Cyndi Lauper, The Little Engine That Could

Studio 360

When Alan Cumming said yes to guest-hosting Studio 360, our next question was who he would like to have on the show. One of the first names out of his mouth was Cyndi Lauper --- his friend, fellow performer, and one of the great pop stars of our time. They got to know each other when they starred in Threepenny Opera on Broadway in 2006: he was Mack the Knife, she was Pirate Jenny. Like the rest of us, he's been amazed by the many turns Lauper's life and career have taken.

Lauper broke very, very big with her debut album in 1983, which launched "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" and "Time After Time." Her records have hit on everything from synth pop to acoustic music to electronic dance to blues. Last year, she became the first woman to win the Tony Award for Best Original Score for the musical Kinky Boots. Lauper has also been a champion of LGBT rights, organizing concert tours and starting her own foundation.

Cyndi, it turns out, is as talkative as she is prolific. A shorter version of her conversation with Alan Cumming will appear on this week's show.


How Her Song "Above the Clouds" Launched Her LGBT Activism
(at 2:47) Meeting Judy Shepard, the mother of murdered student Matthew Shepard, set the wheels in motion for Lauper's True Colors Tour and True Colors Fund. Before singing "Above the Clouds," Lauper would tell the audience, "If you preach hate to your children, you're gonna ruin them, and so it starts in your home --- you wanna change things, start at home."

Getting Snubbed by MTV Unplugged
(at 8:53) MTV's groundbreaking Unplugged asks artists of all stripes to reinterpret their own songs acoustically. Somehow, Lauper never got the invite. "You remember that song, 'I Took My Harp to a Party, But Nobody Asked Me to Play?' It was kind of like that," she tells Alan. When her label asked her to record a best-of album, she took matters into her own hands. "Let's do that Unplugged thing I was never allowed to do."

It Takes One Hell of a Voice to Pull Off "Girls Just Want to Have Fun"
(at 13:22) Pop music doesn't always require an impressive range, but Lauper started her career with four octaves. "'Girls Just Want to Have Fun' --- try to sing it in an F sharp, see how that goes for you."

Lauper Started Singing as a Toddler
(at 16:45) Lauper wasn't able to stand on her own when the nice old lady upstairs started teaching her Italian songs. And she got her fashion sense from a painting on the neighbor's wall of the baby Jesus. The infant "had this really fabulous red hat crown thing and a nice cape that was really happening."

They Think She's Stupid Because of the Way She Talks
(at 22:34) During an interview alongside Harvey Fierstein (who wrote the book of Kinky Boots), Fierstein remarked, "They think she's stupid because of the way she talks." She had to admit that it was true. It wasn't just her classic New York accent. "Because I made people laugh a lot and told funny stories," she tells Alan, "they equated that with stupidity."

Dick Clark, "Why I Oughta"
(at 23:00) Lauper had a rough time with Dick Clark. As she remembers it, he told her that "a woman's career in this business is 10 years...never like the men, they have resurgences." He also told her pop music was disposable. "It isn't disposable, because I took my whole life dedicated to singing and making music that would inspire people, to help them get back up again and that's not disposable," she says. "Some of those pop songs that everyone was singing way back when, people still listen to them and it means something to them."

Cyndi vs. Madonna
(at 27:10) Every generation has its pop rivalries --- Katy Perry vs. Lady Gaga, before that Christina Aguilera vs. Britney Spears, before that Cyndi Lauper vs. Madonna. Those rivalries are invented by record companies and maintained by the press, she says, and she hated being thrown up against Madonna. "First of all, I liked her," Lauper tells Alan, "and, second of all, it's another woman...sisterhood is a powerful thing." The rivalry left Lauper even more insecure. "I never really felt like I was good enough anyway, I always tried harder because I didn't think it would be good enough," Lauper tells Cumming, "I always kind of felt like The Little Engine That Could."

How WWF Wrestling Made Her a Pop Star
(at 29:27) Before She's So Unusual came out in 1983, Lauper met Captain Lou Albano, a wrestling manager, on a plane. She thought he was hysterical. She wanted him to shoot a commercial for her band, but Albano ended up in the "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" video and on press tours with Lauper, in an act inspired by "the old beach movies where they have the Big Kahuna." Lauper explains, "I thought why not have Lou be my Big Kahuna? And I'll just listen to everything he says cuz he's the Big Kahuna." It was the heyday of the WWF, and her appearances with Albano's wrestlers helped break her record into the mainstream.

Cyndi Lauper Loves a Good "No"
(at 40:07) "Every time you think I'm going to be here and you're stopping me with your gatekeepers, Imma show up some place else...and some place else and say 'Ooo look now I'm here!' 'Oh no I'm over here!' 'Now I'm here --- Think you can stop me now?'"

On Fathers and Sons
(at 41:00) "Not My Father's Son," from Lauper's Kinky Boots score, is about a drag queen who feels alienated from his father. But her own husband and son, who are straight, inspired the song. Her song Declyn worried that "he couldn't be what he thought my husband expected." Every young man struggles to get out of his father's shadow, she thinks. "I truly was hoping that when people heard that song during intermission they'd go out and call their kids."