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

  1. In the end, Lauper struck middle ground on She’s So Unusual, choosing from the tunes that her producers had gathered, but also sharing songwriting credits on four of the album’s ten cuts, including “Time After Time” and “She Bop,” that infamous celebration of masturbation. One song that she initially refused to cover, however, was Robert Hazard’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” Anecdotes regarding her first confrontation with the song circulated already in the mid-80s. At that time, Lauper recalled that, “[Rick Chertoff] played me ‘Girls…’ and I said, well I ain’t doing that song … because it wasn’t what it ended up to be. … It was basically a very chauvinistic song” (The Meldrum Tapes). Hazard and his band The Heroes had enjoyed local success in Philadelphia in the late 1970s and early 80s (see Loder), and were on the verge of a national breakthrough when they signed with RCA in 1982. While their “Girls” was never released commercially, a partial demo version from 1979 is available through the Robert Hazard and the Heroes web site.10 Hazard’s song articulates the familiar adolescent male fantasy about hormonally charged girls—why else would they be placing an after hours call? The boy’s answer to the query of his father signals that he has discovered his male “birthright” (“father dear you are the fortunate one/girls just want to have fun”), and his bonding with dad on this count contrasts with the obligatory appeasement of mom, who scolds him for staying out all night, later in the second verse (“don’t worry mother dear you’re still number one”). Such macho sentiments find expression in rock’s musical storehouse: Hazard’s arrangement (two guitars, keyboards, bass, and drums; 4/4 meter with a heavy backbeat) is obviously standard and conforms to the signs of normative masculinity in rock. Moreover, his half-spoken, half-sung swaggering vocal delivery makes the lyrical and musical posturing unambiguous.11

  2. Hazard’s “Girls” poses as a man’s song, and bluntly so. Then again, such banal misogyny has a scripted feel about it, lending a (probably) unintended self-parodic quality to the Heroes’ earnest performance. From this perspective, it is not difficult to imagine a woman critiquing the song through an ironic appropriation of it, precisely what Lauper did when she eventually compromised and recorded her version of “Girls.” Paraphrasing the singer, she re-imagined it in order to make another person’s song sound like her song. It is significant that she credits producer Rick Chertoff for helping her to glimpse this possibility; in the 2002 interview with Dianne Sawyer, Lauper recounted that “[‘Girls Just Want to Have Fun’] was a good pop song … I edited it because my producer said ‘Think about what it could mean’” (Good Morning America). That she freely acknowledges being encouraged to change the song by her male producer exposes the superficiality of such binarisms as male executive/female artist, misogyny/feminism, or songwriter/singer, and thus the necessity of overturning them.

  3. Lewis points to Lauper’s revision of Hazard’s lyrics as “a cornerstone for the song’s video interpretation,” crediting the singer with “an extraordinary political intervention” (“Being Discovered” 132–33). One can grasp the full extent of this act of agency by considering the lyrical changes in tandem with the overhauling of Hazard’s musical arrangement, also spearheaded by Lauper. Indeed, a closer look (and listen) to her relatively familiar rendering of “Girls” makes her approbation of this “good pop song” seem like qualified praise. From the start, the singer reverses the order of events vis-à-vis the original, first being confronted by mom as she returns home at dawn, then interacting with dad regarding a late night telephone call in the second verse. At the same time, she exchanges Hazard’s response to each of the parental figures, altering them accordingly: forging sympathy with the mother (“we’re not the fortunate ones”), and playing up her role of daddy’s little girl (“you know you’re still number one”) in a condescending tone, thereby according him a status that is, however, not assumed. By placing the mother-daughter exchange in the first verse, Lauper frames the song from its outset in terms of an awareness of male power and control, and the desire to make her own gender more visible.12

  4. Recalling the process of recording “Girls,” the singer states that she had suggested to musician Eric Bazilian (of The Hooters) to play the bass riff from the Four Tops’ “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)” as the foundation of the new arrangement.13 Next, she proposed to keyboardist and background vocalist Rob Hyman (also of The Hooters) to play “the chord progression as if it’s a reggae song.” From here, Lauper’s cover of “Girls” came together: “And I said, ‘Ok, let’s try it.’ And we did, and it worked” (Lifetime, 1998). More to the point, the pastiche of Motown soul and reggae-flavored accompaniment in Lauper’s version inflects the song with the generic attributes of 80s dance pop, arguably coded as feminine in relation to Hazard’s masculine-oriented rock original.14 Thus, the genre/gender bending evident in Lauper’s cover reflects a shift in the music’s vantage point that parallels her lyrical changes.

  5. Furthermore, the new arrangement is rounded off with another instance of genre appropriation: the background vocals, beginning in the first chorus and bridge and continuing in the repeated proclamations of the final chorus, are plainly evocative of girl groups. ("Girls Just Want to Have Fun") Patricia Juliana Smith characterizes “girl group” as
    a particular genre of early 1960s pop/rock that was usually … performed by ensembles composed of adolescent female vocalists who neither played instruments nor, in most cases, composed the material they performed. Accordingly, their function was interpretive and performative rather than creative (118 n. 2).
    The division of labor at New York’s legendary Brill Building (where many girl group songs were born) should ring familiar from my account of the mandate in Lauper’s early career to cover other people’s songs. Such self-reflexivity calls into question the mutual exclusivity of categories like “interpretive,” “performative,” and “creative,” not the least of reasons being that the association of girl groups with youth or adolescence is affected in the background vocals to Lauper’s “Girls”: that is, these singers are playacting at being teenagers, although one of them, Ellie Greenwich, is, of course, an authentic singer (and songwriter!) from the girl group era. The remaining “girls” are Krystal Davis, Maeretha Stewart, Dianne Wilson and Lauper herself, who was thirty years old at the time the recording was made. It is telling that girl group music reached the height of its popularity when Lauper (born in 1953) was growing up, most likely providing the soundtrack to her own bourgeoning gender consciousness. But given that typical girl group songs were “boy-fixated confections” (Smith 93), their recall in Lauper’s version also bespeaks an intense feminist consciousness. It is a tongue-in-cheek response to Hazard’s original—a boy’s account of boys’ fixation on girls, who now mockingly sing it back. Even more subversive are the social implications of Lauper’s evocation of the girl group experience. Smith argues that in girl group songs,
    the background singers … abet and advise their enamored and afflicted sister … [serving] semiotically to convey an inarticurable if not unspeakable empathy. By extension, the backing vocalists represent the commercial audience of girl group music: primarily female adolescents who interact and identify with other girls by exchanging male-centered fantasies (93–94).
    Herein lies the heart of Smith’s revisionist reading of the girl group, not as collective self-subjugation, but as the empowering soundtrack to “the homosociality of a female adolescent subculture existing within a larger social ethos of compulsory heterosexuality” (93). Lauper and company are not, however, singing about a particular boy who is “absent, in love with someone else, dead, merely fantastized, or otherwise disembodied.” Rather, they collectively announce their independence from such boys, an appealing sentiment to many women and girls who came of age during and in the wake of second wave feminism.

  6. The radicality of Lauper’s musical statement lies in the way in which she turned the tables on the hegemony of the author/songwriter from a creative perspective. As witnessed by the genesis of her recording of “Girls,” the singer treats Hazard’s song as a mere template—a melody, some riffs, and a series of chord progressions that require filling in, like lines in a coloring book that form the basis of an incomplete picture. The song that “has been handed down from generation to generation” reflects a creative process (songwriting, rewriting, arranging, singing, recording, listening) rather than a single originary creative act (Good Morning America). Thus, it really does not matter who the author is, because it is the relativization of authorship in Lauper’s version that is most subversive. Absconding from the pitfalls of covering other peoples’ songs, the singer turned the terms of her artistic and gender suppression into a means of rebellion.

  7. Figure 4. Ad for the Philadelphia nightclub, Sisters.
    Still, attributing creative agency to Lauper alone is problematic. For example, she is credited with all arrangements on She’s So Unusual, but shares credit with producer Chertoff, associate producer/engineer William Wittman, and musicians Hyman and Bazilian. Moreover, the meanings that I have attached to lyrical and musical signs in the singer’s remake of “Girls” are not automatic; their resonance is intensified by familiarity with Hazard’s original (which was not widespread), as well as fluency with the references and their contexts that Lauper’s cover evokes, such as girl group. Thus, the subversive potential of “Girls” is subjective and discursive, dependent on a host of factors that Jayson Toynbee characterizes as “social authorship”—the interdependency of musicians, the music industry, audiences, technology and genre (Toynbee). Then again, it is the mechanisms of social authorship that make possible even more radical readings than the singer might have intended. That homosocial girl culture has claimed Lauper’s anthem for its own is witnessed by a recent ad for “Sisters,” a lesbian nightclub in Philadelphia.

  8. Having considered the musical arrangement of “Girls,” I return now to where my discussion of Lauper’s solo career began: her singing voice. This voice arguably stands out above all else on the recording, and constitutes a critical site of the singer’s agency. From the opening lines, Lauper punches out the melody in full head voice. The agility of her instrument comes to the fore as she utilizes her range to whip about the tune, its generally high tessitura sounding markedly high by pop music standards. At moments, Lauper’s ringing tone bears traces of Ronnie Spector on “Be My Baby,” making her the lead singer to the affected girl group. Occasionally sprinkled with wordless hiccups, the singer’s urgent delivery is not without a sense of play, of fun. Of course, the dominance of the singing voice on this track could be seen as utterly typical of pop songs; as Sheila Whiteley has pointed out, the masculinism of rock, stereotypically signified by instrumental (i.e. guitar) power, has been defined against music that (stereotypically) foregrounds the voice (Sexing the Groove xvii). Thus, the forcefulness and suppleness of Lauper’s singing has not succeeded in drowning out detractors. An example from one popular music history book is representative: making a connection between the lyrics and video imagery of “Girls” (but not addressing it musically), the author disparagingly relegates this singer’s music—all of her music—to the category of “squeaky-voiced girl pop” (Johnston 27).

  9. But what strikes me as more interesting is the sense that there is a disconnect between the lyrics and music on the one hand, and the singer’s vocal interpretation on the other. In early 1984, when the song relentlessly lingered on the charts, Greil Marcus contemplated why,
    The saturation airplay given “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” is beginning to get on people’s nerves. Maybe it’s the froufrou sexism of the lyrics (written by a man); maybe it’s the squeaks and blips in the mix and the vocal; maybe its that there’s so much pathos and desire secreted in this piece of squeaky blippy froufrou sexism it calls for a redefinition of the word “fun,” if not “girls,” if not “just” (254).
    Marcus uses signifiers that are unambiguously suggestive of “girl pop,” sharing terminology with the previously cited writer, but going one step further with the predictable allignment of excess and female eroticism (“secreted”). Still, while not acknowledging the extent to which the lyrics or arrangement had been changed (perhaps he did not know), Marcus was perhaps the first commentator to seize on Lauper’s expressive vocal interpretation of what otherwise seemed to be a negligible pop confection. In his reading, the words and music are not simply upstaged by an able-voiced singer—commonly understood as “elevating the material.” Rather, Lauper ups the ante on the song’s superficial meaning, exposing the deeper implications of singing this song.

  10. In a study of rave dance music, Jeremy Gilbert and Ewan Pearson asserted that a disjuncture between lyrics, music and vocal performance can result in an “eschewal of verbal meaning, [which is] problematic for the dominant discourse” (see chapter four). Bringing this to bear on Marcus’s reading of “Girls,” it might be said that Lauper turned pop song expectations on their heads. Like a good girl, she delivers the song that she was given, and even conforms to cultural notions of what girls sound like. At the same time, her tinkering with the song as well as her way with it—too high, too serious, too passionate—could be heard as doing her gender wrong. Once again, Lauper can be credited with appropriating the terms of her suppression by exploiting stereotypes and thereby transgressing how girls “should” sing.

1 2 3 4 Works Cited



10. RCA released three albums by the group: Robert Hazard (1982), a revamped version of an earlier, self-released EP that includes “Escalator of Life” (the Heroes’ biggest hit, peaking at no. 53 on the Billboard Hot 100); Wing of Fire (1984); and Darling (1986).

11. Hazard’s performance on “Girls” invites comparisons to other new wave male singers of the moment, such as Ric Ocasek of The Cars, but also earlier singers like Bob Dylan or the legendary swaggering of Mick Jagger.

12. Here it should be noted that when covering other male-authored tunes for She’s So Unusual, Lauper did not alter the original lyrics; rather, she shifted the narrative perspective by simply singing them as they stood, but as a female subject, claiming the prerogative to dump her man for a richer one in Tom Grey’s (of The Brains) “Money Changes Everything” (rather than telling the story as a victim), and turning the tables on the sexual ambiguity in Prince’s “When You Were Mine.” For a discussion of Lauper’s cover of “Money Changes Everything,” see Marcus.

13. Bazilian, credited with guitar, bass, hooter, saxophone, and background vocals on She’s So Unusual, is a member of The Hooters, a Philadelphia-based band that had a brief moment in the national spotlight in the mid-80s.

14. While peaking at number two on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart, Lauper’s “Girls” reached the number one position on the Hot Dance Music/Club Play chart. Incidentally, the Japanese release of Lauper’s version was re-titled “Hai Sukuru wa Dansuteria” (“High School is Danceteria”).













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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