The independent news organization of Duke University

Cyndi Lauper for President

Let it be known in no uncertain terms that ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’ by Cyndi Lauper is the greatest song of all time.

Whenever I speak this phrase and absorb the consequent ridicule and harassment from my fellow music snobs, I feel like the Greek prophetess Cassandra—cursed to forever speak the truth and never be believed. But you, the compassionate Chronicle reader, will surely help me break my fate.

One listen is enough to convince the listener that ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’ is a catchy slice of pop perfection. Without overstating the point, it has a bigger hook than the marlin in The Old Man and the Sea. The world, though, is full of tightly crafted pop songs, so hooks alone cannot make a song the greatest of all time. Fortunately catchiness, though crucial, is but one facet of this song’s brilliance.

To be truly remarkable, a song must not only master the pop genre, but twist, alter, subvert or transcend it in some significant fashion. ‘Girls…’ accomplishes this by mapping a painfully bleak and resigned portrait of American life to its giddily pristine musicality. The song’s power to wrap up suffering and depravity in a pretty white bow and present it as an outwardly happy pop song is a rare musical gift, rivaled only perhaps by the second greatest song of all time: ‘Spanish Bombs’ by the Clash.

“But Andrew,” you may assert, “I have heard ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’ a hundred times—it really is a happy song! It is all about celebrating life and the glories of feminine power!” And you would be right… to an extent. Although it is true that the song portrays a woman apparently taking control of her life, a seemingly positive and cheerful message, a closer inspection of the lyrics provides insight into Cyndi’s motivation and the limitations placed on her by her environment.

The first two verses describe Cyndi’s encounters with her mother and father, both of whom challenge her lifestyle and yearn for her to “live your life right.” As a theme in music this is nothing new. However, Cyndi’s justification for her continued pursuit of “fun” is rather unique. “Oh mother dear, we’re not the fortunate ones,” she cries, “and girls just wanna have fun.” This suggests that Cyndi isn’t dabbling in a trite exorcism of parental authority. Rather, she uses her rebellion to escape from social, class and gender limitations. Hers is a rallying cry for all the downtrodden in society to melt down the chains of convention, of popular society and forge them into a collage of unique social identities that are beholden neither to relics of the past, nor to present solidarity, for their success. In fact, it is ambiguous whether she believes in success at all.

For clarification it is important to understand what Lauper is advocating. The philosophy of her song certainly doesn’t embrace mainstream society, but she doesn’t advocate social change, as the punk movement had in the late 1970s. On the contrary, the line “girls just wanna have fun” functions as a resignation to the inevitable self-destruction of modern life. If the world is doomed, what recourse have we but to pure hedonistic glory? “I wanna be the one to walk in the sun,” Cyndi declares at the end of the third verse, revealing her desire for happiness while tacitly acknowledging that she will be consumed in the end.

This message is further borne out by Cyndi’s public image—on her album covers, in her music videos and live performances. With her myriad hair colors, creative use of makeup and shockingly atypical style of dress, Lauper is ground zero in the time bomb of 1980s gluttony. Her career arc confirms this, as after the phenomenal success of She’s So Unusual, Lauper’s star exploded as fast as it formed, leaving her condemned to two decades of albums ranging from mediocre to terrible. One cannot help but believe that the damage was self-inflicted. And this is the true tragedy of ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’—that it created a venue of escape for young women and men at a time when one was desperately needed, but never truly believed in a permanent solution. And when the fun ended, as end it must, these poor souls were consumed by the corporate music machine and recycled into a factory line of young urban professionals. Ultimately, the song served to create the very people it feared the most. Enter Christian Bale in American Psycho.

That ‘Girls…’ captures the party-till-the-world-ends hopelessness of the 1980s within the confines of a happy and danceable pop number might be enough to make it the best song of all time, but understanding the deeper structures of the lyrics requires far too much thought for the casual listener. A great a song must reveal its depth with a degree of immediacy. Cyndi accomplishes this with her most valuable feature—her voice. With her cascading trills of note-shifting genius, Lauper hurls the listener through the gauntlet of her world. Every high-pitched squeal and plaintive wail betrays the urgency of her pain, even when the lyrics and music do their best to hide it.

When master craftsmanship, transcendent lyrics and sensitively nuanced vocals all intersect, the results are nothing short of spectacular. And in the case of ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,’ the result is the greatest song of all time.

Now I challenge you, listen to the song again, and if you still don’t believe... well, you wouldn’t be the first.

 

Andrew Waugh is a Trinity senior.

Discussion

Share and discuss “Cyndi Lauper for President” on social media.

Trending