The Story of How Cyndi Lauper Beat the Sophomore Jinx with ‘True Colors’
Cyndi Lauper's debut release, 1984's She's So Unusual, sent her soaring to superstar status with a quirky image and a largely bouncy set of immediately memorable pop songs. With her second release, she set out to prove her colorful musical personality was more multifaceted than the first record revealed — and she succeeded with another Grammy-nominated hit, True Colors.
That follow-up effort arrived in stores on Sept. 15, 1986, and found Lauper working with a substantially different set of personnel — and driving a deeper personal imprint into the music. Unlike She's So Unusual, which included a heavy helping of material from outside writers, Colors was largely co-written by Lauper, albeit with a small army of collaborators that included a number of songwriting professionals. The result was a set of songs that, while still identifiably Lauper, represented a solid next step for her as a composer and performer.
That step only arrived, however, after a period of pent-up demand that saw Lauper dabbling in outside projects — including supervising the Goonies soundtrack and embarking on an ill-fated detour into professional wrestling. As time wore on, the stakes only got higher for her sophomore release, but to her credit, Lauper refused to part with True Colors until she really believed it was ready.
"I know it looks like, 'Oh, what has she done in the last two years,'" Lauper told the New York Times. "But I was working. There was pressure to get it done, but I wouldn't settle for just anything, and in the end, a deadline doesn't count unless you're satisfied. In this field, you're only as good as your last record, but I still want to be an artist - somebody who, 20 years later, will show a thread of consciousness through all the different works."
Making it arguably more difficult for Lauper was the way her music sat apart from genres or trends. Although she definitely had a bubbly, weird side — as evidenced with hits like "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" or "She Bop" — she was also a pure singer with a gift for imbuing songs with depth of emotion, as reflected with classic ballads like "All Through the Night" or "Time After Time." It left something of a tricky line for her to walk — one she needed to navigate as she held her own creative reins.
"When I started this, there was no category in music for me. I made the category. No one else was doing it – unfortunately for me! I wish somebody was. But it's OK, because it opens the door for others, just like Blondie opened the door for a whole wave of people," Lauper told Creem. "I didn't fit into the Blondie category either. I just didn't fit in! I was an outcast. And then, all of a sudden, 'outcast' was the category."
Ultimately, while True Colors offered a fuller picture of Lauper's singing and songwriting, it wasn't an outright departure from She's So Unusual. As illustrated in the album artwork, which depicted her bare-skinned and largely unadorned on the front cover and dolled up in wacky Unusual-era garb on the back, the album once again split the difference between the fizzy and torchy sides of her personality — just in a bigger and more polished way.
"I want a kind of music that's not a copy of something else, that's indigenous to me," she explained. "The visual matches the sound, so when you buy a Cyndi Lauper record you're buying a piece of Cyndi Lauper - for real."
Enough people bought a piece of Lauper to send True Colors to No. 4 on the Billboard Top 200 Albums chart — the same lofty peak reached by its predecessor. But the record stalled at double-platinum — still thoroughly respectable, but well short of the six million She's So Unusual had sold. That cooling off was reflected on the airwaves, where the record notched a trio of Top 40 singles — again, nothing to sneeze at, but a steep comedown from the five spun off by She's So Unusual.
If True Colors suffered a bit from the law of diminishing returns on the commercial front, it still contained some of Lauper's most fully realized recordings. The title track, penned by hitmaking songwriting duo Tom Kelly and Billy Steinberg, hit No. 1 and went on to win a Grammy for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance, eventually receiving the cover treatment from a long list of artists (including Phil Collins) and becoming something of a modern pop standard. Although she didn't write it, Lauper brought her interpretive gifts fully to bear on the song.
"On ‘True Colors’ I did everything I could to get across the pure emotion through the Dolby and the digital this-and-that and all the technical things involved in making a record. I wanted it to be really internal, to go right inside, and I wanted to be on the radio so you'd be driving along in your car and suddenly there would be this call to the Ancient Soul right there in the car with you," she explained. "And I heard the song on the radio and it knocked me over. It was like, 'That was me, all right.' I felt almost embarrassed, as if they'd seen me naked. Because it was like I'd peeled off everything on the surface and that was the real me there, real feelings. And I'm a really shy, private person."
In the end, although Lauper has continued to tour and record steadily during the decades since its release, True Colors more or less marked the end of her time in the pop spotlight. Her next LP, 1989's A Night to Remember, stalled at No. 37, and the records that followed over the next 10 years made less and less of a sales impact. But along the way, Lauper continued growing into herself as an artist, exploring further facets of her artistry, and honoring the mandate she'd always pursued.
"The second album says, 'Have the courage of your convictions and love yourself a little,'" Lauper told the New York Times. "I want the songs to say, 'Love yourself,' because we really are taught not to. When babies are born, they're just nuts about everything about themselves. Then, as we get older, we're taught that, oooh, that's disgusting, and that if we like ourselves then that's considered conceit. That's part of the album, too - not to be so hard on yourself."
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