How old were you the first time you heard "Girls Just Want to Have Fun"? Or, better yet, saw the video on MTV — Cyndi Lauper with her asymmetrical, multi-colored hair and party dress leading a conga line of oddballs, misfits and wallflowers? With the release of She's So Unusual and the first notes of Lauper's bubbly-powerful, Queens-accented, four-octave vocal, it became okay to be a little (or a lot) different. (Speaking of different, the singer’s most recent work takes her to Memphis for a very authentic blues record. More on that later.)
Lauper was 30 by the time that album — and her rise-to-fame-with-a-bullet — happened, but she didn't (and still doesn't, 27 years later) seem to mind being a voice for those who had nowhere to sit in the lunchroom. It's okay to be your (unusual) self, she tells Xpress, because "Well, who else ya gonna be?"
Almost every song on that initial album was a hit: "Money Changes Everything," "When You Were Mine," "Time After Time," "She Bop" and "All Through The Night." But it was the title track for her follow up, True Colors that delivered Lauper's So Unusual brand of affirmation to a whole new group: The gay community.
Though Lauper doesn't have a writing credit on "True Colors" (authors Billy Steinberg and Tom Kelly also wrote "Like a Virgin," "So Emotional" and "Eternal Flame"), the song (which Steinberg reportedly wrote for his mother) took on special meaning to the singer. "I started reading the e-mail when I was pregnant and I had a minute," she says of a rare break in ‘97. "I saw that many people had contemplated suicide because when they came out [as gay] they were disenfranchised by their families, friends and jobs. They heard 'True Colors' and said that song comforted them at that time." Lauper decided to take action — which lead to her True Colors tour.
"That's when we brought in PFLAG and the Matthew Shepard Foundation and HRC," she recalls of the first tour in the late ‘90s. The True Colors mission continues: "We've been able to make an impact — the passing of the hate crimes amendment. Instead of just talking the talk, I want to walk the walk."
Lauper has long been an advocate for Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgender rights (along with her work for AIDS research), performing at gay pride events worldwide. During her stint on Celebrity Apprentice earlier this year, she raised money for her True Colors Fund of Stonewall Community Foundation. These days, Lauper is on a mission to bring more straight people to that cause through her Give A Damn campaign. "It's a straight cry for equality," she explains. "I feel strongly that in any civil-rights movement you need all the people, not half the people. I need other straight people to step up and say this discrimination against the gay community is wrong."
Lauper adds, "We wanted to talk about the bullying that is inherent in language itself. Kids say 'That's so gay.' [If] the fashion is really bad, what to do you say? 'That's so straight. That's so hetero. That's so 15-year-old Long Island.' You gonna start staying that stuff?"
Her other mission is to "help the kids on the street” — homeless kids who were thrown out because they're LGBT. “Parents, I don't know what the hell they're thinking,” says Lauper. “When you have a kid, it's on loan and it's a great honor. It's never gonna be like how you think." She says that 20-40 percent of kids on the street in New York are LGBT, and that's reflected across the country. The True Colors house, opening in Harlem, is the first permanent housing provided for those young people. Though there are only 30 beds, the kids can stay at the house until they're 24, rather than having to leave at age 21. "It gives them a minute," says Lauper. "You want to help kids become productive members of society, not castaways. What the hell is that?"
But, as passionate as Lauper remains about these missions, she's no less driven in her music career which, this year, includes the aptly-titled Memphis Blues. Where some artists (Rod Stewart, Barry Manilow) bolster flagging careers with returns to the classics (The Great American Songbook and The Greatest Love Songs of all Time, respectively), Lauper's career is far from waning, and her blues turn is no gimmick. "Blues is the foundation of all the music we do today and everything that I've ever sung," she says. "I was once in a cover band, one of those Joplin Tribute bands, ready to kill myself if I had to sing 'Piece of My Heart' one more time. It takes more than just doing that stuff. I grew up listening to the Beatles, the Supremes and Motown. The whole blues thing I didn't even know existed. Now I've come full circle."
The album (which includes some great collaborations, like a blistering duet with blues prodigy Jonny Lang on "How Blue Can You Get?") includes a photo booklet in which Lauper — never one to shy from a costume or a bold hair color — poses crouched in a bird cage and handling a viper. "I was trying to capture the spirit of the music," she says of these character sketches. "As a storyteller, you need to be grounded in the story and the groove. Out of the groove and in the right key, the story comes to you and you allow it to speak through you. … There's some wonderful inside stuff, and that's the stuff that makes blues important to remember and go back to."
As for her touring band (including harmonica player Charlie Musselwhite, pianist Hubby Turner and Booker T. & The MGs’ drummer Steve Potts) Lauper, who's a seasoned veteran when it comes to performing, says, "These are Memphis guys. These are the real deal. Every night, when I'm singing with them, I pinch myself."
— Alli Marshall can be reached at email@example.com.
who: Cyndi Lauper (the Ferocious Few opens)
where: The Orange Peel
when: Sunday, Nov. 28 (8 p.m. sold out at press time. theorangepeel.net)