The Music Of Cyndi Lauper And The Songs That She Listens Too

Cyndi Lauper discusses the songs and albums that helped shape her music career

Spanning over 40 years American singer, songwriter, actress, and activist whose flamboyant style and catchy songs, most notably “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” (1983), helped make her a pop icon. Lauper grew up in Queens, New York.

The Songwriters Hall of Fame member has had a hand in penning most of her work across the last 40 years, but even on a hit like “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” which was written by a man, it’s impossible to imagine anyone else making it such an immortal anthem. The expressiveness of her phrasing on the song—sometimes sounding like Betty Boop with the hiccups—transforms simple lines into hook-y marvels. Elsewhere on her classic 1983 debut, She’s So Unusual, Lauper sings in a proto-riot grrrl bark, sounds like Yoko Ono fronting the ska band Madness, and holds one of my favorite glory notes in all of pop music, right from the heart, on “All Through the Night.”

By Lauper’s own estimation, she was only able to express as much as she did back then because of what she learned from singing along with her favorite vocalists. Billie Holiday was “the mother voice,” she says, worthy of close study. She mimicked Janis Joplin while on the cover-band circuit in the ’70s. Even pogoing and yelping along to Elvis Costello was formative for her.

The singer’s eclecticism and four-octave range made her an island of one in the strange ocean of 1980s pop. She felt like one, too, with a sense of isolation from other women artists and chauvinism plaguing her interactions with industry types. But Lauper, raised in an Italian neighborhood in Ozone Park, Queens, was eternally scrappy.

“Even when I did the ‘Girls Just Want to Have Fun’ video, we didn’t have the money that everybody else was spending,” she says. “We had a lot of money—$30,000—but it wasn’t $50,000, let alone half a million, like ‘Thriller.’ It was the little engine that could. All my friends came. I opened up my closet, everybody wore my sunglasses—then I came down with pink eye, so maybe that wasn’t a good idea.”

Since she first became a star, Lauper has stayed busier than most of her peers. She’s an Oscar short of an EGOT, having won an Emmy in the ’90s for her role on TV’s Mad About You, and a Tony in 2013 for the musical Kinky Boots, for which she wrote the score. She’s been an advocate for LGBTQ+ and feminist causes since the ’80s, long before it was trendy. And she’s never stopped making music, with 11 albums—from standards to dance-pop—to her name. In the midst of writing music for the Working Girl musical, and ahead of a documentary on her career, the 68-year-old shared the music of her life through stories filled with New York City chutzpah and self-deprecating humor.

Joni Mitchell: “Song to a Seagull”

There was a lot of music coming out around 1968: Jimi Hendrix, Art Garfunkel and Paul Simon, the groups from San Francisco. All of a sudden it seemed like America had a sound, and it was coming out of California. It was around the same time I went to the first womens’ demonstration of my life at the Alice in Wonderland statue in Central Park. For me, hearing all of the women speak—as a Beatles fan, the first I heard of it was through Yoko Ono—was incredible. It was a turbulent time with a lot of promise. I was listening to Joni Mitchell a lot and feeling inspired because she sang her songs and painted pictures on her album covers, but for me, she painted pictures with her lyrics. She sang in pictures. Back then, I felt that kind of feeling in my life all the time. When I heard her sing, it gave a voice to it. 

My sister and I would write poetry, then I would put the poem to a song, and it was very Joni Mitchell. I started writing alone at 15, but I started writing songs with Ellen when I was 11. I always thought we would be in a group together, that my sister would continue playing, but she didn’t—everybody has their path. Then I was writing with my friend Susan, and I thought we were gonna go off and tour and be somebody besides who we were at that moment. But that wasn’t gonna work out, either, because she had other aspirations.

So, I ended up in art school in Vermont, and it was very strange how that happened to me. I was the product of when they put money in education. I was in the welfare office, and I went up to the lady and I said, “Look, I want a job. Do you have a job?” And she sent me to this other office with a guy who asked me what I wanted to do in life. I wound up being a DJ at the radio station in college, and that turned me around. I only became a DJ because I went down there to complain that the only woman they played was Joni Mitchell. I love Joni but I said, “But come on! There’s other women.” And the guy said, “Well, if that’s how you feel about it, why don’t you become a DJ and play them yourself?”

Stevie Wonder: Innervisions

I had been away at college, listening to a mix of bluegrass music, blues albums, and Buffy Sainte-Marie. When I came home, I was in a car from the airport and the guy had WBLS on—that’s the station at the end of the dial—and they started playing Stevie Wonder’s “Living for the City.” Honestly, I couldn’t believe it. It was the most amazing, brilliant thing. And talk about writing lyrics like a painting: You could see that sound. I knew that life was changing when I heard “Living for the City”—just the rhythm of it, and the story that he was telling was so real. I knew that music was opening up.

Lauryn Hill: The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill

She was just genius. That record changed everything and everybody. Lauryn Hill changed phrasing. She started a whole new kind of singing, taking church and hip-hop and stirring it with this freaking great feeling and voice.

I mean, even in Sister Act 2! As dopey as you might think it is, I like to watch Sister Act 2 and just hear Lauryn sing. How young she was, what a beautiful voice! And Whoopi, too, of course, and what’s her name, who I used to play pool with, she would always cheat… Kathy Najimy! She’s so silly—she’d go, “Look over there!”

South Pacific (Original Broadway Cast Recording)

Cyndi Lauper: I performed for my family a lot, mostly to my mother’s Broadway albums: My Fair Lady, The King and I, South Pacific. That’s what she was into when I was a kid. I sang “Getting to Know You” [from The King and I] so many times that my grandmother came down and just took the record off my little red player and went upstairs with it. Didn’t say a word.

My mother had a beautiful voice. Later on in life, she had a lot of reflux and it burnt out the whole middle, so she stopped singing, but I was very influenced by listening to her sing, or what she would gravitate towards. She played a lot of Italian music. She played Puccini. Her favorite was the big aria at the end of Madame Butterfly, which, as I got older and realized what the heck was going on in that story, it was like, “Oh, come on, ma!” Nothing ends very well for any of the women in operas.

I was very dramatic, so when I sang, I would act out each part. I liked the way it felt to change my voice, and when I sang, I could imagine the leading man right in front of me. My interior life and my play life were so real to me that I could make up anything. I didn’t have a lot of friends. I had the records and the people I was making up as I was doing the different voices. It was through performing the songs from South Pacific for my family that made me realize I could sing.

Lady Gaga: The Fame

I really liked the energy of this album. It was young. It was dance. It was different. I was making a dance record at the time [2008’s Bring Ya to the Brink], and I just thought what she was doing was so great for the scene. She crossed it right back into the mainstream, which hadn’t been done since the ’90s.

I love old movies and often pull inspiration from them, and I felt that maybe Gaga did, too. But of course, she was modern, and kind of left. She writes great pop songs. You listened to the songs on The Fame and you knew them in one listen.

I also liked her a lot; we did a Mac Viva Glam campaign together. I knew her when she came out, performed with her in the early days. I believe that dance music is more of a visual, and that’s always been important to me, and I saw Gaga do it right.

Patti Smith Group: Easter and Blondie: Parallel Lines

It was Blondie and Patti Smith, because it’s always opposites for me. Patti Smith was singing barefoot, and it was a different kind of punk and poetry. She was a New Yorker, a real original—you always felt, when she sang, she felt the earth below her feet. The energy came right from the core. Debbie Harry was singing pop, and the melodies were so strong; it was innovative, and she didn’t have to stick to one thing. It was so new, and you put it on and you danced and sang around your apartment.

I went to the clubs. In 1978, when Patti Smith came out and danced barefoot at The Bottom Line, and Blondie was doing “One Way or Another”—it wasn’t even CBGB, it was a smaller club—and Debbie was down on her knees singing. I was like, “Holy cow, this is art! We’re right here, and this is our music.” It was an incredible time in New York for music, and there was actually a place for musicians to play. Right now, I think Manhattan is more geared towards Broadway. Now you gotta go all the way to Brooklyn, which—I’m not crazy about that

The Beatles: Meet the Beatles!

My sister Ellen and I didn’t know there would be anything that would be called “our music” until we saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan. It’s when my life changed. We would dress up like the Beatles for our family and perform with mops. By singing with my sister like that, and listening to John’s voice, I learned harmony and the structure of songs.

At 10, the radio changed. It was the divide between my mother’s ears and mine. All of a sudden, there were groups. The Supremes, they were just kids—if you were a little kid, you listened to that and all of a sudden you’re singing with them. I always felt they were singing to me. I was like, “‘Baby Love’? Oh yeah, I get that!

Missy Elliott: This Is Not a Test!

I always think Missy Elliott is underrated. There’s a producer and a rapper, and that’s what makes her different. I loved the videos; I loved when she dressed up like the Michelin Man.

In 2003, I was solely listening to classic standard records trying to pick songs to cover [for At Last]. But then I kept seeing Missy Elliott everywhere, and I had to check this album out. She is so innovative and fun—the look, the sound. She’s amazing. Still a huge fan. I wish that I could have been friends with Missy. I was a million miles away from her [in the industry]—and don’t think I wouldn’t have loved to join forces with her and Lauryn—but there was always a big fat wall.

Eurythmics: “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)”

I’m inspired by everything around me. I just keep trying to go back and somehow put it down, and when I don’t put it down for a while, I wake up, shake the dust off, and go back and try to put it down, one way or another. And I gotta say, when I was watching MTV and I saw the Eurythmics—in ’82 actually, because ’83 is when I was working on She’s So Unusual and I didn’t watch or listen to anything—it stopped me dead in my tracks. Specifically that close-up of Annie Lennox looking in the camera, and the color of her hair. Annie’s voice and her image—it became a whole different ball game for me. And then I got to know her and I just thought, Wow, she’s such a great artist.

I was kind of isolated from everybody in the industry, but I knew Annie because in ’85 she came to my loft in New York. I had a piano downstairs, and I was trying to record her. I was so nervous I dropped the microphone into the piano while she was playing. She just looked at me and I was like, “Oh my God, I’m so sorry!” I was trying so hard, it was kind of funny.

Tracy Chapman: “Fast Car”

She is so unique, so gifted. Her voice was soulful and her storytelling was moving. “Fast Car” haunted me. It really touched my heart and kind of broke my heart, too. I understood how she felt and I could see the neighborhood she was singing about just from her words. I knew that neighborhood and I knew people who wanted to get the hell away, and some just never did. That’s what broke my heart.

Queen Latifah: “U.N.I.T.Y.”

When I first saw Queen Latifah, I knew she was the queen. But when she did “U.N.I.T.Y.,” that’s when I really admired her. I would even quote her and say to myself, “Who you callin’ a [bitch]?” I was writing in ’93 and in my own zone, but I remember Black Reign clearly because of this female empowerment anthem—which obviously always speaks to me. “U.N.I.T.Y.” gave me hope.

In the music industry, I did not have other women in the room at that time. I always, always, always had the wrong person around me. I couldn’t deal with suits. You go into an office, and a guy would look at your tits, you’d leave all creeped out. I went to my manager at the time and said, “You know, this guy was staring at my tits, what am I gonna do? Stay out of the label?” And he turned around and said to me, “Maybe he thought they looked nice.”

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Stevie Flavio
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