Let us begin this week by getting something out of the way right off the bat. The problem with “Girls Just Want To Have Fun” is straightforward – it just isn’t a terribly good song. That’s a shame, because it clearly means well, Lauper is a fantastic performer (well, usually) and as 80’s feminist songs go its clearly coming from the same place as Aretha Franklin and Annie Lennox’s “Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves” or the we-can-have-fun-too vibe of Bananarama. “Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves” is rather more political, though, and “Girls Just Want To Have Fun” isn’t laying claim to any specific political agenda, just that girls… well. You can guess. They want to have fun.
Its heart is so clearly in the right place, and Lauper herself is such an appealing individual, that it seems almost churlish to criticise the actual music, but when all is said and done this isn’t even in the same galaxy as her best work. “Time After Time” is genuinely brilliant. It heartfelt and emotional, it makes terrific use of Lauper’s incredibly expressive voice, and deserves to be remembered a lot more than this song. “Time After Time” does what she does best, and makes full use of Lauper’s skills. “Girls Just Want To Have Fun” doesn’t, not really. She’s a bit squeaky here, as if she’s singing at the top of her range, and occasionally slightly over it. And the instrumental break, which sounds like it’s been played on half a dozen sticks found in a nearby park, nearly fatally undermines the song. It’s dreadful. The whole thing kicks off with a squall of cheap synthesizer and it’s one of many, many 80’s songs which mistakes “too much treble” for “bright and cheery”. It’s not a total disaster, and bits of it remain compelling, especially the “wanna… wanna have fun” refrain, which provides some momentum, but the idea that this even comes close to Lauper’s best work just isn’t going to wash. But if it’s not her best work, then we need to look at why it is, unquestionably, her best known.
1984 was an amazing year for Lauper, arguably her best in fact. She became the first female artist in America to have four consecutive top-five hits from one album in America. That album, She’s So Unusual, sold 16 million copies worldwide and spent more than a year in the album charts. It’s one of the biggest selling albums of the 80’s even though it never actually got to Number 1 (Number 4 in the US, Number 16 in the UK). The other singles – “She Bop”, “Time After Time”, “All Through The Night” – are all strong but none of them have the cultural impact of “Girls Just Want To Have Fun”.
The song itself is a cover, originally little more than a demo by Robert Hazard (anyone?), with Lauper tweaking some of the lyrics from the original because she thought they were misogynistic. Certainly the revamped lyric fits in with the emergence of far more female artists in the 80’s. It’s not all completely successful – “oh daddy dear, you know you’re still number one” remains a bit cringy, and was one of the lines Lauper changed from the original – but there’s clearly a proper feminist drive there. “When the working day is done / girls just wanna have fun” Lauper sings in the run-up to the chorus and there’s a clear implication there – the “girls” are out working and earning their own way, they’re not chained to the kitchen sink or waiting for a man to come home.
That’s nicely understated and it’s far more effective for being implied rather than stated and for not being a rather more ordinary standard rebel-against-daddy bit. It also chimed appropriately with an age where there was a genuine sense that the feminism of the 70’s – Women’s Lib – was developing into real progress in the 80’s. Evil incarnate though she may be, Thatcher was a visible symbol of the progress women could, and did, make. A female Prime Minister of the UK in the 60’s or 70’s was laughably implausible. In the 80’s it barely even seemed remarkable. Visibility, for any minority, is important. How much lasting impact any of this had is a debate for a whole separate article, but the increased visibility of women and what they could achieve was undoubtedly important for the time. And more female artists in the music charts, traditionally dominated by male acts, helped support that visibility. So that’s one reason – finding the right song at the right cultural moment.
But that only gets you as far as nostalgia shows and old-timey radio. “Girls Just Want To Have Fun” clearly has legs far beyond its moment of finding the cultural zeitgeist in the 80’s. Some of the success is clearly down to Lauper herself. She’s an incredibly appealing figure – daffy, likeable and absolutely and very clearly unable to give one single solitary fuck about what anyone else thinks. The cover of She’s So Unusual has her dancing away in the street, perfectly happy by herself, needing no other validation. Her complete disregard for the opinions of others is one of her most endearing elements. She will look like how she wants to look, she will sound the way she wants to sound and if you don’t like it then problem is absolutely and completely yours, not hers.
It’s not hard to see how that attitude dovetails with this song, and it means that Lauper is able to infuse the song with her own personality until it’s clear there’s no separation between the artist and the art. The song, even if it is a cover, is completely what she wants to convey. She will freely adjust the lyric to fit with her own perspective. She’ll sing and play it any way she wants. Above and beyond the “have fun” element there’s a very strong sense of “fuck you” about the song as well. There is, in the lyric, a rejection of the traditional set-up – “daddy dear” wants to know what she’ll do with her life, “mother” wants to know when she’s going to life her life right.
The song, in other words, isn’t just about having fun, it’s about rejecting a whole approach to life itself. That’s not where the emphasis of the song lies, and the constantly repeated phrase “they just wanna, they just wanna have fun” makes its clear where that emphasis is, but the “fuck you” element is there right alongside it. It’s also interesting to note that Lauper never sings “we” when referring to the girls who want to enjoy themselves, it’s always “they”. She’ll be the one that rejects parental control, or who wants a walk in the sun, but the girls – that’s always “they”. There’s a slight remove about Lauper’s delivery, and the “they” isn’t a feature of Robert Hazard’s original – it’s something Lauper has imposed on the song.
The question is, really, does any of this matter? And the answer is “no, not really”. In its call to solidarity “Girls Just Want To Have Fun” was in exactly the right place at exactly the right time and the song has legs precisely because it’s a genuine expression of something that still resonates today. Women still get treated badly. There are still unfair expectations. Feminism isn’t “solved”. So the song still matters. It still means something, and that’s why the song remains popular and remains relevant. And it will continue to be the case, and why the song will remains her best known. Sure, there’s plenty of criticisms that can be levelled at it in terms of its recording, and it’s certainly not close to being Lauper’s best work, but it will always remain the song which defines her. “Girls Just Want To Have Fun” may not be a great song, per se, but it’s a great statement. And, ultimately, that’s more important.
What Else Happened In 1984?
Among other things, it’s the year (actually, basically the only year) of Frankie Goes To Hollywood. The BBC banned “Relax” which promptly sends it to the top of the charts, “Two Tribes” goes on to spend nine weeks at Number 1, and they become the first act since Gerry And The Pacemakers to have their first three singles reach Number 1 when “The Power Of Love” gets there too. So well done all round, censors! Bruce Springsteen releases what is still his best-known album, Born In The USA, and Talking Heads release arguably the best concert film of all time, Stop Making Sense. George Michael has a good year – the best-selling single is “Careless Whisper” and the third-best is “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go”. Sandwiched in-between them is Stevie Wonder with “I Just Called To Say I Love You”. Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds release their debut, From Her To Eternity, and so do The Smiths with The Smiths. Prince releases Purple Rain in the middle of the year (that’s going to shift 20 million units) and at the end of the year Band Aid release “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”, a charity single recorded with all the great musicians of the day (and Paul Young). This Is Spinal Tap rocks its way to infamy, Sade is a “Smooth Operator”, and Marvin Gaye is shot dead by his father.
What Did We Nearly End Up Discussing?
It’s another year of distinctly average material getting to Number 2, unfortunately. Tempting though it is to write about Shakin’ Stevens or point out how incredibly shit Phil Collins is (“A Love Worth Waiting For” and “Against All Odds (Take A Look At Me Now)” respectively) neither provide a great deal to excite. Queen made it to Number 2 with the incredibly terrible “Radio Gaga”, and Duran Duran proclaim themselves to be “Wild Boys”. Mmm. Ray Parker Jr’s perky earworm “Ghostbusters” made it to Number 2 in the UK but while this column ain’t afraid of no ghost it shows considerably more reticence in approaching mid-80’s novelty movie soundtrack hits.
1. The Beatles – “Strawberry Fields Forever” / “Penny Lane”
2. Stevie Wonder – “Sir Duke”
3. The Kinks – “Lola”
4. Jean Knight – “Mr Big Stuff”
5. Eurythmics – “Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)”
6. Ultravox – “Vienna”
7. Elvis Costello – “Oliver’s Army”
8. The Animals – “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place”
9. Sly And The Family Stone – “Everyday People”
10. Adam And The Ants – “Antmusic”
11. The Sweet, “Ballroom Blitz”
12. Petula Clark – “Downtown”
13. Queen, “Killer Queen”
14. Blondie, “Denis”
15. Dire Straits – “Private Investigations”
16. Elton John – “Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going To Be A Long, Long Time)”
17. Tom Jones – “Delilah”
18. Gloria Gaynor – “Never Can Say Goodbye”
19. Cyndi Lauper – “Girls Just Want To Have Fun”
19. Eddie Cochrane – “Three Steps To Heaven”
20. Wings – “Let ‘Em In”
21. The Troggs – “Wild Thing”
22. Jimmy Dean – “Big Bad John”
23. Chubby Checker – “Let’s Twist Again”
24. Billy J Kramer And The Dakotas – “Do You Want To Know A Secret”