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