Thirty years have passed since Cyndi Lauper, in all her eccentric glory, burst onto the scene with one of the most fully realized and authentic debuts in pop history. She's So Unusual, released in 1983, produced four Top 5 singles on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, a first for a female artist. "When Lauper's extraordinary pipes connect with the right material, the results sound like the beginning of a whole new golden age," Kurt Loder gushed in his Rolling Stone review. He was right. Aided by new technology and the industry's then-artist-friendly embrace of creativity, the years that immediately followed saw countless great, lasting pop albums. Now Lauper is on tour performing her landmark debut album in its entirety.
It would be easy to assume that an artist about to embark on such a tour would be eager to revisit the past, ever partial to the era that treated her so well. Lauper, however, is perpetually ready for the next thing. In the past five years, she's written a Tony-winning Broadway musical, Kinky Boots, acted in numerous television series and traveled to Sweden to make a dance album with several masterminds of the modern pop aesthetic.
"You just have to constantly relearn your craft," Lauper tells the Scene in reference to her 2008 dance album, Bring Ya to the Brink, for which she collaborated with European pop producers Max Martin and Basement Jaxx, among others. "I had an idea of how I could take what they are doing and add what I do and change it a little. I never think I'm going to reinvent the wheel — I just wanna use my elbows and stretch the parameters."
Of course, the process of making pop albums has changed significantly since the early days of Lauper's career.
"It originated from the groups and the artists," says Lauper in regard to the ethos surrounding record-making in the days of She's So Unusual. "The sounds that were happening originated with them, as opposed to when the corporations tried to harness that and put the clamp on it and became in charge of it."
What Lauper describes from her experience in Sweden is a pop-music machine dominated by male producers and writers — a machine that uses female artists as malleable vehicles for songs. "When they started to try and tell me how to sing, I said, 'Look, you can't even imagine singing what I can sing. You can only wish for it.' I said, 'Don't be telling me how to sing.' You know, I found them very sexist."
But Lauper doesn't view herself as a victim of the sexism that has long plagued the industry, pitting female artists against one other while simultaneously lumping them together into a segregated, strictly female genre.
"It's unfortunate," Lauper says, "but that's what happens. It doesn't happen now, anymore, to me, because I just come from this side, that side, every side I can so that I can grow and no one group has the power over my life. ... So every time you look, you'll see me in a different genre, television acting, or Broadway, or performing. ... That's how I like to roll. You gotta diversify."
Lauper's diversification extends far beyond the realm of the performing arts. Her tireless work on behalf of "the people who have to live on the sidelines of life" has directly contributed to changing national attitudes about GLBT issues. Partnering with the Human Rights Campaign, Lauper fought to secure passage of 2009's Hate Crimes Prevention Act, and is the founder of the Give a Damn Campaign, which seeks to increases awareness about the staggering percentage of homeless GLBT youth.
"Hate begets more hate," Lauper says. "You can't win when you're in the freaking mudslide. You're gonna slide all the way down with all the mud on you, and all the hatred. ... What can we do that's positive? How can we — in human-being terms — talk to other human beings?"
As far as her upcoming TPAC performance, Lauper explains that she will for the first time be singing She's So Unusual "the way it was actually recorded," as well as providing anecdotes about making the album and writing its songs. A testament to her ageless powerhouse of a voice, Lauper confesses that to keep things interesting, she sings the endings in a higher register live than she did when recording them. (Take a listen to the end of "Money Changes Everything," and try to wrap your head around how this is possible.)
But the pop icon hasn't always been so confident. Prior to her 1983 breakthrough, Lauper was 30 years old and a struggling veteran of New York's music scene. Was she ever discouraged? Was she ever tempted to change careers?
"I mean, are you kidding? Is the pope Catholic? You're an artist — you're always gonna be discouraged," Lauper admits. "If you feel you've reached your point, creatively, then go study. You love music. Study music. You can dream up anything that excites you about music."
And as for this particular tour?
"Honestly, the show is a lot of fun. It makes people laugh, and it makes them happy."