One gets the feeling that if Cyndi Lauper had grown up in small-town America, or anywhere other than New York City, her life story may have had a different trajectory. In general, a runaway high school dropout drifting from menial job to even more menial job doesn't seem the formula for culture-shifting success. As we've learned from American Idol, lots of people have fantastic voices.
But Lauper, with her queen of Queens accent, grew up in a place that rewards and accepts eccentricity. There were plenty of stages from which to strut her unique voice while her fashion sense — thrift-store vintage clothes and pumpkin orange hair — was embraced, even copied. Still, the road was rocky, as she recounts in Cyndi Lauper: A Memoir, which she has deftly crafted with co-author Jancee Dunn. She survived the creepy, roving eye of a stepfather, was sexually assaulted by an acquaintance, had an abortion because of pressure from family and the baby's father, beat her head against the American educational system and tried and failed at love many times.
Lauper's memoir is all about introspection, which makes it a satisfying and revealing read, especially when she dishes on the sexist behavior of Bruce Springsteen, Jeff Goldblum and Bob Dylan and the antics of her pop rival, Madonna. As we've learned over the years, Lauper says what she thinks, and now she has put those thoughts on paper.
The troubled backstory is difficult to reconcile with the Cyndi Lauper we met in 1983 when Girls Just Want to Have Fun hit us like a ton of party balloons. The girls' good-times anthem took over the airwaves, and MTV and three other chart-busting singles from She's So Unusual (Time After Time, She Bop and All Through the Night) cemented Lauper's legacy as an '80s icon. She won a Grammy for best new artist in 1985. Though she has been steadily recording and performing, even acting, ever since, Lauper never has reached those pop culture heights again.
But Lauper has hardly faded away. She has co-written a musical with Harvey Fierstein, Kinky Boots, which opened last month in Chicago and is headed to Broadway next year. Her 11th album, Memphis Blues, was the bestselling blues recording of 2010. That same year, she stole the show with her trash talk as a contestant on Celebrity Apprentice. And she's filming a reality series for WE, Still So Unusual, that chronicles her career and life as a wife and mother.
Today at 59, Lauper remains a staunch gay-rights advocate and supporter of feminist issues. Feminist issues? How does that jibe with the frivolous song that launched her career? Listen between the lines and focus on the phrase "we're not the fortunate ones." Then go to YouTube and watch the video again. Seen through the prism of 2012 glasses, the conga line of dancing girls might not seem anything special. But in the early '80s it was. Lauper took pains to cast a rainbow coalition of dancers so that all women would know they have the right to happiness. Sort of changes things, doesn't it?
Lauper fought against Time After Time being the album's first single because she didn't want to be pigeonholed as a ballad singer, she writes. She got labeled anyway, but her long career has proved that wasn't so bad.
Janet K. Keeler, the Times' food and travel editor, can be reached at [email protected] Follow @roadeats on Twitter.