Why Madonna Succeeded Where Cyndi Lauper Failed
Madonna and Cyndi Lauper appeared on the music scene around the same time in the 1980s. Madonna is still going strong and is still very well known. Lauper is still making music and peforming but isn't a household name. She's remembered for just a few songs. So, why is it that two artists who started out so big took such different career trajectories? And are there Madonna and Cyndi equivalents among today's major pop girls?
New Yorker Cyndi Lauper, born Cynthia Ann Stephanie Lauper, released her debut album She's So Unusual in 1983. The album produced four megahits Girls Just Want to Have Fun, Time After Time, She Bop, and All Through the Night. Her next two albums were also successes. Lauper went on to sell more than 25 million albums. Then she faded away. However, Cyndi is far from being a failure. She has worldwide record sales of 50 million and has won Grammy, Emmy, and Tony awards, which is a rare feat.
Michigan native Madonna Louise Ciccone released her first single in 1982 and is still a big name in music 30 years later. She's sold more than 300 million records worldwide. She's the best-selling female recording artist of all time according to the Guinness Book of World Records. Not only is she a successful singer, she's an entrepreneur, actress, author and director. She's become a musical icon and has influenced many of today's young female artists.
So, why did Cyndi Lauper fade away while Madonna continues to have commercial success and iconic status?
Madonna's Debut Everybody
Madonna Wanted Fame More
Madonna was business savvy. She was aware of the need to continually reinvent herself and her sound. She knew how to market herself. Cher said about Madonna:
...she is always riding the crest of the wave. She always saw trends WAY before anyone else...
Cyndi Lauper wanted to make the music she wanted to make. Not what happened to be hot at the time. Madonna was also willing to exploit her sexuality to gain attention in much the same way Miley Cyrus is doing today. She created controversy with her book Sex, which had explicit photographs and her explicit Erotica album. Madonna also courted religious controversy with her Like A Prayer video.
Lauper was far less controversial than Madonna, which would have meant less press interest in her. The most controversial part of her career was probably her song She Bop making the Parents Music Resource Center's "Filthy Fifteen" list because it was about masturbation.
“An utterly satisfying examination of the business of popular music.” ―Nathaniel Rich, The Atlantic
Cyndi Wanted to Make Personal Music
Madonna didn't seem like she really cared about music. She wanted success and fame and the music industry was a means to accomplish that. This is not to say she didn't care about the music she made. She's a perfectionist who has strong visions for how she wants her albums to sound. But her albums were clearly made with a focus on commercial success rather than artistry.
Cyndi's debut Girls Just Want to Have Fun
Lauper was more of a true artist. She stubbornly wanted to make the music she loved and fought with her label for creative control. Madonna was a businesswoman who would follow whatever musical trends would sell.
Cyndi changed over time. She left her crazy, colorful image behind and started making personal music. This kind of music was less appealing to her younger fans and due to her earlier crazy pop girl image, she likely wasn't taken seriously by the kinds of people who would buy more serious music.
In the 1980s, it was common to see Madonna clones. Cyndi clones were a less common sight. Her image wasn't as attractive to young women and wasn't as easy to imitate. Just like how Katy Perry has a more appealing image to young girls than someone like Adele.
There was also an age difference. Cyndi was already 30 when she had her first hit. This made it more difficult for teenage fans to identify with her. She was already in her mid 30's when her third album came out. Madonna was only 24 when she first came on the music scene making it easier for young girls to identify with her.
Whose Music Do You Prefer?
Cyndi Lauper took big breaks between album releases. This is the release schedule for her first four albums.
- 1983 She's So Unusual
- 1986 True Colors
- 1989 A Night to Remember
- 1993 Hat Full of Stars
She also starred in the flop comedy film Vibes. In that same time period, Madonna released twice as many albums, starred in the hugely successful movie A League of Our Own and started her own record label Maverick Records. She was far more productive and always in the public eye. Cyndi was disappearing from the music scene for long chunks of time.
Are There Equivalents of Madonna and Cyndi Today?
The Madonna and Cyndi story is so compelling that people will look for comparisons with today's artists. California girl Katy Perry sometimes gets cast as a modern Madonna because she left behind her early pop rock sound to pursue commercial pop instead. And she's had huge success doing it. Many early fans felt she was a sellout. However, I don't think Katy has the level of ambition Madonna had. It's possible that she'll give up pop music at some point and transition to acoustic music where her real talent actually lies.
Katy Perry has said she wants to make an acoustic album someday
A more recent and much more Madonna-like example is Nashville born Miley Cyrus. She's using the same kinds of shocking techniques to gain publicity and it worked well for her so far. She successfully manipulated the media and general public to draw attention to herself. However, it's a bit early to cast her as today's Madonna because we don't yet know how she'll fare over the next few years. Time will tell if she's a worthy successor to Madonna.
Kesha and Lady Gaga are two artists who have fallen on hard times, so they are sometimes cast as the modern Cyndi equivalents. Kesha's excellent sophomore album Warrior and last two singles were major flops. Gaga's experimental (and to me disappointing) Born this Way album sold far less than her debut and produced fewer successful singles.
Like Cyndi Lauper, Kesha has a beautiful ballad that repeats the phrase "time after time"
Like Cyndi, Kesha Sebert (who like Miley is also from Nashville) is a true artist who stubbornly wants to make music she loves and is frustrated because she has to make radio friendly music. Instead of big names in pop, she brought rock legends and alternative artists onto her Warrior album as collaborators and she created a very artistic, noncommercial companion EP called Deconstructed. Kesha also fought her label Kemosabe Records for creative control.
Interestingly, Cyndi was the one who introduced Kesha's Die Young performance at the 2012 American Music Awards and both women have ballads that repeat the phrase "time after time" over and over. It's like she was destined to follow in Cyndi's footsteps. However, Kesha already made a comeback with her newest song Timber. She's working on her third album and she's filed a lawsuit to break her contract with Kemosabe.
New Yorker Lady Gaga (Stefani Germanotta) is compared to Cyndi because she had a massive era with her debut The Fame and a less successful but still very profitable era with Born This Way. However, her most recent lead single Applause struggled to get off the ground. She's since had flop singles and ARTPOP was a critical disaster. The Gaga comparison is understandable since she started off huge like Cyndi but then ran into trouble during her second album. However, she does have a massive and very devoted fan base. I don't see Lady Gaga going away any time soon because she has a large enough fan base to sustain her.
It's tempting to make these comparisons between today's artists and Madonna and Cyndi. The causes of Kesha's and Lady Gaga's troubles were very different from what happened with Cyndi. Many artists go through struggles in their careers and then bounce back. Time will tell if there really is a modern Madonna and Cyndi among us.
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