Cyndi Lauper's She's So Unusual is one of the few pop albums that simultaneously captures its creator's aesthetic, speaks to its time, and is built of such strong craft that it survives outside its original context. With this debut solo record, Lauper captured her persona as a down-and-out new-wave punk thrift-shop queen making her life on the graffiti-dressed streets of early 80s New York City. The record is a pure gem, brimming with hits, and as Lauper is celebrating the album's 30th birthday this year, it is important to revisit this pop classic.
Much of the record speaks about female liberation, both romantic and otherwise. The LP kicks off with a cover of "Money Changes Everything," which sounds like both a criticism of the "me me me" capitalism of the 80s, as well as a celebration of independence. The song is smartly followed by now classic, "Girls Just Want to Have Fun," which lacks the irony of "Money" and is a pure anthem to female empowerment about wanting to go out on the town "when the working day is done." These two songs set the scene for a record that grows more complicated, showing that independence comes with both its joys and pitfalls.
The most interesting and nuanced work the record does is negotiate the emotional politics of sexual and romantic freedom. The cover of Prince's "When You Were Mine" leaves the songwriter's original pronouns intact, which, in Lauper's hands, makes it a song about a woman who pines for a lover who has left her for a man. In 2013, this choice may not seem that gripping, but in 1983 Lauper was already establishing herself as an artist who acknowledges gay people in her music. "When You Were Mine" is a song about heartache and abandonment, but it also, because of Lauper's lyric choices, feels like a tribute to diversity.
Lauper permeates the record with tracks about sex. These include the new-wave punk, "I'll Kiss You," which is a story song about love-potions and gypsies, during which Lauper shouts and moans about her desire. There is also the very charming and retro, "He's So Unusual"--a play on a Vaudeville sound about the singer wanting to get busy with her boyfriend, even though he would rather not. This cheekiness gives way to the fun album closer, "Yeah Yeah," which is a stomping tribute to loving and making love to your partner.
The most notable of these songs about sex is "She Bop," which is one of the best tracks about masturbation to become a chart-topper. The track praises that "she bop, he bop, we bop, I bop, you bop, they bop," normalizing masturbation during the rise of the AIDS crisis. The song sounds like a trifle with its tinny synths and Lauper's Betty-Boop delivery, but that playfulness makes what could be a very serious song instead a light ode to safe and healthy sexual activity. "She Bop" shows the singer/songwriter at the peak of her powers; she can craft a hooky and smart song, as well as deliver it with a wonderfully dextrous voice that can move from beautiful belting to a humorous squeakiness.
However, though the tracks about sexuality are perhaps the most interesting, Lauper's work as a love-ballad singer is perhaps what has most endured in the public consciousness. There is, of course, her lovely take on the traditional, "All Through the Night," but I am mainly talking about her first number one song, "Time After Time." Lauper cowrote this charming track to enduring love, and it feels like a lyrical mash-up of Carole King's "You've Got a Friend" and "So Far Away." The single has her striking a more serious pose as well as playing with a smoother and more polished Adult Contemporary sound. The song is still built on a synthesizer-based production that fits nicely with the pop-meets-New-Wave tracks throughout the rest of the album, but "Time After Time" allows these elements to be subtle and focuses on Lauper's vocal delivery. As such, the song (and this recording) has become a timeless (excuse the pun) classic--a track that can be endlessly reinterpreted but maintain its quintessential charms.
In the years since She's So Unusual, Cyndi Lauper has found success on the stage and on screen, as well as written some great pop music. (I would particularly recommend her sophmore effort, True Colors, the retrospective, The Body Accoustic, and her dance-pop album, Bring Ya to the Brink.) However, She's So Unusual remains the foundation of her artistic legacy. Even if she fell out of the spotlight after its release, her debut would have permanently bought her a place in music history because the record is that rare achievement: a perfect pop album.