The field of early-80s pop music was littered with artists packaged up and sold like the kinds of action figures I played with: Springsteen was the scruffy, denim-clad, blue collar guy; Huey Lewis was the amiable dad-next-door; Prince was the beautiful, erotic, quasi-androgynous art freak (sexual awakening sold separately).
Women of pop underwent their own marketing make-overs as the industry played catch-up with the power of music television. At the time, there was no way I had the language or consciousness to understand how women in music were, essentially, aesthetically pimped out in service of an easily recognizable narrative produced by the record company to keep the wheels of the money machine greased. But it was all there: In their tight, leather jeans, and defiantly short hair, Joan and Pat were tough girls, maybe bad girls! Madonna was the party girl, oozing sex in parachute pants and mesh crop tops. Annie Lennox was terrifying with a her orange buzz cut and big take-no-mess-mom energy.
I didn’t get how stupid and damaging and politically underhanded it all was because, hello, I was an 8-year-old still sleeping with my Miss Piggy doll. But I was already subconsciously primed to accept my part in upholding the framework of legible feminine personas. All that make-up and skin and coded fashion were like marks on a soundstage telling me where to place myself. For the pudgy girl in polyester who wanted nothing to do with boys and even less to do with whatever criminal activity Pat and Joan were most definitely involved in, I didn’t know where to stand. And then Cyndi Lauper showed up.
Hair the color of a rainbow snow cone, skirts made out of newspapers, belts worn as bracelets, bracelets worn as earrings, Cyndi’s “look” was the love child of a thrift store and a junk yard and and unmistakably her. Even with all the flourishes she applied to her appearance, nothing about it felt forced or theatricalized for the sake of standing out. Cyndi wore her quirkiness proudly, defiantly, like a badge of honor. She was the girl you could count on to team up with you to prank call the jerk who broke your heart. She’d keep all your odd, embarrassing secrets. She’d kick Joan’s ass if that’s what the situation called for and she’d do it all with pluck and a grin. Cyndi Lauper was a new breed of pop music female: she was a funny girl, and that was an action figure I could relate to.
In the summer of 1983, Cyndi dropped her single, “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” off her album She’s So Unusual. “Girls” was originally written by Robert Hazard, a Pennsylvania songwriter who traveled a patchwork terrain of musical genres—country, folk—before coasting to a stop in the gritty electronic prairie of early-1980s music. Hazard’s “Girls” is an uptempo song that cooks along underneath a raft of distorted, synth-like guitars to create a 1950s rockabilly feel married with modern pop sensibilities. Add Hazard’s nasal vocals reminiscent of Elvis Costello and Gene Vincent and the whole song feels like it could double as the opening theme to an 80s sitcom about a family with a precocious 12-year-old girl named Dallas. (PS: I would totally watch that show).
When Rick Chertoff, Cyndi’s producer, brought her the song, she blanched. Sung from a male perspective, the tune centered male desire and male privilege: enjoying women without commitment or responsibility and, worse, justifying it within an assumed framework of women’s shallow, superficial needs: they just wanna have fun. Gross with a side of bitch, please! Said Cyndi. I’m guessing, but also a hundred percent sure that’s how that conversation went down.
After she had cleared that up for everyone, Cyndi went about finding the heart of the song, sung from a woman’s emotional perspective, to make it her own. She dropped it into a key better suited to her voice. She drew on reggae and blues influences. She added in a few magic hooks straight out of the Motown songbook and buttoned it up with a basic backbeat on an electronic drum machine to keep it in line with her overall pop style. A version of “Girls” emerged that has not only endured, but remained culturally and artistically relevant through the end of the Cold War, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and every Rolling Stones “farewell” tour from then until the present.
In her memoir, Cyndi Lauper: A Memoir, Cyndi talks about how it took a long time for radio to catch on to “Girls.” That might have been true in a national sense, but from where I was listening in my suburban town, “Girls” seemed to follow me from room to room ten times a day, drifting out of the junky table top radio tuned to the local Top 40 radio station. And just in case that earworm hadn’t burrowed all the way into my brain, MTV stepped in to finish the job. The “music television” channel was only three years old at that point, but already making its influence felt in pop culture. MTV was a Terpsichorean fever dream of spectacle and music and pop art and cultivated flamboyance and far too many male musicians working out their mother issues on camera.
Music videos were more than marketing tools. They dislodged music from their static relationship between artist and listener to generate a dynamic, immersive experience for the audience. Videos added a visual layer to the song far beyond what could be conveyed by cover or insert art. It was filmic storytelling condensed and compressed for television culture, inviting the listener, who was now also the viewer, inside a world within, but not necessarily directly representative of, the narrative of the song. For example, Bonnie Tyler’s video trashterpiece, “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” It’s a song about heartbreak, but a video about boys at a spooky Hogwarts-ish prep school who appear to be aliens. Also there are dancing ninjas. Also a group of guys in leather jackets show up who are maybe extras from Grease. Bonnie Tyler is possibly a headmistress or witch or the alien mother. The wind machine budget alone could have been a down payment on a house. All I’m saying is that MTV was not for the easily confused, readily offended, or sober.
However, it was a playground for directors and filmmakers of all stripes to be as off-beat and creepy and funny and artistic as they could dream. With so much airtime to fill—before the network added game shows and broke into reality TV—MTV had this attitude that amounted to: give us your strange and over-thought, your high-brow directors as well as your stuff shot on super-8 by the Pet Shop Boys yearning to be free. It’s not surprising that Cyndi’s playful, cheeky approach to music would be right at home in this digital land of Oz.
“Girls” tracks the lyrical narrative pretty faithfully. The video opens with a shot of Cyndi dancing along a wet street, coming home “in the morning light” to a worried-looking mother (played by Cyndi’s real mom) at the kitchen table. When Cyndi arrives, the two women interact through the lyrics:
Mom (lip syncs): When you gonna live your life right?
Cyndi (rolls her eyes, shrugs, and leans down to give her mom a reassuring squeeze): Oh mama dear, we’re not the fortunate ones! And girls, they wanna have fu-un! Oh girls just wanna have fun!
She dances off down the hallway.
Similarly, the next verse depicts a scene between Cyndi and her on-screen dad, professional wrestler Captain Lou Albano. Albano is a squat, meatball of a guy with thick, curly black hair and a beard.
Dad (lip syncs, adding a goofy, exaggerated finger-wag for emphasis): Whatcha gonna do with your life?
Cyndi (shakes her head, scolding him right back): Oh Daddy dear, you know you’re still number one!
As she sings, she deftly twists Captain Lou’s arm behind him, playfully pinning him up against the wall like a cop collaring a perp. “But girls,” she sings as she releases him, “they wanna have fun!” He lumbers off down the hall like a hairy, Italian porcupine who’s just been run off the farmer’s land. Cyndi looks at the camera and shrugs and laughs and launches into the chorus.
The slight “girl” disarming the beefy tough guy is not only a moment hammed up for visual laughs, it hints at what’s really going on with song: a call to revolution. It’s these brushstrokes of humor—some sly, others silly– applied throughout the video that enable the song’s subversive message to resonate and stick. In someone else’s hands, “Girls” could be saccharine and dismissive—those ditzy broads! But Cyndi not only understood what the song could convey, she was cognizant of how humor might function to open up a larger, more complicated, and, in 1983, definitely unsexy, dialogue about women’s rights. The “fun” in the lyrics has less to do with sexual freedom than it has to do with autonomy and an insistence on the primacy and recognition of a woman’s inherent value, of her rightful place in the world:
Some boys take a beautiful girl and hide her away from the rest of the world.
I want to be the one to walk in the sun!
Oh girls, they wanna have fun!
As the music rounds like a carousel, Cyndi smiles and laughs and rolls her eyes and tosses her head and kicks up her heels as she dances. On the surface she codes herself as harmlessly feminine (we just wanna have fun!) when she’s actually modeling power for all women.
This is made visual near the end of the video. Cyndi and a bunch of women form a human train dancing through the city. They gleefully conga down the steps of a courthouse, up the stairs of a subway station, and through some kind of rooftop lounge. It’s as if they are filling up every nook and cranny of the world, taking up space in a way that women would articulate more fully in the next century.
In one part of this sequence they snake through the middle of a street lined on each side with construction workers and other bystanders witnessing this unusual display. Cyndi and some of the other women reach out to give a few of them lighthearted little swats as they make their way through the crowd. It’s an innocuous scene that also works as a quiet revelation. Cyndi and her crew control the spectacle. By making themselves the active agents of the scene, they deflate the more typical dynamic of the objectifying public male gaze to replace it with a suggested reality that privileges women’s participation in her representation as well as in her lived experiences.
In the end, no one can sit out of Cyndi’s pop feminism parade. A stream of people from all walks of life spill into Cyndi’s small apartment. They swan past her scandalized parents, cramming themselves into her tiny bedroom: a couple of firefighters hump a hose, a guy lifts a stack of pizzas overhead, and even a young Dan Aykroyd, dressed as his SNL character Beldar Conehead (!!!), bounces and grooves to the beat of joy and possibility in a swarm of beautiful, diverse people. And in the midst of it all is Cyndi Lauper herself, jumping up and down in time with the music of an unassuming song that would eventually become an anthem of a new era of social activism. She twists and hops and sings with her arms raised and fists pumping like a prize fighter in the throes of victory.