Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified Ellie Greenwich as the producer of the original recording of “Be My Baby.” The 1963 Ronettes single was produced by Phil Spector. This version has been updated.
If you’d been her parent, the sight of a slouchy teenaged Cyndi Lauper in tank top and platform heels, as seen on the cover of her new book, “Cyndi Lauper: A Memoir” would likely have triggered an automatic “Go to your room, young lady!” Not that it would have worked: She was mouthy then and she’s mouthy now, and if the events of this memoir are to be believed, when authority wags its stern finger in her face, she still responds with a finger.
As a youngster, she had plenty of reasons to be rebellious, including a creepy stepdad whom she fled when she was 17. She bounced from job to job and lover to lover like a ricocheting bullet, and when she finally says, “At the time, I didn’t know that what I might have had was ADD,” you buy her self-diagnosis.
She always had a big voice, though, and as she bounced from band to band, it just got bigger, expressing itself best in one of the greatest pop songs of our time, “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” Early on, record executives said they were going to make her into the next Streisand and have her sing ballads, but Lauper told them that she was a rocker. Actually, what she remembers saying was, “I can’t take enough medication to stand still that long, okay?”
The original “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” was written by a man and portrayed women as trampy airheads. Initially, Lauper was put off, but her producer kept urging her to rework it in her own terms. She changed the song’s key and added a reggae bounce as well as a guitar riff from “Feel So Good,” a catchy tune by Shirley and Lee.
Girl-group pioneer Ellie Greenwich, who wrote and produced “Leader of the Pack,” was brought in. The first thing she did was to take Lauper into the studio hallway and have her chant what became the song’s hook: “Girls / They want / Want to have fun.” A Buddy Holly hiccup was thrown in on the word “fun,” and by the time it was ready to record, says Lauper, her most famous song had become “a combination of a Bob Marley blues approach to reggae, some Elvis Costello, a little Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Frankie Lymon, some Ronnie Spector and of course Shirley and Lee.” By standing on the shoulders of giants as well as staying true to her own sense of what it means to be a woman and an artist, Lauper came through with a breakout hit that lodged at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 for two weeks and netted her two Grammy nominations as well.
Lauper never had the career of Madonna, whom the press pitched as her rival, even though the two like and admire each other. She fought a constant battle against sexism in the industry, and not just with crass businessmen: When Bob Dylan said, “I would have you in my band — and that’s saying something, because I don’t like chicks in bands,” she had to explain that his “compliment” was an insult.
There were later hits, though, such as “Time After Time” and “True Colors.” And she opened doors for performers like Lady Gaga. President Obama introduced Lady Gaga at a 2010 human rights dinner and said it was his privilege to open for her. When Lauper teased him later, Obama, ever the diplomat, said, “She took all your moves! You’re the original.”
Mainly, though, there’s that one song. There are YouTube videos of Lauper in the Buenos Aires airport in 2011, entertaining a group of stranded passengers with an impromptu version of “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.” The big voice hasn’t aged a bit, and people in the crowd, most of whom look as though they hadn’t been born when her 1983 hit came out, sing along delightedly as they celebrate a great tune and an even greater truth: There are two halves to the human race, and each is as entitled to pleasure as the other.
Kirby teaches at Florida State University and is the author of “Little Richard: The Birth of Rock ’n’ Roll.”
By Cyndi Lauper with Jancee Dunn
Atria. 338 pp. $26