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

  1. But while the singer’s claim of upholding and expanding the message of “Girls” is problematic, her updated hit is not necessarily at odds with feminist or queer concerns. As Carol-Anne Tyler argues, the subversive (or counter-subversive) potential of drag is best evaluated by examining specific sites of performance, rather than in deference to universalizing theories (62). In the video for “Hey Now,” essentialism is complicated by the mingling of “real” girls (Lauper, backstage personnel) with androgynous ones. As in Lauper’s 1983 video, the chorus line for the first refrain of “Hey Now” showcases stylistic and racial diversity, but here the plurality of representation is extended to age, biological gender (male and female), and body type (height, weight, degrees of masculinity and femininity). The message that gender roles are constructed and akin to a costume is hit home with the appearance of a guitar-playing nun in the bridge. Her performance is drag to the second power; first, because a woman with a guitar is always already an appropriation of rock music’s most fundamental masculine sign (Bayton); and secondly, because she is a biological woman, guitarist Felicia Collins, dragging a nun.

    Figure 6. From the video to “Hey Now (Girls Just Want To Have Fun)”

    The disruptiveness of such imagery can be located in the power of cross-dressing and androgyny to undermine “the discursive systems which fix sex and gender according to the binary oppositions man/woman, masculine/feminine, gay/straight” (J. Butler, Gender Trouble 127). Thus, privileging feminine experience, consciously constructed through drag and transvestism, can serve to combat misogyny from both inside and outside the gay community (Tyler 62). Furthermore, the potential liberation accorded to drag might be imagined to extend beyond women (straight and gay) and queer men to straight men, whose participation in such androgynous genres as heavy metal, but also dance music cultures, can be experienced as “a tremendous relief from the rigidity expected … of men” (Walser 133; see also Gilbert and Pearson 96–97).

  2. Returning to Lauper’s video for “Hey Now,” her claim of “[opening] the door for all of us” is pointedly enacted in the third verse. Punctuating the ultimate line, the singer effortlessly holds the note on “sun” for fourteen beats, the most marked departure from her earlier vocal interpretation, and one that causes a blip on the screen given her generally low-key delivery on this re-cover. Lauper flaunts this moment of virtuosity by brutishly flexing her muscles along with her vocal chords. Like the guitar-toting nun, this exhibition of machismo has less to do with a desire “to emulate and assimilate” than it does with the ability “to invade men’s exclusive realms of privilege and freedom” (McDonnell 68, quoted in Nehring 220); that is, calling to question their exclusivity through the power of the singing voice. It is significant that the focus on Lauper as she belts out “sun” is diverted with shots of the girls falling into line and “singing” along, even though there are no background vocals at this juncture of the song; the singer literally puts her words into other peoples’ mouths. As Lewis observes, “In narrative videos, the soundtrack provided by the female vocalist can operate like a narrator’s omnipotent voice-over to guide the visual action.” Thus, when dad (wrestler Captain Lou Albano) lip-synchs along in Lauper’s earlier video, the daughter/singer is effectively putting words in his mouth, a gesture that “parodies and undermines the authority of the father, and by symbolic extension, patriarchy itself” (“Being Discovered” 131). But unlike her ventriloquism of an irate patriarch, the singer’s sharing of her spotlight is not an attempt to harness these girls’ power. Rather, she is extending her own empowerment to them through a voice that is biologically female, a reminder that voice as a site of identification knows no biological gender lines (see Moore). Here it is important to call attention to the obvious point that the performance of the girls in the video for “Girls” is no more real than in that of “Hey Now”: as is conventional in music videos and drag shows, the real girls—Lauper included—were lip-synching, too.

  3. By casting her feminist anthem as a drag anthem, the singer invokes the notion that gender identity is performative; in short, that everyone (women, men, girls) is literally in drag all of the time.18 Nonetheless, the preachy tone that this platform could take is avoided by the self-reflexivity of Lauper’s argument. Nonetheless, the preachy tone that this platform could take is avoided by the self-reflexivity of Lauper’s argument. Dianne Sawyer’s seemingly benign inquiry as to whether the singer ever felt “hostage” to “Girls” is apt here, for signature songs—especially one written by someone else when you would rather be writing your own—can be experienced as a form of confinement. So, too, can culturally-defined gender roles and identities. In the words of Michael Coyle, the discourse of authenticity surrounding pop music conditions fans to “expect that … artists live the life they represent in song” (Coyle 142), an expectation that is arguably even more restrictive for women (Evans ix). Thus, while there is no reason to doubt that Lauper believes in what she sings, being the girl who just wants to have fun comes with a price.

  4. One can, however, break such typecasting. By calling attention to performativity, the meaning of both song and gender are opened up to exploration, interrogation, and self-definition, a process that I have already recounted regarding “Girls” and which is extended to Lauper’s own image as a woman and pop star in her re-cover. At the beginning of the video for “Hey Now,” a girl sporting bright yellow hair and a red dress can be spotted inconspicuously hanging out in the wings, only to be revealed in the second verse as the singer herself, sitting in front of a mirror and touching up her makeup along with the other girls.

    Figure 7. From the video to “Hey Now (Girls Just Want To Have Fun)”

    With that, the identity of Lauper and the girls is revealed as a masquerade, whimsically showing how “femininity itself … is constructed as a mask” (Doane 48–49), no less changeable than shades of lipstick or eyeshadow. Such constructedness is obviously not gender specific, and also applies to other areas of identity performance, such as persona. Viewed in this light, the singer’s almost unreal look in the video for “Hey Now,” complete with an impossibly manicured bob, is a glamorized version of the day-glow hair and eye-catching clothing for which she became a household name in 1984. Through such imagery, Lauper exposes her own earlier image as a construction, created (or at very least enhanced) with an eye towards commercial success.19 Ultimately, the girl who once danced in New York’s streets is revealed to be just as much a construction as the one in the drag show. If covering a song can be thought of as analogous to drag, in “Hey Now” the singer is not only dragging Hazard’s “Girls” once more; she is dragging Cyndi Lauper.


  5. The cover for Lauper’s 1986 album True Colors, photographed by Annie Leibovitz, is, in part, a gesture of intimacy, suggesting that viewers/listeners are embarking on the next stage of their relationship with this unusual girl. The shot is lifted from Jean Cocteau’s Orphée (1949), just before the star poet awakes the morning after his first encounter with Death and her minions. Such quotations from classic cinema are ubiquitous in post-modern popular culture, and the relative obscurity of a Cocteau reference for 1980s Top Forty audiences marks Orpheus-Lauper as an instance of “blank parody” (see Jameson 16) because, detached from its original context, its symbolism is largely lost.

    Figure 8. Album cover to True Colors
    Figure 9. From Jean Cocteau's Orphée

    But here it is worthwhile to try to account for it given the trajectory of Lauper's career prior to and since True Colors. In Cocteau’s film, Orpheus’s acquaintance with Death is preceded by a creative crisis. Death then introduces him to a remedy in the form of a radio signal that transmits “poetry,” which Orpheus feverishly dictates. Lauper’s self-identification with Cocteau’s version of the myth (she is credited with art direction on the album) might be interpreted as an expression of her post–Blue Angel anxiety regarding her compromised authorial voice, not fully recovered until Hat Full of Stars and Sisters of Avalon (1993 and 1996 respectively), the first albums on which she uncompromisingly co-wrote and co-produced every track (albeit to little commercial avail). Unlike She’s So Unusual, the singer did co-produce True Colors; still, all three of its hit singles—the title song, “Change of Heart” and a cover of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On”—were penned by other songwriters.

  6. Had Lauper internalized the value placed on authorship, despite the “extraordinary political intervention” she had carried out with Robert Hazard’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun”? If so, the two decades that have passed since demonstrate that she need not have second-guessed this feat. Subsequent covers of “Girls” inevitably defer to Cyndi Lauper’s recording, over twenty at the time of this writing, ranging from novelties (Dame Edna, 1988) to international versions (“Les filles ne veulent que s’amuser” by 80s French pop group Barbie, or Latin teen sensation Amber Rose’s 1997 “Chicas quieren gozar”) to grunge rock (Pearl Jam’s live version in 1993) and rap (T-Black’s “Hoes Just Wanna Have Fun” from 1999).20 It may be cliché to observe that Lauper made this song her own, but given the song in question, as well as the circumstances surrounding her doing so, it is no less of a triumph. Ironically, one way that the singer exercises her control over “Girls” is by occasionally omitting it from her concerts. For example, during a performance with the Boston Pops Orchestra in 2001, she announced, “OK, here’s another one that’s … fun,” then quickly pointed down to the front row where some fans were holding a “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” banner, adding dismissively, “no, not like that” (Pop Goes the Fourth!). More often than not, however, Lauper does opt to sing her signature song. Her recent live takes are hybrid versions of “Girls” and “Hey Now” (usually transformed into an audience sing-along at the end) that invariably retain one aspect of the latter: the virtuosic, sustained note at the end of verse three (on “sun”), now given the full spotlight as the instrumental accompaniment drops out entirely. In 1984, Marcus mused that, “When [Lauper] holds a note … you can’t tell if she’s showing off or [if she’s] possessed by the song” (257). But the history of this particular song suggests that she has once again taken possession of it. The setup of the third verse as an unabashed climax is utterly calculated: it is the singer’s insistence on her discursive terms—“I want to be the one to walk in the sun”—because “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” contains within it the threat of eclipse, and thus the need to constantly affirm the possibility of making other people’s songs one’s own.

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18. The locus classicus for this argument is Butler, Gender Trouble.

19. For several high-profile media appearances in 1984, Lauper strained her speaking voice to make it sound higher, playing up her New York accent as well as the cartoonish Betty Boop–like image of her She’s So Unusual days. These appearances include: presenter (with Rodney Dangerfield) at the 26th Annual Grammy Awards (February 1984), interview with Dave Clark on American Bandstand (March 1984), and her acceptance speeches at the first MTV Video Music Awards (September 1984).

20. Lauper's official website has a list of covers of the song.












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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