In the lazy manner of collective memory, that’s been the default reaction about the ’80s, arguably since… the ’80s. Of course that’s myopic nonsense, but now as some of the veterans of the “MTV Decade” are hitting the (gasp) 30-year mark, it’s a good time to take a deeper look back. A perfect case subject is Cyndi Lauper, whose debut album, She’s So Unusual, has hit the 30-year marker. (It actually hit that milestone on October 14 of last year.) But no need to dig out the tape deck as Legacy Recordings has recently released the two-disc She’s So Unusual: A 30th Anniversary Celebration.
The one big thing that seems to get overlooked when looking back at the ’80s is that it was a truly and deeply weird time. It was a time when the champions of de-evolution, Devo, had a Honda scooter television commercial, and the Talking Heads were a Top 40 band. The influence of MTV can’t be overstated, but it was truly a time when the rules were changing and everything was being thrown up against the wall to see what stuck. While people bemoaned the idea that the visuals were as important as the music (heaven forbid), it was also a chance to spark interest in something that might not pop as strongly purely on radio. In a case of right place, right time came Lauper and She’s So Unusual. If she didn’t exist then, someone would have had to create her. The thick Nooo Yawk accent, crossed with Bettie Boop via Gracie Allen wrapped up in a punkish, New Wave, thrift-store package, Lauper seemed to arrive fully formed from the head of Athena. Having already spent an unsuccessful stint in a band called Blue Angel, Lauper was 30 when her debut dropped, so she didn’t have to fool around with what or who she wanted to be—she already knew—and the result is a record just as sure of itself.
Collective amnesia has placed Lauper as a “one, maybe two-hit wonder.” The truth is that She’s So Unusual spawned five singles with four landing in the top five on the singles chart, making her the first female in history to achieve that honor. Then there was the small manner that the record has sold 6 million copies in the US alone and more than 16 million total worldwide. There’s a reason why you can still go to any ’80s night in the country and hear “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.” Its not as acknowledged, but the video is as iconic as any of the recognized canon of Madonna, Prince, or Michael Jackson. Perhaps it’s that Lauper was more the wacky next-door neighbor than otherworldly savant, inscrutable alien. or sexbomb, but she was just as important as the rest of the MTV icons.
Musically, it’s almost hard to listen to the singles with fresh ears because they’ve been omnipresent for such a long amount of time. But as a complete body of work, She’s So Unusual is probably weirder than remembered. There are, of course, the unmistakable production and technology touches of the time that anchor the record in the decade with extreme prejudice. If you ever wanted a textbook example of gated ’80s drums, this record is a master class, and there seems to be no place that a synthesizer can’t fit. But outside of those “futuristic” touches that now seem quaint, there are a lot of things that now sound curiously forward-thinking. Lauper took new wave and smashed it together with a pop sensibility, and that collision led to some rather unusual arrangements and instrumentation. The background instruments in “She Bop” alone need a whiteboard and flow chart just to make sense of it. With a minor bit of tweaking, it could be something that came out during the classic era of DFA. There’s also an interesting undercurrent of ska rhythms that float through the record. It could be the influence of the Police or the rise of reggae among the in-the-know session players, but it seems like its been hiding in plain sight these 30 years.
Vocally, Lauper is something else. Perhaps if someone like her would try to compete in the pop arena today she would be steamrolled into submission. But here, her quirkiness predates Bjork before the world could even imagine that a Bjork would be a thing it would know about. (Also, I’d pay good money to hear Bjork cover She’s So Unusual in its entirety.) Full of mannerisms and unique phrasing on “Yeah Yeah,” Lauper’s a one-woman tour de force. However, such idiosyncrasies aren’t just for the hell of it. She twists her delivery in service of the song, just the way she allows her vocals to float through the aether of “Time After Time,” sometimes not even finishing each thought. She doesn’t just sing the song, but interprets the words.
Arguably the greatest triumph of the album is how cannily Lauper shaped her universe. Over half of the record and three of the singles are covers. Robert Hazard originally did “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” in 1979; “All Through The Night” was originally recorded by one of Lauper’s co-writers, Jules Shear; and “Money Changes Everything” was a 1980 single by Atlanta-based rockers The Brains. Other covers include “Yeah Yeah” by Swedish singer/songwriter Mikael Rickfors, “When You Were Mine” by Prince, and the track from which the album generated its name, “He’s So Unusual,” a song from the late 1920s performed by Helen Kane, who was the inspiration for the Betty Boop character. The unsung genius was that Lauper was able to interpret all the songs in a manner that not only seemed to form a complete snapshot of her as a musician, but all seemed to come from the same pen. The body of songs forms a complete album and not a collection of singles. It’s something that even people who write their entire albums have trouble accomplishing.
This new edition of She’s So Unusual comes with bonus features both good and bad. It’s best to avoid the three remixes tacked to the end of the first disc. Clearly it was an attempt to hook the “kids” with some EDM, but the overall results are deeply shrug-worthy. Instead, move to the second disc that has a 1984 Arthur Baker remix of “She Bop,” along with demos, rehearsal takes, a live track, and a B-side. Revisiting this record may not change your mind about the decade from which it came, but it will reveal one of the most perfectly executed debut albums.