It was 1983, and women were starting to get loud. In the academy, writers and theorists were debating prostitution, pornography, and BDSM. The Equal Rights Amendment was making its last rounds through Congress, passing in the House but not getting enough votes to be added to the Constitution. Alice Walker had just published The Color Purple. Across the Atlantic, Margaret Thatcher was continuing her reign as the first female prime minister of Britain.
And in New York City, a Queens native named Cyndi Lauper was about to make a declaration: “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.”
In the 30 years since Lauper released her career-defining hit, “Girls” has been described as a “rebellious sing-along,” a “feminist anthem,” even a symbol of the “pogo-punk unisex spirit of the irreverent and permissive early 1980s." Bloggers have written odes to it, dance-recital choreographers have it flocked to it, a movie has been made in its honor. The accompanying album, She’s So Unusual, is being re-released in April, and the liner notes remind listeners that “beneath [the] sparkly veneer was a strong feminist message.”
How has this song become so deeply embedded in American culture? It’s true that it’s pretty catchy, and bars always need fodder for ‘80s night. But it takes more than big hair and a good beat to become a cultural tagline. “Girls” was engineered to be an anthem of women’s sexual freedom at a time when feminism was becoming a big part of cultural consciousness—and it helped set a template for how future stars would sing about social issues.
When I spoke with Lauper about the story of her first big hit, she was definitive: “It was very blatantly feminist.” She described the early ‘80s as a difficult time for women to call themselves feminists, particularly in the press. Not for her, though: “I would say, yeah, I’m a feminist, I burnt my training bra at the first demonstration. You got a problem with that?”
The original version of the song, written by Robert Hazard, had a decidedly different point of view: It was sung from a man’s perspective, with “fun” standing for coerced bedroom shenanigans. Lauper reworked the track to fit her views on women and sexuality, including the lines that are often celebrated as a subtle feminist throw-down:
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
“It doesn’t mean that girls just want to fuck,” Lauper explained. “It just means that girls want to have the same damn experience that any man could have.”
Equality among women was just as important to Lauper as equality between men and women: The song’s music video was widely noted as one of the first to feature women of multiple races. “The one thing I really wanted was to have multi-racial girls so that every little girl could actually see herself in it, and it would be kind of contagious that everyone was entitled—no matter what race or color or anything—you were entitled to this joyful experience,” she said.
The result was a song and video that caught the attention of the mainstream by defying it. “For a minute, I made it popular to be the odd guy out,” Lauper said. “All of the sudden, the straight guy was the odd guy out, just for a minute—and that, to me, was justice.”
In 1984, John Rockwell, the New York Times music critic, wrote that the song was “a giddily upbeat attestation to female pleasure that simultaneously made a feminist statement, fulfilled male fantasies and—especially in its often-played video version—evoked the warmth of family and friends.” When Lauper went on Letterman for the first time that year, the host seemed like he didn’t quite know what to do with the tiny, gregarious, pink-haired singer. But between bouts of banter, she slipped the idea of women’s empowerment into the interview, talking about the experience of posing as a geisha in a Japanese restaurant and how happy she was to be herself.
For Lauper, it seems natural that pop should be political. “I was raised with musicians that changed the world,” she said. “I grew up on the Beatles, Motown, ‘Dancing in the Street,’ Otis Redding, a man saying ‘Try a Little Tenderness.’ That wasn’t a masculine quality.” Since the days of “Girls,” Lauper has moved on to other issues: She’s been a vocal advocate for LGBT rights and AIDS prevention, and her Tony-winning show about drag queens, Kinky Boots, is approaching its one-year anniversary on Broadway.
Recently, a few pop stars have tried to live up to Lauper’s legacy as the empowerment chanteuse—take Lily Allen in “Hard Out Here” and Beyonce in “***Flawless,” for example. With their gender-bending videos and patriarchy-bashing lyrics, these songs hint at the issues that preoccupy mainstream feminism the most right now: body image, derisive language, Lean In-era expectations that women can have it all. It’s a tribute to “Girls”—and to 30 years of cultural progress—that its message seems a little dated for 2014: Slut-shaming and sexual repression are still problems, but in a time of boys on the side and the impending end of men, more American women than ever can have all the “fun” they want.
Still, if today’s chart-conquering divas think they’re breaking barriers with pop songs that double as protests, Lauper has some choice words.
“Honey, we made that shit up.”