She's So Unusual
On the new deluxe 30th anniversary edition of Cyndi Lauper’s debut, the everlastingly saucy supersmash She’s So Unusual, you can hear the “Work in Progress Rough Mix” of “Time After Time,” in which Lauper sings the song the way people have now for years, across the globe: by mumble-humming nonsense syllables until hitting the chorus. Of course, she probably hadn’t finalized (or memorized) the lyrics yet. We just can’t resist picking up that hard-wired melody, even when we need words scrolling across a karaoke screen to nail them.
To be fair, we all know the part of the verse that goes, “the second hand unwinds.” And if you read Jancee Dunn’s liner notes to this reissue—which comes as a single disc with three awful new remixes, a double disc with worthwhile demos and more, or a special edition with stickers, which can’t be as cool as the video of her opening the package up—you learn that “the second hand unwinds” was something her producer Rick Chertoff said when his watch went on the fritz. She’s So Unusual immortalized a number of things, from this opaque remark to a certain image of brazen, silly-sexy liberation.
Back on its actual anniversary in October, writer Maura Johnston broke down the genre-splicing, MTV-ready original album, which produced four top 5 hits (a record for a woman at the time), earned Lauper two Grammys (including Best New Artist), and eventually went platinum six times over, influencing artists from Karen O to Miley Cyrus. It’s Lauper herself—that unruly energy, those nutty outfits—who inspired so many ambitious rabble-rousers, of course, but that Lauper arguably only really existed in the space of She’s So Unusual. Her subsequent albums disappointed. “Turning far too soon toward self-parody, she became a figure about as radical and liberating as a Muppet,” one writer acidly described it in the Rolling Stone Album Guide. Reviewing her third album, the critic Robert Christgau went so far as to say, “How embarrassing to have placed hope in this woman.”
But Unusual‘s hope springs eternal. (And Lauper herself is doing just fine, with her score for the Broadway musical Kinky Boots winning her accolades and new attention.) Lauper was 30 with one failed pop-rock band, Blue Angel, under her sash when she broke through. Madonna—25 and not exactly humble—had released her self-titled debut just a few months before. Madonna was seductive; Unusual was sassy. Unusual borrowed from the “trashy street sound” Lauper was hearing in NYC; Madonna updated disco as a means of transcending the downtown streets. Madonna was mounting an empire; Lauper captured an uncanny moment—a second hand unwinding.
The purest expression of this would be Lauper’s voice. If you listen to the Blue Angel single “Maybe He’ll Know,” you can hear her more green, exploring, in an almost operatic way, the outer range of a ’60s rock-chick holler. (As Dunn points out in the liners, Lauper’s got a four-octave range.) But when she introduces the bonus live version of the reggae track “Witness” in the new deluxe set, she sounds like Carol Kane using Elvis Costello as a ventriloquist dummy. She kicks off “Yeah Yeah” with a Yoko Ono-style ululation. This Noo Yawk accent we think of was in some way a bizarre invention that probably primed us all unconsciously for Sleater-Kinney and K-pop girl groups. But when she sailed in those upper ranges (“I will be wait-ting!”), Cyndi Lauper might’ve just broken free of history.
Watch Lauper talk about her range of influences—from Elvis to Joni Mitchell to the Specials—in this promo video provided to EW:
She's So Unusual