Feminist History In Song: Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Girls Just Want to Have Fun’

In this ongoing feature, we’ll be exploring the stories behind some of our favorite feminist anthems.

cyndi-300x224Cyndi Lauper launched her music career like many wannabes don’t: singing in cover bands. She spent most of the seventies wailing renditions of Led Zeppelin, Bad Company and Jefferson Airplane songs before she was discovered, signed and added to a pop group. Blue Angel had one album.

Lauper’s first solo album, “She’s So Unusual,” spawned five top-10 hits (a first for any female artist) and earned her the Best New Artist Grammy in 1985. The album is packed with empowerment hits such as the gay-rights petition “True Colors” and the masturbation confessional “She Bop.” But it was “Girls” that was released as the first single. It made her an instant superstar.

Lauper initially didn’t want to have anything to do with the song. It was written by the male rock artist, Robert Hazard, and she wasn’t sure a song written by a man would send the right message. She was also determined to write her own material, something the record labels were always pushing her away from. But then she got to thinking how she could make the message her own. She told Time, “When I was told ‘Girls Just Want To Have Fun’ would be an anthem, I thought about how it really could be an anthem.”

The song became a rallying cry for women in the ’80s to express their independence and individuality—be that through fashion, sexual expression or rebellion. It also set the tone for a new breed of female pop star: the sexy rabble-rouser. Madonna owes her entire early career image to Lauper. In fact, it’s an influence she can’t seem to shake. Recently, music critics have mused on whether Madonna is just rewriting Lauper’s material.

There’s room enough in feminist song for both of these icons. Though Lauper definitely took a more deliberate stance on what her songs say about women. In the book, I Want My MTV, she explained: “I wanted ‘Girls Just Want To Have Fun’ to be an anthem for women around the world—and I mean all women—and a sustaining message that we are powerful human beings. I made sure that when a woman saw the video, she would see herself represented, whether she was thin or heavy, glamorous or not, and whatever race she was.”

The video for “Girls”, which won the first-ever Best Female Video prize at the 1984 VMAs, featured a multicultural cast of Lauperized women—teased, sideways hair, neon eye shadow, et. al.—singing the hook alongside the star.

Since its release, the song has been used in countless movies and TV shows (Clueless, Boys on the Side) as an example of female empowerment. It even got its own eponymous movie in 1985 starring Sarah Jessica Parker, Helen Hunt and Shannen Doherty.

Part of the power of “Girls” lies in the fact that the rebellion it champions doesn’t include running off with a bad boy. Instead, these girls get their kicks on their own. It was a powerful statement at the time—still is: Some boys take a beautiful girl/and hide her away from the rest of the world/I want to be the one to walk in the sun/Oh girls they want to have fun.

Feminist History in Song: Lesley Gore’s ‘You Don’t Own Me’

In this ongoing feature, we’ll be exploring the stories behind some of our favorite feminist anthems.

Lesley-Gore-16606845-1-402-300x300At just 17, Lesley Gore was a fairly typical girl singer for the ’60s, with coiffed hair and tasteful ’50s/early ’60s dresses and her sweet mega-hit “It’s My Party.” But her 1964 smash “You Don’t Own Me” was shockingly progressive for its time. Hell, its lyrics still sound relevant today. (Alas.)

So relevant, in fact, that just last year, it became the song of the war against the War on Women, with a fabulous video full of women-on-the-street and celebs lip-syncing its message to, ostensibly Mitt Romney and the Republican party — complete with intro from Ms. Gore herself (looking as hip as ever as she intoned, “I’m Lesley Gore, and I approved this message”). They held signs bearing such messages as, “My body is not a battleground,” and, “Get your rosaries off my ovaries.” Prominent feminists such as Lena Dunham, Carrie Brownstein, and Tavi Gevinson were among the participants. Gore, now 66, ended the video with her own message: “It’s hard for me to believe but we’re still fighting for the same things we were then. Yes, ladies, we’ve got to come together and get out there and vote and protect our bodies. They’re ours. Please vote.”

Because its message has held up so well over the years (again, alas), it’s been covered by a particularly wide variety of artists: Dusty Springfield, cello rock group Rasputina, Joan Jett, the Blow Monkeys, Jack Killed Jill, Filipino singer Jeanne Young, Swedish singer Marianne Kock, Japanese singer Mieko Hirota. Diane Keaton, Bette Midler, and Goldie Hawn sung it in The First Wives Club. Nicole Scherzinger performed it on The Sing-Off. Eminem sampled it. NFL Women’s Wear used it in a commercial.

Why so popular? Perhaps its the simplicity of the lyrics, which make Gore’s feelings as clear as possible to her 1960s man: “You don’t own me/I’m not just one of your many toys … I’m young and I love to be young/I’m free and I love to be free/To live my life the way I want/to say and do whatever I please.”

Feminist History in Song: Beyonce’s ‘If I Were a Boy’

In this new feature, we’ll be exploring the stories behind some of our favorite feminist anthems.


T_In_Park-228x300Beyonce is a great songwriter, seemingly able to spin out a girl-power anthem on demand: “Single Ladies,” “Survivor,” “Independent Women,” “Run the World (Girls),” “Bootylicious.” She has appeared to struggle more with her sensitive side in songwriting, despite her protestations that she’s
not Sasha Fierce in her everyday life. “Irreplaceable” slows things down and tells you she’s a little hurt by love gone wrong, but she can’t help doing a great, empowered woman scorned and giving us a kiss-off for the ages: “To the left, to the left.”Beyonce has famously talked about how she has a stage persona she evokes to become the monster-diva she needs to be for concerts — Sasha Fierce. For most of us, Beyonce herself is our Sasha Fierce. A few years ago, my sister and I resolved at New Year’s time to always think, “What would Beyonce do?” Since then we’ve both found relationships with fantastic men; she started her own boudoir photography business, and I have two passion-project books coming out this year. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. I’ve been watching Bey’s “I Am …” concert tour video on demand lately just to up my inspiration factor, and it never lets me down.

That all changed with “If I Were a Boy.” This 2008 ballad softened her vocal delivery and showed a new vulnerability even as it still catalogued double-standards still present in our everyday lives: “If I were a boy … I’d put myself first/And make the rules as I go/’Cause I’d know that she’d be faithful/Waiting for me to come home.”

Of course, what may have gotten lost in fans’ swooning over this new kind of song for Bey — and the undeniably satisfying video in which she and a guy switch roles for a day, she playing a cheating cop and he mooning for her back home — is that Beyonce did not write this song. Which is standard practice in the music business, but an interesting departure for the singer. And, as it turns out, it also included some intrigue and rivalry.

The song was actually written by a singer-songwriter named BC Jean. You can imagine her singing “If I Were a Boy,” with her soft-guitar-rock vibe. In addition to the song going into the big murky pot of song choices that many artists pluck from for recordings, Jean also recorded her own version. Beyonce, however, fell in love with it, recorded it, and decided to release it as a single. That’s when Jean first heard about Bey’s version, and she was not pleased. Bey’s version, of course, went platinum, and even inspired Reba McEntire to do her own cover.

Beyonce told MTV News she chose the song as a deliberate departure: “I had to try it, because I remember Aretha Franklin said a great singer can sing anything and make it her own.” But Jean vented to fans on her MySpace page: ”I have been reading some of these comments and to set the record straight from the horse’s mouth – IF I WERE A BOY is my song; YES, I wrote this song; It is my story; a painful one, and the song is very dear to me.” Eventually, however, she struck a deal with Beyonce’s manager/father, Matthew Knowles, that seemed to make everyone happy. She now proudly claims the writing credit for the hit on her website.

Beyonce, meanwhile, garnered particular acclaim for her version. Billboard said her vocals were “breathtaking, exquisitely emotive, mournful, and mature.” The LA Times raved,  ”This isn’t just another breakup song; it’s an elegy for female empowerment, Beyoncé’s admission that no amount of money, fame or skill can solve the basic inequity between her man’s heart and her own.”