Ask anyone who grew up in the '80s about Cyndi Lauper and you're sure to elicit a nostalgic smile. Though her music continues to be an entertaining walk down memory lane, it's Lauper herself who's more unforgettable. The title of her first album said it all: She's So Unusual.
In 1984, at the age of 30, the oddball singer went from unknown to global pop star practically overnight. Her debut-a cheeky collection of new-wave meets punky bubblegum pop-spawned an unprecedented five hit singles, including 'Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,' which became the girl-power anthem of the decade.
A couple of years later, she released True Colors, the title track of which earned her a second platinum No. 1 hit and a Grammy for best female pop vocal performance. Though Lauper's career had already hit its MTV-frenzied peak, this song struck a deep chord in listeners of all stripes.
I see your true colors/ Shining through / I see your true colors / And that's why I love you / So don't be afraid to let them show / Your true colors / True colors are beautiful / Like a rainbow
The lyrics, written by Tom Kelly and Billy Steinberg, spoke of acceptance and unconditional love. Coming from a woman who brazenly flaunted her own true colors-and still managed to be adored around the world-the message was all the more powerful.
It's fitting, then, that a 16-city national tour promoting gay rights and human equality would bear the name 'True Colors'-especially since Lauper, who since the '80s has become a veritable icon to the gay community, is its creator and headliner. Also on board for the five-hour concert are Erasure, Debbie Harry, The Dresden Dolls, The Gossip, The Misshapes and The Cliks. Self-proclaimed 'fag hag' comedian Margaret Cho plays emcee, and $1 from every ticket directly benefits the Human Rights Campaign, the largest lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) organization in the country.
Speaking from her home in New York City, the Dresden Dolls' Amanda Palmer still seems a little stunned that her band is heading out on the road with Lauper.
'We were so honored and flattered to be asked. I don't know how much you know about my formative years, but Cyndi Lauper was a huge influence. It was a ‘pinch me' moment that she wanted us to be involved.'
Palmer, 31, grew up in a 'liberal, tolerant community' in New England. She had openly gay friends and identified as bisexual.
'The idea of being marginalized was interesting, but it didn't endanger me personally,' she claims. 'At the same time, I had friends who went through that struggle with their friends, families and communities. Even where I grew up-it was superficially PC but it was still engrained that people would grow out of [being gay] when they got older. That was hard for my friends to deal with.'
The Dresden Dolls play an indefinable blend of glam, punk and cabaret and sing about misfits and sexual liberation. They wear vaudevillian costumes and embrace melodramatic theatrics. It's no surprise that they have a loyal gay following, especially among the younger set.
'When I travel around the world and meet a lot of our fans who are young and gay and confused, I am constantly reminded that I was really fortunate to grow up in a community as tolerant as I did. Like any teenager out there, I was struggling with my own identity issues-sexual and otherwise-and I really found solace and connections in music.'
Like Lauper, the Dresden Dolls revel in being unapologetically unusual. To anyone who's ever felt like they just don't fit in, knowing that there are other people out there who are different can make life more bearable.
'It's important for every artist to keep an open mind about who and what you're affecting,' adds Palmer. 'Sometimes the ripple effect is much larger than you think.'
Christopher Dye, a 44-year-old gay North Park resident, has tickets for the upcoming San Diego stop of the True Colors tour. He adores Margaret Cho and is also looking forward to performances by Debbie Harry and Cyndi Lauper.
'I wouldn't call myself a [Lauper] fan,' he says. 'But I saw her in concert a few years ago, and she blew me away. I was aware that she was into gay rights, but she was very specific and explicit about it, which definitely impressed me.'
Dye was fortunate. Even though he grew up in the 'redneck town' of Redding, Calif., his family was accepting of his coming out at age 15. He later moved to Santa Cruz, which he says was laid-back and had a strong gay community.
Still, he knows it wasn't like that for everybody.
'I would hear stories clandestinely, or read articles about people being kicked out. I certainly did feel lucky.'
In his youth, Dye was drawn to Ziggy Stardust-era David Bowie, a straight man who blurred the boundaries with his flamboyantly transgender persona.
But it's MTV-whose gay-programmed Logo Network is one of the True Colors tour sponsors-that Dye cites as having encouraged widespread change in the cultural attitude toward gays in the early '90s. In particular, he mentions Pedro Zamora, the popular Real World cast member who died of AIDS in 1994.
'Instead of being sequestered, everyone in the country was getting positive access to gay people,' he says. 'Pop culture can definitely play a role in doing away with ignorance.'
Even before Zamora, MTV was showcasing gay culture-they just weren't admitting it.
Guy Hamel, a 36-year-old gay Hillcrest resident, doesn't remember seeing openly gay people on MTV when he first started watching in the '80s.
'Nobody talked about it then-like, Wham! wasn't gay,' he laughs. 'People accepted that these performers were weird, but they didn't talk about them being gay. We definitely didn't have visible role models.'
Hamel grew up in Ridgecrest, a high-desert California town that at the time had a population of about 20,000. Though he came out to his friends at age 15 and knew some other gay teens, the subject was kept mum.
'We knew what we were and just didn't talk about it,' he recalls. 'If we did, we'd probably get teased or beaten up.'
It was around this time Hamel delved deep into music, embracing in particular brooding alternative bands like The Smiths, The Cure, Joy Division and Echo & the Bunnymen.
'They made me feel like there were more people out there like me,' he says. Not meaning gay, he adds. Just different.
Hamel also says he noticed a shift in the public's perception of gay culture in the early '90s, when celebrities flaunted red AIDS ribbons and openly gay characters started appearing on television. Granted, they were usually two-dimensional hacks that never got any action (the gay guy on Melrose Place comes to mind). But still.
'The '80s opened doors for people,' Hamel points out. 'But they weren't willing to walk out those doors until the '90s.'
Fast-forward to today, and gay issues are more prominent on the cultural radar than ever before. Few would dispute that incredible progress has been made, but there's still a very long way to go.
'We have an ongoing effort to create a dialogue among society about the issues of hate,' explains Gregory Lewis, managing director of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, which will be handing out purple 'Erase Hate' wristbands at the True Colors concert.
The non-profit-founded and directed by Judy Shepard, the mother of Matthew, the 21-year-old gay college student who in 1998 was brutally murdered in a hate crime-counts Cyndi Lauper as its honorary board member and good friend.
'[She] has really stepped up and made a statement to society about the issues of hate. It's so apropos to who she is as an individual. She's a trailblazer and a remarkable human being.'
Like the Human Rights Campaign and PFLAG-another True Colors supporter-the Matthew Shepard Foundation lobbies for hate-crime measures and equal rights protections. It also provides resources for LGBTs, particularly disenfranchised youth, to confront and combat discrimination in everyday society.
'Unfortunately, the demand is far greater than the resources available,' Lewis laments.
Undoubtedly, the True Colors tour has good intentions and will raise a good chunk of change for a worthy organization. But you've got to wonder: Isn't it preaching to the choir?
'Even though it's going to attract those who are already sympathetic to the cause, the people in the community always need encouragement,' Lewis says. 'The way equality is fought is sharing our story. Whether you're gay or straight, you need to tell people why equality is important. Whether you're a mom of a gay person, a friend of a gay person or a gay person-that's how change happens. Once a person knows someone who is gay, they're more likely to support the gay community. A concert like this encourages that kind of activity. It's a beautiful expression of the desire for equality.'
Dye, the North Park resident, agrees. 'Maybe this concert will get some media attention and maybe some people will change their minds. But regardless, it's another voice out there saying that everyone should be treated equally.'
'It may feel like preaching to the converted,' opines Palmer, of the Dresden Dolls. 'But that's like asking why do people go to church together when they could practice in their bedroom? Why do people have parades? There's something fundamentally given about wanting to join together and celebrate what it means to be an individual and what it means to be part of a community. This concert isn't supposed to be serious. It's supposed to be a fucking good time. But the best thing is to have a fucking good time while raising awareness.'
Lauren DeRose, a 24-year-old lesbian singer-songwriter in San Diego never misses a Cyndi Lauper concert.
'Cyndi Lauper is totally amazing,' she gushes. 'You never realized what a phenomenon she was [in the '80s]. I mean, when you think about the words to ‘True Colors' ... I never really thought about them until I was comfortable in my own skin, and then I realized just how powerful they could be for anyone who is struggling with who they are inside.
'When she sang ‘True Colors' at the last concert I went to, the person next to me started crying. It was incredible. Simply incredible.'
The True Colors tour stops at Open Air Theatre on June 27. Gates open at 6 p.m. $19.75-$126.75. 619-220-8497.
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