Hat Full of Stars wistfulness, though the track sounds more akin to the ballads on She's So Unusual. The song is about accepting hardship. While Lauper often highlights adversity, both personal and public, she addresses such challenges as surmountable. In the wake of Prop 8 and the religious right's championing of bigotry, "Rain on Me" feels essential; it also provides a bitter-sweet conclusion for the record, and may be the classic Cyndi moment for longtime fans.

Bring Ya to the Brink failed to reintroduce Lauper to the mainstream. Though it scored a Grammy nomination and two number one dance singles ("Into the Nightlife" and "Same Ol' Story"), it remained a fringe novelty. This may be due to the left-of-center production, which favors nostalgia over the trends of the time. However, the album's interesting hybrid of house and 70s disco revival with flourishes of 80s new wave synth, is what makes it such an enigmatic and durable release. Even after four years of significant dance music evolution, Lauper's album still sounds fresh and surprising. In this case, her insistence on following her muse makes for a fascinating if forgotten album that holds its own in a chaotic genre.


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