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

  1. For his explanation of the unnerving effect of “Girls,” Marcus deferred to another rock singer and musician, Elvis Costello, who once reportedly said, “My ultimate vocation … is to be an irritant. Someone who disrupts the daily drag of life just enough to leave the victim thinking that there’s maybe more to it all than the mere humdrum quality of existence” (254). Such provocation is a central tenet of punk (and post-punk) rock, a genre that Marcus has championed due to a conviction of its agency towards social and political change. But while obliquely registering a position on Lauper’s intentions, Marcus had still not fully accounted for the provocative sound that she produced. I quote his subsequent discussion at length because it reveals the extent to which writers (including him) have attempted to identify a precedent for this singer’s unique voice. Immediately following Costello’s statement on the virtues of being “an irritant,” Marcus questions,
    Is [this] why so many people are happy to dismiss Lauper as Betty Boop, Olive Oyl, Ethel Merman, or Pia Zadora? Criticism in rock ‘n’ roll is generally compartmentalized as criticism anywhere else; thus Lauper is only talked about in terms of other women. No, she isn’t much like Joni Mitchell/Carly Simon/Pat Benatar. She shares more than a bit with London punk Lora Logic, but the singer she brings to mind most is Buddy Holly. … [Holly’s] silly/violent vocal shifts from midrange to high to low and back again were never set up, were never called for by the song, never seemed to make musical or emotional sense; in 1957 they made people laugh, and since then they’ve brought forth every response from delight to fear. In pop music high and low voices signify different emotional languages, and it’s the clear transition from one to the other that signifies the signifiers, that allows them to communicate in an orderly way. Holly leaped over the process and confused the categories; so does Lauper. Her music doesn’t wake people up because her voice is scratchy and piercing, though sometimes it is. She wakes people up because, in the context of arrangements that are as reassuring in their familiarity as Buddy Holly’s glasses were, she so relentlessly demolishes the expectations that would seem to follow from whatever it is she’s just done. … The reassuring composite of [an] arrangement works as the anchor necessary to translate Lauper’s free speech, her instinctive version of the Futurist parole in libertà (254–55 and 257).

    In placing Lauper in line with avant-garde precepts, the closing reference to Futurism is indicative of Marcus’s dedication to rescuing this singer—at the time, written off by some as cartoonish and schticky, or, at best, subjected to an essentialist category like “woman in rock.” Lauper’s music is pop with a punk heart, a heart that beats from her voice. And although Buddy Holly is not commonly thought of in such terms, the thread that Marcus draws from Costello, Logic, and Holly to Lauper exposes a dialectic between the simultaneously banal and alluring qualities of “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.”

  2. Given the circumstances surrounding this particular song, settling on a precedent for Lauper’s voice in Holly might justifiably give one pause. In short, Marcus swerved around essentialism by giving license to Lauper’s transgressions vis-à-vis one of rock’s canonical men. Perhaps a more fitting (although not necessarily more authoritative) explanation for the sound of her voice comes from the singer herself. Supplementing her account of co-arranging “Girls,” she stated, “If you’re singing loud, then the sound that you’re making is kind of a trumpet. That’s how I was thinking. So what if you took this sound, you made your voice really high” (Lifetime, 1998). This high trumpet-voice, purposefully distorted, shares something with instruments like piccolo trumpet or soprano saxophone, effective because of their unusual, even uncanny sound, which can also be achieved by unusual uses of “ordinary” instruments and voices (for example, treble notes on a string bass, Nina Simone). In the end, the way that Lauper sings “Girls” does not sound any more like a trumpet than it does like Buddy Holly. But her instrument of choice serves as a final metaphor of why (and why it was important that) it got under people’s skins. Lauper’s voice can be heard as trumpeting against what Judith Butler described as women’s constraint “to choose against their own sense of agency” (“Gendering the Body” 256), a situation that lurks behind this singer’s cover, and her ability to recover the song for girls and for herself.


  3. One decade, four albums, and ten American Top Forty hits after Lauper’s breakthrough, Sony Music (which had since taken over CBS and its subsidiary label Portrait) released her career retrospective, Twelve Deadly Cyns…and then some (i.e. “Sins” playfully misspelled). The collection included a revamped version of the singer’s signature tune, now entitled “Hey Now (Girls Just Want to Have Fun)”—a re-cover that retains her previous lyrical revisions to Hazard’s song, while glossing on Redbone’s 1974 hit “Come and Get Your Love,” penned by the group’s front man Lolly Vegas, as well. Apropos Vegas’s song, Lauper (now co-producer) also took the tempo of “Girls” down a few notches, from approximately quarter note=120 to quarter note=102. The singer recalled that, “the record company asked me to remake the song” (MSN), most likely to capitalize on 80s nostalgia with one of that decade’s iconic hits, thereby moving copies of Twelve Deadly Cyns. Ostensibly with an eye towards reclaiming a place on mainstream radio (Lauper had not had a Top Ten hit in the U.S. since 1989’s “I Drove All Night”), the updated production of “Hey Now” reflects the generic standards of dance pop in the 1990s; not surprisingly, the single was most successful on the club charts, and also in the English and European markets, which were dominated by dance music at that time. Whereas the arrangement of “Girls” for She’s So Unusual included guitars, keyboards, bass guitar and drums—albeit with a different effect than Hazard’s demo—the latter two instruments were replaced on Lauper’s retooled version with synthesized bass and digital percussion. Furthermore, the slower tempo of “Hey Now” amplified its reggae-isms over the frenetic new wave stylings of her 1983 recording.15 Assumedly an expression of this reggae appropriation, Lauper’s singing on “Hey Now” is more relaxed than her earlier high trumpet; she wraps the notes around the melody, assuming an invitatory, almost seductive tone.

  4. What might seem like a clear case of commercial opportunism was not without another raison d’être, explicitly revealed in the bridge when the background singers (here, Kay Dyson, Lauper and Catherine Russell) chant, “and the boys they want to have fun, and the girls they want to have fun” (my italics). No, the new lyric was not a post-feminist reversion to Hazard’s sentiments. Rather, Lauper was acknowledging her male fan base, specifically her longstanding status as an icon for contemporary gay culture, in which dance music crucially constructs and reflects collective identity and experience. As Brian Currid demonstrates, house music (and, arguably, by extension all club sub-genres) can represent “the continuity of community in sound, [revelling] in a celebration of the provisional, in the performativity of family and community as wider categories” (166). In this light, the girl group references in both Lauper’s “Girls” and “Hey Now” can be characterized as examples of “camp pastiche of sixties girl-group style and sensibility,” a phenomenon that Smith ponders:
    Who, besides the present-day queer audiences…can allow themselves to engage in what would seem adolescent sentiments more than those to whom society would deny the full rights and privileges of adulthood, those whom society would leave stranded in permanent adolescence? … As long as social mores situate anyone in a subject position analogous to the unseemly, disempowered, and, indeed, feminized one endured by adolescent females in the early 1960s, we can be sure that girl-group music will continue to exist, if only to express the everyday distress of that condition (117–18).
    Just as Lauper had read Hazard’s “Girls” oppositionally, gay male culture interpreted her version against the mainstream. And, like the advertisement for the lesbian club “Sisters,” this re-appropriation attests to the fluidity of intended meanings in popular music—particularly as regards lyrical content—when it comes to fan identification (see, for example, Stein). Moreover, the queer reception of “Girls” counters the truism that music videos necessarily impose a single interpretation of a song (see Straw 3), for it arguably derived from the camp appeal of the earlier video, and coexisted with the feminist message inscribed through that medium. That Lauper openly validated the song’s being handed down to an alternative generation became clear when she gave the first public performance of “Hey Now” at Yankee Stadium for the closing ceremony of the 1994 Gay Games, backed by some fifty drag queens—an instance of “girl-group music in a world in which girls are not necessarily girls, or biologically female, or, for that matter, straight” (Smith 117). This staging inspired a new music video, which the singer directed, and was the basis for live appearances during the Twelve Deadly Cyns tour.16

  5. The video for “Hey Now” is an important text for fleshing out the intertextuality of Lauper’s versions of “Girls,” and my examination of it here offers an epilogue to Lewis’s discussion of the singer’s video persona circa 1984. As cover songs often do (see M. Butler), “Hey Now” constitutes a commentary on its predecessor and begs the question of authenticity. More to the point, the singer’s incorporation of drag for a song covered twice over symbolically foregrounds the theatricality and artifice of gender roles that has been argued for cross-dressing (Whiteley, Sexing the Groove xvi), as well as the ways in which covering a song can be analogous to drag performance. In “Hey Now,” an elevator door opens to the introductory chorus, and from it emerge a number of girls, identified only by their shoes as seen from ground level. They make their way down a corridor while the camera takes advantage of its power to control the gaze, toying with ambiguity by leading viewers’ eyes upward to knee height (with at least one suspiciously muscular set of legs) and finally to full body shots. The scene is backstage, and the girls are dressing for a performance. Thereafter, verses one and two of the song serve as a non-diegetic soundtrack to primping, and the lyrics and images inflect one another. For instance, corresponding with “oh mother dear we’re not the fortunate ones,” one of the girls is pursued by wardrobe personnel trying to accessorize her outfit with a scarf, a cheeky take on the urgency with which this line was rendered in Lauper’s earlier recording and video. Beginning with the first refrain, the song becomes diegetic music as the singer leads the girls onto the stage for a performance of “Hey Now” within the video.

    Figure 5. From the video to “Hey Now (Girls Just Want To Have Fun)”

  6. Regarding this performative context, Lauper stated that, “the drag queens … happened [because] I realized about the discrimination going on [and] I had the power to show them on camera. I don’t think it changes the message, it opens the door for all of us” (MSN). This ultimate sentence seems defensive, as if the singer were aware of the fraught status of drag in feminist thought, and thus the potential to betray the message behind her first cover of “Girls.” After all, the replacement of real women with bodies that are biologically male is a potentially dangerous move when considered against a larger historical and critical backdrop. Female-to-male cross-dressing has been variably criticized as essentialist, and as “gender tourism,” a term that describes, “men who [toy] with experiences of ‘femininity’ without having to deal with the dirt, danger and desperation of actual womanhood … partaking of feminine pleasure while indissolubly colluding with a society oblivious to women’s actual pain and oppression” (Gilbert and Pearson 107). Some writers have even viewed drag as a distortion of femininity, because it “quite literally en-genders differences that support man’s illusion of wholeness through a fantasy of woman’s lack,” ultimately mocking the possibility of a phallic woman (see Tyler 41). Moreover, Lauper’s idealism does not succeed in quelling objections to drag raised by queer studies, particularly an insistence on the separation between gender identification and sexuality.17 The “discrimination” to which the singer was responding arguably refers to homosexuality in general, rather than cross-dressers specifically, an elision that was echoed in the targeted marketing of “Hey Now” for gay audiences; in fact, the release of Twelve Deadly Cyns was marked by record company sponsored parties at queer clubs, where Lauper’s music and videos were featured throughout the evening, and posters as well as copies of the cassette single for “Hey Now” were raffled off.

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15. Indeed, prior to the release of Twelve Deadly Cyns the singer had been tinkering with “Girls” in concert, first performing a so-called “reggae version” on May 26,1993 at the Irving Plaza in Manhattan. Concert information is compiled on Lauper’s official website.

16. These included New York’s 1995 Pride Parade and a spot on Late Night With David Letterman that same summer. In the fall of 1995, the remade song was also featured in the cross-dressing comedy To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything! Julie Newmar.

17. For a portrait of cross dressers that problematizes the alignment of drag with homosexuality, see Peter Schwarz’s 1996 documentary All Dressed Up and No Place to Go.











Volume 6 Issue 1 (Table of Contents)


Greenberg and Mather: Lanois Interview

Review Essay

Levitz: Angora Matta


Neal: Race Music

Talbot: Scarlatti

Woodworth: Musicology

Table of Contents
Letter to the Editor
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