Cyndi Lauper's Songwriting Career Outlasted Her Quirky Public Persona

Cyndi LauperEXPAND
Cyndi Lauper
Courtesy of Webster PR
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Cultural icons never die. As generation after generation outgrows teenybopper fixations and digs deeper into record store bins, the timeless work of beloved artists is renewed era after era and time after time. But immortality comes at a cost, and its price is often caricature. Prince's death and the subsequent outpouring of tribute showed us that the seminal genius of a generation, who spent decades bending genres in the studio, in the end became frozen in amber as the Purple One in a studded latex jacket and ruffled shirt.

In the minds of too many, Cyndi Lauper is stuck in that same amber, wearing a vintage dress, wild orange hair, and costume jewelry while belting out the unofficial bachelorette party anthem "Girls Just Want to Have Fun." To reduce Lauper to this cartoonish depiction, however, is to miss the songwriting prowess of a pioneer. She's most respected by peers and pop descendants for song-craft and insistence on authorial autonomy — something that continues to elude the pop stars of today.

The fact that Lauper is even labeled a pop star is a trapping of her gender. She possesses one of the great rock voices of the era, with a rebellious screech and daring snarl that would make Elvis proud. Before becoming a household name, she sang lead in the rockabilly throwback Blue Angel and co-wrote the vast majority of the band's songs. When she hits the Hard Rock Live stage later this week, she'll share the bill with Rod Stewart, who also took a pop detour in his career but is still known as a rock star.

Stylistic elements — both visual and musical — separate rock stars from pop stars, but ultimately it's all about songwriting. Though Lauper didn't write her career-defining hit, she co-wrote many of the songs on She's So Unusual, including the modern standard "Time After Time." Disciple Carly Rae Jepsen sang a respectable cover of the song when she inducted Lauper into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2015. In a red-carpet interview that evening, Lauper acknowledged her struggle to be treated as a songwriter in the pop world: "I was always the guy trying to fight to get my own music on my album."

In interviews, Lauper frequently masculates herself in anecdotes, particularly those relating to her struggles in the music industry. Lady Gaga, the clearest modern embodiment of Lauper's legacy, was masculated by the public when rumors raged about a male appendage in the early days of her career. Much was written at the time about the public's need to assign traditionally male characteristics to powerful females such as Lady Gaga, but Lauper could have written those think pieces in the early '80s.

And the similarities don't stop there. Lazy Madonna comparisons have followed Lady Gaga since the days of "Just Dance," but she has far more in common with Lauper. Both are singer-songwriters and students of rock 'n' roll who eschewed Madonna's va-va-voom Marilyn Monroe sexuality for quirky, weirdo personas — perhaps to negotiate their way into the boys' club without being viewed as sexual objects first.

Katy Perry's tongue-in-cheek lyrics and costumes and Rihanna's in-your-face sexuality align more closely with Madge's shock sensibilities and rely heavily upon visual aesthetics. The same could be said for Gaga in the early days of her career, but as she's traded in the disco stick for the pink cowgirl hat, the similarities to Lauper have become ever more apparent. As with Lady Gaga, Lauper's chart dominance came to an end sooner than expected, as she ceded her seat to others who were less deserving.

Yet her career as a songwriter never slowed. In 2013, Lauper won a Tony for her Kinky Boots score and became the first solo woman to garner the award for composing the music and lyrics to a musical.

Lauper offers a blueprint for the female rock stars of today, from Gaga to Paramore's Hayley Williams, on how to proceed in the years after the spotlight dims. Fads fade and pop trends burn out even quicker, but songwriters' careers are evergreen.

Rod Stewart With Special Guest Cyndi Lauper
7:30 p.m. Thursday, July 6, at Hard Rock Live, 1 Seminole Way, Hollywood; 954-797-5531; seminolehardrockhollywood.com. Tickets cost $50 to $255 via ticketmaster.com.

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