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Cyndi Lauper Dishes on 'Women Who Rock' and Arguing With Paul Simon Over the Rock Hall's Gender Issues
- Posted on Dec 5th 2011 3:00PM by Amy Klein
Amanda Edwards, Getty Images
Because the release of 'Women Who Rock' coincides with the opening of an exhibit at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame focusing on women, it seems that women in rock may finally be getting the respect they deserve. We talked with Lauper about the women who inspired her, how things have changed for women in music and her advice for girls who just wanna have Platinum hits.
When did you realize you wanted to be a musician?
I always sang. I wanted to be in a band with my sister, and I was, at 11. At 12, I started writing seriously, and that was my pacifier all through high school -- that and painting.
When you say "pacifier," you mean it helped you get through some hard times?
Yeah, it helped me. It helped me a lot. Then seeing Joni Mitchell, who was the first woman I saw that I really related to. She was somebody that painted and somebody that wrote and made her own clothes.
When you saw Joni Mitchell, did you see a part of yourself in her?
I didn't see myself in her. I saw possibilities for myself. And that made everything bearable.
Why is there a need for a documentary like this one? Why is there a need to tell these women's stories?
When they said, "Now you're gonna host it," I got a little choked up, because for years, I had been saying, "Why aren't there any women in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?" I mean, it's not really the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame because it doesn't include women! A person like Wanda Jackson, who, now, in her 70s, is being inducted -- I mean, why only now, at the age of 70? In 1988, when they inducted Elvis, they should have looked at women to induct.
You expect that stuff from the suits. But if you want to call yourself "The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame," you can't think like the suits! You gotta think outside the box. You gotta be a musician. You gotta know about music, and you gotta be inclusive. You can't just have white men. You can't have just men. You have to have all the people. You have to have women too -- and there are certainly women! There were certainly women, and they weren't just blues singers. Big Mama Thornton, yeah, she was a blues singer, but you ever listen to her stuff? It don't sound blues to me!
Yeah, she was really ahead of her time with that voice. She recorded "Hound Dog" years before Elvis did.
I had an argument with Paul Simon. He was telling me he was going to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and he said, "Elvis is being inducted." I said, "What about Big Mama?" and he said, "Oh, she's blues!" I started going through people, and I said, "What about Wanda Jackson?" He said, "Oh, she wasn't really popular," or some stupid thing like, "She wasn't rock," or "She wasn't important," or "Blah, blah, blah." But for me, as a musician, I'm just grateful, grateful that when I started Blue Angel with John Turi, he played me Wanda Jackson and Darlene Love and Ronnie Spector. I know that music made a huge difference for me when I was young.
Why do you think male musicians are getting all the credit?
I don't know, maybe because everything was run by men. Maybe the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was started by a bunch of guys, as opposed to women. But all I know is that most of my life, I spent in the industry, and, in my lifetime, I did affect music, and at least I got to see that, and what made it extremely poignant for me was that it was real tough coming up. I did have to deal with a lot of sexism.
I mean, in a way I did, but I didn't when I was in Blue Angel, because I had this really wonderful mentor and writing partner, John Turi, who was such a kind and gentle, easygoing guy, and he would talk to me about the business and about writing. We would listen to stuff together. We were excited about music. We'd go see Blondie, Annie Golden and the Shirts or the Ramones.
Who are the women who inspired you?
Ann and Nancy Wilson [of Heart]. They inspired me so much. I started to sing with the guitar because of Nancy. I thought it was Nancy's voice with the guitar. At that time, those two were like the rockers, the girl rockers. There were the Runaways, but they didn't really break through. Blondie did. Deborah Harry was very much an innovator. I was trying to do those kinds of things as a young singer.
Stevie Nicks and Christine McVie, they were singing and writing, and it made you feel that there was a place. It made you feel like you had a real place-that you didn't just have to be the singer -- "Go be the singer." Whatever you said, it didn't matter, and you just felt like, "There's gotta be something better than this!"
When I watched the other women, whoever was in the lead, I wanted to be like them. But I must say, I watched the men as well, and I thought to myself, "Why can't I be like them?" So I took a lot from men and women, and I had my own library in my head. When you throw yourself into music, you're just in it.
But Mavis Staples, I listen to her stuff when I'm not feeling great, and she makes me feel better: 'I Know a Place,' 'Respect Yourself,' you know, the Staples Singers. I actually sang with Mavis once and I was crying.
How have things changed for women in music since the days of Willie Mae Thornton?
Well, you have to go past Big Mama. You have to go back to Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith and Memphis Minnie. You have to start from there. Those women made the blues popular. The first recordings of the blues weren't done by women, but the blues was made popular by women. If you look at the history, W.C. Handy did the first blues recordings with a military band and it was instrumental. Then a group called Prince's Band recorded the second blues record. They did a W.C. Handy track, 'Memphis Blues,' with a vaudeville singer. Then there were two more recordings-and those were done by women.
But the biggest song and the most famous was a recording by Mamie Smith, 'Crazy Blues.' The song was first sung by Sophie Tucker [a white woman who sang in minstrel shows] and in a way, thank god Mamie Smith got to sing it, because, if you study the history, the minstrel shows were white people in blackface doing their version of African-American music. Then finally, the blues was becoming popular, and an African-American woman [Smith] sang the first really popular one. For those women, and from Willie Mae on, it must have been really, really hard.
For me, I just kept going. I just kept trying. If this is not an inroad for me, I said, "That's OK, because I'm gonna find another inroad." If you can't go one way, there's many ways to get where you're going. So you just take a step back and see beyond the wall. Now there are a lot of women rockers, but I'm sure they come up against the same brick walls.
Once you get passed the self-criticism, still somebody's always telling you, "What makes you think you're so special?" and "I don't see anything so special in you," and "Your voice isn't chilling me." The thing is, it's not if your voice is chilling them, but if you feel passionate enough about the music and the work and the feeling, then you need to be able to sing. You need to be able to use your passion and electrify people with it. You need to be able to do that and ignore them.
I think the only reason that I'm still goin' now is that I don't listen. I think you can't listen. You listen what works and what doesn't work for you and you just ignore people. Understand where it is you want to go. Then picture yourself there. If you can picture yourself there, then you can be there. Bottom line.
For me, it was always about that distance. I think that, for everybody who actually broke through, it was about that. But to break through, to be successful, to change the face of music and still not be acknowledged, that is wrong.
I opened my mouth many a time. The last time I went to do a show at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, I had my cousin's son with me. We were walking around and I showed him the different exhibits. Then some girl who worked there came running up and said, "Would you like a VIP tour?" I said, "Not really, because I've worked in this business for 30, 40 years, and I don't see myself here. I don't see women here, acknowledged."
I'm glad to see that there is a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame exhibit for women. They were laughing and telling me that the reason my picture is in the front with my mouth open is because of my big mouth. That really clicked with me. You know, they're changing. They're opening their eyes.
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