The so-unusual story of how 'Girls Just Want to Have Fun' went from bad-boy party song to feminist anthem

Cyndi Lauper (Photo: True Colors Fund)
Cyndi Lauper (Photo: True Colors Fund)

On Sept. 6, 1983, a quirky little redhead with a big, big voice named Cyndi Lauper became an instant MTV icon when she released “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” a feminist anthem for the new wave age. But interestingly, “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” was written and originally recorded as a demo in 1979 by a male punk/new wave artist, the late Robert Hazard, who performed it from the point of view of a girl-crazy bad boy. When Lauper remade it — with some lyric changes that had Hazard’s blessing — the song took on new meaning, and it really took off.

Compare and contrast the very different versions below.

Thirty-five years later, Lauper’s message still resonates with girls of all ages. Lauper noticed that people had started carrying signs that read “Girls Just Want to Have Fundamental Rights” at the Women’s March in 2017 and 2018, and she started running slideshows of those protesters at her concerts. She also designed an official T-shirt with that slogan to raise money for her organization, the True Colors Fund (which helps homeless LGBTQ youth) and Planned Parenthood.

“As I marched down the streets of New York City in January amongst a beautiful array of people of every sex, race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, and nationality, I was blown away to see so many people embracing the message of ‘Girls Just Want to Have Fundamental Rights’ on their handmade signs,” Lauper explained on True Colors Fund website. “Seeing this anthem continue to empower so many people to speak out and get involved, I was inspired to find new ways to further spread this powerful message of equality and justice for all.”

Lauper and Yahoo Entertainment recently discussed the evolution of “Girls” from party song to feminist call-to-arms, and the pop maverick also discussed Madonna, Miley Cyrus, American Idol, and why she never tires of singing “Girls” live.

Yahoo Entertainment: “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” was written and first recorded by a man. What made you want to cover it and make it your own?

Cyndi Lauper: The first time I heard it, I understood how I could sing from my point of view and make it a call to solidarity for women. In the 1980s, women were still struggling to be seen as equal to men. When the women’s movement really started earlier in the ’60s and ’70s, I felt so empowered and it was thrilling to me. But in 1980s, it seemed that a lot of the hard work by people like Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem was being forgotten, and women were once again accepting the status quo. We had gotten far — but not far enough — so I sang “Girls” for all the women around the world to remember our power.

How did you change it to a female point of view?

I had a different take, obviously. He’s a guy; he’s not going to write what a woman’s going to sing about. I was concerned about how it would be taken, and he said, “Well, think about what it could mean.” So the parts that were very masculine and didn’t pertain to what I wanted to say, I cut out. My idea was to use those Hooters guys [Eric Bazilian and Rob Hyman, who worked on the album] and their reggae feel, and this wonderful new sound of this electronic drum, and use the wonderful new styles that came over from England from groups like the Clash and how they approached their guitars. It was kind of raw. And also [the influence of] Andy Summers [of the Police], who I felt played in a completely different way than what we were listening to, way more blues-oriented. I just felt there was a way to incorporate everything and use a big voice, which I had.

Now “Girls” is considered a feminist anthem. Was that your intention all along?

Absolutely. I didn’t know it would be so well-received, of course, but I really wanted every woman to hear that song and think about their power. That’s also why it was very important that I had women of all colors in that video, so that every little girl, wherever she was from, could see herself in that video.

What was the specific message were you trying to send with that song?

We are strong! Celebrate that.

Does it surprise you, the life that song took on, decades later?

Of course. It’s still exciting. I see it in my audiences. When the song first came out, my audiences ranged from teens to thirtysomethings, big sisters bringing their little sisters. And as time went on, those women brought their own kids, and now I see three generations of women in my audiences. And when we start to perform “Girls” — wow, you can’t beat that, and that’s why I never get tired of singing that song live.

Tell me more about the making of that video. It seems like you just cast a bunch of your friends and had no script. It feels fun and free.

Yeah, in all of my videos you see that I dragged my friends and family with me, for two reasons. One, I was working so hard that the only time I would see them is if I brought them to work with me, and two, my video budgets were never that high — and my friends work cheap! All I had to do is buy dinner!

At the time that your debut album She’s So Unusual came out, you got a lot of comparisons to Madonna, who was coming up around the same time. How did you feel about that?

The media invented that rivalry. We really didn’t even know each other. We had a lot of friends in common, but we never really even met except for a few quick times at award shows. We both came out at the same time, we both were very into fashion, we were both very opinionated and demanded to be heard, but our music wasn’t and isn’t similar. They don’t compare men who have successful albums in the same year, do they?

You never seemed to use your sexuality to sell your music. It just wasn’t part of your image. Were you ever pressured to sex it up more, especially since it was the advent of the MTV and the Madonna era?

You know, I think it’s pretty well-known that I really don’t “do” pressure. I’ve always walked to the beat of my own drum, and that has worked for me — and I guess in some cases against me — but I wouldn’t change a thing. I love art and fashion and making statements visually, so that is what I always focused on.

What do you think of women in music now? Is there a new “Cyndi” in the current pop marketplace?

I’m not sure what that means, exactly. I do know there are a lot of great young female artists. I am a really big fan of P!nk, and I love Beth Ditto and Tegan & Sara. I think Lorde is really cool. What I hate is anyone cookie-cutter, trying to keep up with trends. I think there are a lot of great female acts following their own muses, and that is exciting.

Do you think female acts have to be too sexy now? You never had to be.

Maybe they’re just expressing themselves that way. You gotta let everyone do what they do, y’know? I’m not sure anyone is demanding that Miley Cyrus perform the way she is performing. I have no right to judge, and if that kid wants to express herself in that way, she should be allowed to. She is an adult, a young adult, and I believe no one should tell another what their music or performance should look or sound like.

What advice would you give you female pop singers coming up now, who hope to have an illustrious career like yours in 35 years?

Never give up!

She’s So Unusual was such a huge album. I know just said you don’t “do” pressure, but did you ever feel any pressure, internally or externally, to replicate that record’s success?

Y’know, not really. I mean, it was awesome. But I was 30 years old when it came out, and I had worked really hard to get there. It wasn’t an overnight thing. I had done thousands of gigs, was in a few bands, had a record deal prior with [my band] Blue Angel. So I understood the ups and downs. I’m still making records and selling tickets years later, and I still get to do this for a living, so I’m grateful to all my fans who have followed me through the ups and the downs.

What makes you most proud about that album?

We had a lot of fun making it, and you can hear that.

Last question: You have a huge made-for-TV personality, and your reality show Still So Unusual was such fun. Would you ever be a judge on a show like American Idol? I think you’d be great at it.

Me too! I really like Idol!

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