Blondie Cyndi Lauper

Blondie, Cyndi Lauper, and the Power of Activist Women in Music

You might have heard that living legends Cyndi Lauper and Debbie Harry (with her band Blondie) are hitting Australian shores in a few short months for A Day On The Green, where they’ll perform with homegrown hard-hitters The Clouds, Montaigne, and Alex Lahey. In a climate where festival lineups are all-too-often found lacking in terms of representation from women – and more specifically, queer women – this lineup feels like a pointed, intentional statement. Boasting arguably two of the most important women in musical history (one a member of the LGBTQ+ community herself, the other an avid supporter), a couple of incredibly laudable up-and-coming femme talents in Australian music in Lahey and Jess Cerro (Montaigne) and late 80s/early 90s Sydney legends The Clouds (co-fronted by Jodi Phillis and Trish Young), this celebration of women’s contribution to the greater musical landscape is as impressive and timely as they come.

We don’t need to say it, because it’s been said ten million times before: music was, and remains to be, a difficult industry to manouevre for anyone who isn’t a straight white dude. There’s no doubt that it’s better today than it was, say, forty years ago – but there are still challenges. Women still get assaulted while performing. Women’s creative visions are doubted. Their agency is called into question. They’re glorified as figureheads and sex symbols, their music falling firmly into second, third, fourth or fifth place behind other attributes such as physical appearance, dress, how much she smiles, how “nice” she seems, or the way she moves onstage. Sexuality has always been a minefield for femmes to navigate – and while there’s a long way to go before that statement seems outdated and irrelevant, it’s thanks to the unapologetic brash sexuality and outspokenness of artists like Harry and Lauper that women in music today are able to navigate that minefield with aplomb. We eagerly anticipate the day where an all-femme lineup with myriad queer representation is common enough to not be remarkable – and to the credit of the organisers of A Day On The Green, this event is not marketed in a tokenistic or pandering manner. But until that day comes, events like this, and the organisations and musicians involved with them, deserve praise.

For Harry’s part, her incredible musicianship, commanding stage presence and unrelenting sexual agency propelled her to the forefront of punk in the mid 70s to early 80s, when Blondie gained commercial success after cutting their teeth as regulars at New York’s now-closed iconic CBGB venue. Harry herself is bisexual  – and her refusal to allow anyone to turn her into a sex symbol without her permission helped pave the way for women in and out of the music industry to gain control over their own sexual identity/ies. She understood and lamented the way that patriarchy prioritised (er, prioritises) a woman’s appearance first and foremost, but she used it to her advantage even while lamenting the reality that “Regardless of what I say about trying to be better at what I do, I rely on looks a lot. Women’s calling cards, unfortunately, are based on their looks.” There was never any doubt about her philosophical leanings, though – she firmly and outspokenly believed in herself as an artist, and once stated she simply didn’t understand how “one could be a woman and not be a feminist”. And, “sick” of the way many women sung about being victimised by love, she set out to create music that traversed genres, diffusing pop snobbery while being inherently feminist. In doing so, she helped set off a ripple effect that has echoed through the industry ever since. Artists like Garbage’s Shirley Manson, Madonna, Talking Head’s David Byrne, REM’s Michael Stipe, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Karen O, Lady Gaga, HAIM, and Cyndi Lauper herself all cite Harry as having inspired or had a creative influence on them.

It’s fair to say, without hyperbole, that Cyndi Lauper has long been one of the most prominent supporters of the LGBTQ+ community in music, working tirelessly as an activist to promote the safety, visibility and agency of queer and trans people inside and outside of her art. The way she presents herself to the public – all outlandish bright makeup, layered clashing prints, and punk rock hair – was boundary-pushing and fuelled by a refusal to be sexualised without her permission, or to subscribe to gender norms that dictated how a woman “should” dress.

She rose to prominence in the early 80s, when her debut solo effort She’s So Unusual made history by being the first debut female album to chart four top-five hits in the Billboard Hot 100. One of those hits was, of course, Girls Just Wanna Have Fun, a song exalted for its liberating attitude – but there’s more to the track than meets the eye. Originally penned by Robert Hazard as a song about how girls really do want it no matter what they might say or do (yep – DISGUSTING), Lauper originally turned the song down, saying she didn’t think it was “good for women” – it hit especially close to home as she and her sister had spent their childhoods “dodging pedophiles”, including their stepfather. Then she had a change of heart. She reworked the lyrics and used her voice to turn the questionable track into a feminist anthem. “All of the sudden, the straight guy was the odd guy out, just for a minute — and that, to me, was justice,” Lauper has asserted.  An early advocate for intersectionality, she made it her mission to create an anthem “for women around the world – and I mean all women. I wanted 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”.

It doesn’t need to be said just how important Lauper’s True Colours was (and continues to be) as a touchstone for LGBTQ+ people – though it must be said that her allyship is much more far-reaching than simply, as she put it, “being a famous person singing about things”. She opened New York’s first permanent housing facility for LGBTQ+ youth in 2011, started the educational Give A Damn Campaign (the website currently houses a very enlightening privilege-checking quiz tool), and has continually, vocally pushed for legislation that will afford the community more rights. A survivor of sexual assault who has at times been displaced without a permanent place to live after leaving her parent’s home at seventeen, Lauper’s tireless advocacy for the LGBTQ+ community is fuelled by compassion and empathy. “…I’m not gonna stand by one of my best friends and watch them be discriminated against and have all their civil liberties stripped down — or my sister or my cousin or whoever — and just stand there and shut up. Up to 40% of the kids on the street are gay or transgender and they’re only on the street because they’re gay or transgender. We figured that is fixable. We could fix that. We could get that better.”

Catch Blondie, Cyndi Lauper, The Clouds, Montaigne and Alex Lahey at A Day On The Green this April

Bimbadgen, Hunter Valley, NSW | Saturday, April 1, 2017

Sirromet Wines, Mt Cotton, QLD | Sunday, April 2, 2017

ICC Sydney Theatre, ICC Sydney Theatre, NSW | Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Rod Laver Arena, Melbourne, VIC | Thursday, April 6, 2017

Rochford Wines, Yarra Valley, VIC | Saturday, April 8, 2017

Leconfield Wines, Corner Main & Johnston Road, McLaren Vale SA | Sunday, April 9, 2017

Kings Park & Botanic Garden, Perth, WA | Wednesday, April 12, 2017


Image: Rebrn/Dr Phillips Centre For The Performing Arts