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Meaning

Remember those days when they actually played music videos on MTV? What about back when female solidarity was rarely talked about in pop music and feminism was totally a dirty word? Or the days when crazy dyed hair was a surprise from anyone who wasn’t part of the punk rock scene? Remember Reaganomics?

Don’t worry, we don’t really remember the early 80’s either. Cyndi Lauper, on the other hand… well, those bygone times of boom and bust were her big moment. When the cutesy-voiced singer with a great sense of camp released her first solo album, She’s So Unusual, in 1983, it captured the Zeitgeist of the moment.

Huh? Zeitgeist? Was ist das? Mein gott, we’re glad you asked.

Zeitgeist is a German word that refers to the spirit or general sensibility of the times. It is also a favorite word of ours. The American Heritage New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy (a favorite as well) explains: “The general moral, intellectual, and cultural climate of an era; Zeitgeist is German for ‘time-spirit.’ For example, the Zeitgeist of England in the Victorian period included a belief in industrial progress, and the Zeitgeist of the 1980s in the United States was a belief in the power of money and the many ways in which to spend it.”

Thanks, dictionary people. Who knew? The Zeitgeist of the 1980s was apparently money. Well, Cyndi Lauper’s 1983 release is certainly about money, in a way—it’s about how even though she doesn’t have much of it, she still wants to be able to go out and have fun with her girlfriends. But it is also about the enjoyment and empowerment that can come out of female solidarity, girl talk, ladies night out—whatever you want to call it, this is a song for the girls. That topic that might have been implicit in a pop song here and there, but back then it was hardly the big selling point it is today (Beyoncé’s ”Girls (Run the World)” only had about 100 million views on YouTube at the time of writing).

“Lauper captured the exact moment of the cultural shift from records to video, participated in the feminist revolution, and became an international pop star,” wrote The Guardian in 2009. Despite going against the grain in some ways, Lauper certainly seized the 80s bull by its neon spray-painted horns with a series of big hits—“Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” was just the first, followed soon after by “She Bop”, “Time After Time” and “All Through the Night,” all singles from She’s So Unusual.

She might have captured the Zeitgeist with this album, but she was no polished, groomed star à la Britney Spears—her performances and her persona pushed the envelope quite a bit. In addition to singing about girl power before girl power was a big thing, she rocked a punk/New Wave look that was still identified with the fringes of rock and roll, not with the mainstream of pop. Soon, though, Lauper fashion was synonymous with 80s fashion, at least as far teenagers were concerned. No wonder people started saying punk was dead.

Not everyone dug the cute pop princess whose girly energy blended with cool punky-ness. But in 1983 and 1984, Lauper, who later became a well-known gay rights activist and advocate for feminist causes, somehow squeezed through the conservatism of the early 1980s into widespread popularity. For a while, the ridiculous/awesome music video for “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” was in near-constant circulation on MTV. These were MTV’s early years, and for some the video is still closely identified with the whole idea of MTV and the MTV generation, as it were. It is still hailed as one of the first racially diverse music videos to be widely shown, and Lauper quickly came to be seen as a trailblazer. She never had another hugely successful album again, but “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” is still played on dance floors and will most likely be hailed as an inspiration for fun-loving female-oriented music for generations to come.
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