What Fun? Whose Fun? Cindy Lauper and the Re(Covering of a Pop Song)

Wayne Heisler, Jr.1
Princeton University

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  1. Poised at the beginning of a commercial and critical resurgence, 1980s pop icon Cyndi Lauper gave a free mini-concert in Manhattan’s Bryant
    Figure 1. Lauper on Good Morning America
    Park in June 2002, broadcast under the auspices of Good Morning America’s “Summer Concert Series.” For an audience of adoring fans—most of whom had been adolescents and young adults in the 80s, including a sizable gay following—as well as tourists clamoring for a chance to be seen live from New York on national television, the singer performed her classic ballad “Time After Time” and one song from her then just-released Shine EP (“It’s Hard To Be Me,” a sardonically self-reflexive take on celebrity inspired by Anna Nicole Smith). Somewhat predictably, her set was headed off with “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.”

  2. In a pre-performance interview, ABC anchor Dianne Sawyer lingered on Lauper’s signature hit, inquiring, “Do you ever feel sometimes a song owns you? Do you ever feel you’re hostage to it?” Referencing the intended feminist message behind her 1983 recording of “Girls,” the singer responded, “No, … this song in particular … has been handed down from generation to generation, and I feel very proud to have been able to serve like that” (Good Morning America). Lauper is certainly not alone in asserting her agency, traces of which had surfaced in popular culture already at the time that “Girls” hit the Top Ten in early 1984. In the spirit of 1960s girl groups, as well as subsequent musicians like Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez, Lauper was among the first women of the MTV generation to draw a distinct female following, one that paralleled the male fan base traditionally devoted to (male) rock stars (Lewis, Gender Politics and MTV 10). The singer’s influence on female fans was witnessed early on by a host of young “Lauper-a-likes,” who emulated her downtown thrift store chic and anticipated Madonna wannabees.2 Bolstered by its playful music video, “Girls” quickly achieved the status of an anthem. Its singer was named one of Ms. Magazine’s “Women of the Year” (Hornaday), a distinction that continues to color her legacy (for example, see Hirshey 130–31; and Marcic 93, 134 and 167).

  3. Lauper’s impact as a feminist has also found voice in academic circles, where she is cited as a “progenitor” of a range of more recent stars who are of interest to gender studies, including Courtney Love, Alanis Morrisette, Gwen Stefani, and the riot grrrls (Wald 192). Lisa A. Lewis’s seminal work on gender and music television is perhaps most notable in this regard. Lewis argues that, “Female address began to coalesce on MTV … around the year 1983, with the release of Lauper’s video [‘Girls Just Want to Have Fun’]” (“Being Discovered” 136)—a trend that is also reflected in clips by Pat Benatar, the Go-Go’s, Eurythmics (featuring Annie Lennox), Tina Turner, Madonna, Chaka Khan, and the Pointer Sisters (see also Whiteley, Women and Popular Music). Based on the singer’s lyrical revisions to “Girls,” which was written by Philadelphia rocker Robert Hazard, and particularly her involvement with nearly all aspects of production on the music video in which she starred, Lewis concludes that, “Lauper traded in ‘ownership’ of the song for the right to be its author. … [Hazard] maintains ownership, but is robbed of authorship” (“Being Discovered” 132–33).3 This focus on Lauper as a video artist is justified by several circumstances, not the least of which being that “Girls” was literally seen as it was being heard for the first time (that is, rotation on MTV preceded radio play). Indeed, the singer’s early albums (1983’s She’s So Unusual and its 1986 follow-up True Colors) were released with an eye towards the video medium, and the role that representations of her persona on music television played towards making her an icon cannot be overstated. Twenty years later, images from the “Girls” video continue to surface in print and on television, such as the segments where the singer (along with her girlfriends) dances in the New York streets sporting her trademark look: a red vintage party dress and asymmetrically cut orange hair.4

    Figure 2. From “Girls Just Want To Have Fun” video

  4. Nevertheless, Lewis’s emphasis on authorship as a category by which to champion Lauper is problematic given the ways in which musical practices are coded along gender lines. This is familiar terrain: composers and songwriters (the “authors” of music, at least in one sense) have traditionally resided on the hierarchically privileged masculine side of the gender divide, as their productive activities fit within the framework of phallogocentrism that “defines women and femininity as the ‘others’ of western metaphysics’ most privileged terms” (see Gilbert and Pearson 85). Obviously, this territory is fluid, as many women have treaded into it. Equally fluid, if not treated equally, is the (reproductive) realm of interpretation and performance, arguably coded as feminine. A fantastic incident in Lauper’s early career serves to illustrate this point. In the video for “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” brutish professional wrestler Captain Lou Albano
    Figure 3. Lou Albano and Cyndi Lauper duking it out

    played the father—a role that evidently went to his head.5 Some months later, in an outburst that exposed the connections between theater and sport, Albano falsely claimed authorship of “Girls” and her then-current hit single “She Bop,” and therewith credit for Lauper’s success (see Albano and Ricciuti 55–65). Such posturing might elicit laughter, given the fiction of professional wrestling. Yet the clichés regarding gender roles and music are so ingrained that Albano’s claim of writing pop songs to “make” a female singer—not out of place alongside the exaggerated masculine behaviors that are unleashed in the ring—arguably carried weight in popular and critical consciousness.

  5. While acknowledging the fact that Lauper (not Albano) was the focus of her videos, one might rightly question the value of reclaiming traditional (and gendered) notions of authorship for her. Why take on the Captain Lous at their own game? In this essay, I expand on Lewis’s arguments regarding “female address,” first by re-examining the backdrop to Lauper’s 1983 recording of “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” Since she was mainly concerned with the visual component of MTV, Lewis does not address musical aspects of the song in any detail. But central to the singer’s reception of “Girls” are the musical arrangement and her vocal interpretation, both of which can be regarded as an “oppositional reading” of Hazard’s misogynistic original. Exploring the intertexuality between different versions of the same song, I draw on the work of Lori Burns and Mélisse Lafrance who, in their book Disruptive Divas: Feminism, Identity and Popular Music, distinguish between two related but discrete terms: feminist consciousness as an awareness of male power and control, and gender consciousness as the exploration of individual gendered identities and making them more visible (228-29 n. 4).6 Burns and Lafrance analyze songs written, performed, and recorded by women (namely, Tori Amos, k.d. lang, Courtney Love, and Me’Shell NdegéoCello) against the “dominant discursive regimes of meaning in popular music [that] marginalize, disarm, and/or efface their subversive potential.” As regards “Girls,” one circumstance that could provide ammunition for disarmament is the fact that Lauper did not originally write the song. Her act of opposition, then, is located in various multi-authored and interpretive performances: her calculated lyrical revisions, set down to a new arrangement by musicians and singers in a recording studio (a process in which Lauper played a decisive role), not to mention subsequent renditions in concert and on record.

  6. These include Lauper’s minor hit from 1994, “Hey Now (Girls Just Want to Have Fun),” to which I devote the latter part of this essay. “Hey Now” offers a commentary on earlier versions of “Girls” (Hazard’s, as well as Lauper’s own) by revisiting issues of feminism and gender, but also sexuality. Significantly, the singer’s re-cover addresses another aspect of the song that has been perceived as weakening her feminist agency: its preoccupation with “girls” instead of “women.” This is clearly what journalist Joyce Millman had in mind when she dismissively declared that, “Ms. magazine did not have the guts to make [Madonna] its token rocker in its 1985 Women of the Year roundup, favoring instead the nearly presexual and less explicitly feminist Cyndi Lauper” (232).7 Curiously, the title of Lauper’s signature song has become something of a catch phrase in the feminist backlash against pop music, as opposed to rock: Elizabeth Sneed, for instance, announced in 1992 that “Feminist Riot Grrrls Don’t Just Want to Have Fun” (50). The pitting of riot grrrl musicians against Lauper is overstated, but it is also understandable given the recent appropriation of the singer’s anthem in post-feminist contexts.8 When singer-songwriter Jewel—“an earnest woman with a message and a guitar”—re-emerged with a musical and marketing makeover for her 2003 release 0304, the headline in Billboard magazine read, “Jewel Just Having Fun These Days. After Three Serious Sets, Singer Embraces Pop, Plays Up Sexuality.” The article goes on to report that, “The 14-song … set finds the heady singer/songwriter relinquishing her folk/pop roots to explore electronic beats and uptempo melodies, taking her out of coffeehouses and onto the dance floor” (Taylor). With that, a new lineage is implied, linking Lauper to other girls (albeit not presexual) of the past several years—Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Shakira—all of whom could be characterized as “less explicitly feminist.”

  7. In a recent article, Gayle Wald complicates the notion that “girliness” can only function as symbolically redundant, or that it necessarily signals a forfeiture of agency. Wald argues that,
    An emphasis on girliness has enabled … women performers to preempt the sexually objectifying gaze of corporate rock culture, which tends to market women’s sexual desirability at the expense of promoting their music or their legitimacy as artists. … [The] strategic reversion to girlhood not only rests on an ability to imagine girlhood outside of patriarchal representation, it also presumes cultural entitlement to “womanly” subjectivity (199 and 201).
    Recognition of the fact that female performers often manipulate visual imagery in order to place emphasis on their music provides a bridge between earlier academic writings on Lauper’s videos and further consideration of her as a singer and musical artist. Such a renewed perspective is timely, given that Lauper’s artistry on recent projects—including 2003’s At Last, a collection of covers ranging from standards to 50s and 60s pop and rock—have been widely received as something of a revelation.

  8. As Susan McClary instructs in relation to Madonna, the agency of any popular musician is never “hers alone: even if she wrote everything she performs all by herself, it would still be important to remember that her music and personae are produced within a variety of social discursive practices” (150). There is, however, a tendency when writing about popular music to freeze sound in a specific discursive moment, as both McClary and Lewis do. By exploring “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” as a dynamic song with a history, I aim to recapture the discursiveness of musical meaning across time, and thereby to gain a wider perspective on the life of a song, its singer, and her fans. Ultimately, “Girls” emerges as an essential pop text for demonstrating the ways in which interpretation and performance constitute a site of creative agency, power, and authority, if not authorship in a traditional sense.


  9. In an interview for VH1’s Behind the Music, former CBS Records executive Lennie Petze described his initial impression of Cyndi Lauper from a live show in the early 1980s: “From the first note I knew that I had to sign her. We had a vision of her being a star by her name and her persona. Didn’t need a band, it could be anybody playing behind her” (VH1). Petze’s bowled-over reaction seems to have stemmed primarily from the singer’s vocal capabilities: a range that exceeds three octaves, command over varied stylistic terrain, and a rich interpretive pallet. In 1983, shortly after the performance in question, Lauper signed with Portrait Records, a subsidiary of CBS. With her voice providing a ticket to success, the singer was quickly caught up in the star system that is part of the machinery of any major record company. The strategy for Lauper’s fledgling career was consistent with Petze’s account. As sessions began for the singer’s debut album She’s So Unusual, its producers (Petze, along with Rick Chertoff) set out to recruit said “anybody” from a pool of accomplished studio musicians. At the same time, they also compiled tunes by reputable songwriters to fill the record’s requisite ten-or-so tracks.

  10. Prior to going solo, Lauper had sung with a handful of New York–area cover bands. Her first big break came, however, with Blue Angel, a rockabilly outfit that she fronted, and who released a self-titled album on Polydor Records in 1980. In addition to providing lead and background vocals, Lauper co-wrote the majority of Blue Angel’s material.9 Thus, the subsequent solo deal at CBS as she recalled it was bittersweet: “I wanted to write [but] I made the compromises and took other people’s songs. But then the task at hand was to make other peoples’ songs sound like mine” (VH1). Of course, Lauper was far from the first musician to experience the tension between art and commerce in the music industry. Such truisms do not need to be rehearsed in detail here, except to point out that the surfacing of pop music’s gendered institutional history was not “so unusual” as far as this singer was concerned: male executives and producers brought a portfolio of songs written by men (Prince, Jules Shear, Tom Grey) to a female ingénue, one divested of her previous status as a songwriter.



1 2 3 4 Works Cited




1. An earlier version of this article was read at the Twenty-Ninth Annual Conference of the Society for American Music, Tempe, Arizona, February 26-March 2,2003. I wish to thank Susan Cook, Joanna Demers, Scott Deveaux, Tony Devincenzo, Britta Gilmore, Nicole Koepke, Simon Morrison, Kristina Muxfeldt, Scott Paulin and Laura Tunbridge, as well as two anonymous readers, for suggestions and encouragement at various stages.

2. On style imitation as a distinct “girl culture” practice, see Lewis, “Being Discovered” 140–45.

3. Lewis was reacting, in part, to E. Ann Kaplan’s 1987 monograph Rocking Around the Clock: Music Television, Postmodernism, and Consumer Culture. As regards Lauper, Kaplan pinpointed the character of the mother (played by the singer’s real-life mom) in the videos for “Girls” and especially its follow-up “Time After Time” as problematic: “The mother is presented in realist codes that cannot conceal her powerlessness. She comes across as an oppressed figure, pathetic, weak even. Peripheral to the narrative as usual, she cannot help her daughter, merely commiserating rather than taking control or bringing about change. … [Such] (broadly) realist strategies prevent any foregrounding of problems of female representation” (128 and 132–33). Kaplan’s denial of the possibility of any real feminist agency resulting from Lauper’s videos is consistent with her view of MTV as a site of post-modern aura production. While this line of argument fits squarely in the discourse of Marxist-inspired critiques of the culture industry, her diagnosis of the “problems of female representation” is one-sided. Because Kaplan’s study was more concerned with the cultural work done by the MTV network rather than individual clips, she viewed all videos as serving master narratives (namely, capitalism and patriarchy). But as Lewis demonstrates, “female address” videos like “Girls” reveal themselves to be subversive in the context of the majority of narrative music videos from the early 1980s, which were commonly love stories marked by an “overtly patriarchal–narrative structure (active boys, passive girls)” (Schwichtenberg 123). To this I would add that Kaplan’s focus on visuals with very little attention to music comes at the expense of ignoring the liberating circumstances surrounding Lauper’s cover of the song.

4. Although music videos might seem to be more transient than recordings because their releases are limited, I would maintain that images from many videos persist in pop culture memory and are recalled by later hearings of a song. Clearly, the shelf life of videos has been extended by nostalgia-oriented programming on MTV’s sister station VH1, like Behind the Music, and the seemingly never-ending barrage of countdown lists: “The 100 Greatest Dance Songs,” “The 100 Greatest Videos,” “50 Greatest Women of the Video Era,” as well as the coordinated release of greatest hits CD’s with home video/DVD collections, and the projecting of excerpts from music videos on large screens at arena concerts.

5. Lauper’s own biological father abandoned the family when she was a child.

6. For her video analyses, Lewis pointed to “two interrelated textual sign systems”: “access signs” (referencing “the differences girls experience as a result of gendered social inequalities” and that argue “in the language of role-reversal and utopianism for equal rights and recognition”); and “discovery signs” (which “reference and celebrate distinctly female modes of cultural expression and experience”) (“Being Discovered” 136–43). “Access signs” and “discovery signs” can be thought of as growing out of feminist and gender consciousness, respectively, as defined by Burns and LaFrance.

7. Here it should be noted that critical readings of Madonna’s music and image abound, both affirmative—arguing for her empowerment of women and men across boundaries of sexuality and race (for example, see Fiske, McClary, Rubey, Schwichtenberg and Faith)—but also negative, challenging notions of the subversive effect of her sexual and racial appropriations (see Kaplan, hooks, and Peraino).

8. Although not mentioning Lauper specifically, Kearney (208 and 213) argued for the influence of women in both punk and mainstream pop on musicians associated with the riot grrrl movement. One anecdote serves as a case in point. During a tour stop at Philadelphia’s Trocadero Theater (August 31,2002), the band Le Tigre (whose members include Kathleen Hanna, formerly of the oft-regarded Ur-riot grrrl band Bikini Kill) presented a slide show to accompany the song “Hot Topic” from their self-titled debut album. The verses feature a catalogue of names—mainly musicians and writers, mostly women and/or queer—who provide the band (and their audiences) with artistic sustenance. In live performance, the lyrics were supplemented by images projected on a screen, including a still of Lauper taken from the jacket of her 1986 single “True Colors.” See also the joint interview with Lauper and Hanna (Vivinetto).

9. The twelve tracks from Blue Angel, as well as live versions and several demos for the band’s uncompleted second album, can be heard on the “Fearless Cyndi Lauper” website.












Volume 6 Issue 1 (Table of Contents)


Greenberg and Mather: Lanois Interview

Review Essay

Levitz: Angora Matta


Neal: Race Music

Talbot: Scarlatti

Woodworth: Musicology

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