You were introduced to the world through music but now write, compose and act. Which aspects of your work have stayed the same and what has changed?
Well I just diversified a bit and I think that’s important as you progress in your career to diversify. It’s hard. All of a sudden, you’re not doing just one job. It takes me forever because I do want to be involved in what I’m doing.
We now have people really working hard at True Colors to accomplish something for kids who have no voice. But I can’t do everything. I have my own family that I want to make sure I’m around for. It’s kind of really hard.
That’s sounds like a difficult balance. In your personal and professional life, you’re known for almost militantly going against the status quo. Is there anything you crave in its traditional form?
Sometimes a good girdle! I honestly crave just taking time and becoming super strong and healthy again. Going back and carving out time that no one can interfere with. Whether it’s yoga or the gym, come hell or high water, that was my time. As I got older and took on different jobs and wanted to be around my family, it got more difficult to carve out that time for myself. My friends say, “Cyn, do 10 minutes for yourself to do 100 sit ups. Then at least you’ve moved your body. You’ve moved the energy in your body.”
You had a really iconic look in the 80s. How has your approach to fashion changed over the years?
I try to wear things that look good that aren’t too conservative. I don’t think growing older means you have to fall into line. An artist is an artist. You’re going to think what you need to think. I dyed my hair red because I’m doing the anniversary. The thoughts were red thoughts. I wanted a primary color. I wanted to tie color to music to lift people up. The music I grew up on lifted my spirits and that’s the kind of work I want to be involved in.
Your hit feminist anthems can be played at both a gay pride parade and a preschooler’s birthday party. How has the feminist conversation changed over the course of your career?
When I was younger, I talked to my older cousins and aunts who are just 10 years older than me. They’d say things like, “You went to college! What did you study?” When I asked my cousin what she wanted to be, she said she just wanted to be married. And I was told I was just going to get married and have kids. To go to college in an Italian American family was a big deal.
The first women’s demonstration happened because of all of that. I remember going out on all those early women’s liberation marches and going to the Alice and Wonderland statue in Central Park and burning my mother’s bra that she gave me and I burned my training bra.
I think the younger girls don’t understand how close they are [to that]. It’s only been a couple generations past. This generation is different. They don’t talk about that stuff with their moms.
Does being a female musician now mean something different than it did in the ’80s?
I have no idea. I do know what it’s like to be an older musician and struggle and fight to continue your modern work. When I was doing “She’s So Unusual,” I could get a foothold in but there was still something like a female quota. I started to see voids where I could fill. I would look and see where I was needed. I happened to run into the right people.
I was recently watching the Beatles 50th anniversary. I was a kid then. I got that album. I felt the same way about the Supremes. I got their album. I felt like I met them. They taught me singing and harmonizing and call and response. I think people don’t realize they raised a generation of artists that care about what’s going on in the world. I’m a product of that. When Otis Redding was singing and wrote “Respect,” he was talking about a different kind of respect. When a black woman sang it and asked for respect as a human being and as a woman, it was a double whammy. “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” was written by a man originally but I thought about what it could be and thought it could be an anthem.
For kids today, I think that music should be multigenerational. In your teenage years, you’re not going to like your parents. It’s one of those things. I saw an opportunity in the ’80s where it wasn’t cool to talk to your mother. But if you don’t talk to your mom, you don’t know what her generation went through. If you don’t understand your history, that’s how you’re going to walk into life and get hoodwinked. If you don’t know your mother and grandmother’s struggles and you don’t know where you’re coming from, you don’t know where you’re going.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.