Extreme fame in pop music seems to burnish onto its subjects a kind of freakish genesis. Elvis, David Bowie, Michael Jackson – all appear to have fallen to the Earth, like baby supermen, to live among us mortals, armed with their celestial musical powers. They were not lucky, but exceptional, destined for greatness.
But the reality of musical success, as in life, is often much more Darwinian. For every big name, there are a clutch of near shadows who could have played the same role.
Cyndi Lauper cast more than a shadow over Madonna’s career in the mid-Eighties. For a period between 1983 and 1986, the New York-born singer was seen as the leader rather than the follower in their parallel careers. Superficially, they looked like they were cut from the same cloth. Both came from Italian Catholic families, with peroxide-blonde, backcombed hair, smash-and-grab, style-clashing thrift-store outfits, high-pitched voices and provocative sassy-girl anthems. Every corseted, heavily bungled move one made, the other seemed to mirror. But it was Lauper who looked to be in the lead, becoming the first woman to have four top five US singles from her debut album, She’s So Unusual, and collecting the same number of Grammy nominations. In a 1985 Time magazine profile that compared the two, it was concluded that Lauper was the more likely to have any kind of lasting career, while Madonna’s, one Billboard editor declared, would be over “in six months”.
They were only wrong on that count, obviously, and only half right on Lauper. Her career has certainly lasted, with her recent 11th blues album picking up critical kudos, but without the sales or fame that Madonna has continued to enjoy.
Lauper’s memoir of her life could have been a classic “Where did it all go wrong?” but in fact it turns out to be a rather more gripping account of where it all went surprisingly right in the face of terrible bad luck and a tough upbringing. Rather than a suburban incomer to the Big Apple, Lauper was a Queens native and her account is cleverly delivered by Jancee Dunn in those distinctively chewy tones, making Lauper sound like a cross between Danny DeVito and Bette Midler, gossiping over the yard fence.
Lauper gives an unvarnished portrayal of the miseries and threats to a young woman growing up in a poor background in the Sixties and Seventies, ending up with the teenager fleeing a stepfather who leered at her through the bathroom door like Jack Nicholson in The Shining. The arty, mystically inclined Lauper then went through an itinerant, chaotic life in her twenties, moving through random girl Friday jobs, sleeping rough in woods and falling in and out of bed with a wild array of young unsuitables.
It took her until her thirties before she sniffed the big time, but rather than saving her from a life of misery, it just seems to have taken Lauper out of the company of friends and family, the gang that she relied on for inspiration and support.
Lauper is brilliantly indiscreet about the stars she encounters during those glittery days. Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Jeff Goldblum and a multitude of other men in the business all get a good dressing-down for various degrees of sexist behaviour. If men weren’t trying to control and mould her, chronic medical problems with her vocal cords were doing a good enough job in stalling and eventually derailing her career.
You get the sense that Lauper has been much more fulfilled again in the latter decades, inspiring younger, savvier creative free spirits like Lady Gaga and Nicki Minaj while dedicating herself to gay rights charities and turning out dance or blues albums that always seem to be ahead of the curve. Madonna may have got the fame, but you get the sense that Lauper has had way more fun along the way.
Cyndi Lauper: A Memoir
by Cyndi Lauper with Jancee Dunn
352pp, Simon & Schuster