Toronto
3 min

In Madge’s shadow

Pop princesses head for the light

SHE BOPS, SHE COOS. Cyndi Lauper still struggles while Britney hits her stride. Credit: Xtra files

Cyndi Lauper exploded on to the scene in 1983 with the number one single “Girls Just Want To Have Fun.” The next year Ms magazine voted this Betty Boop from Brooklyn woman of the year. She was it!



A talented character with Tang orange hair and a passion for professional wrestling, she was quirky and sweet with a multi-octave voice. Everyone loved her. Then along came a sexed-up bad girl in lace and rubber. Madonna. Lauper’s stardom faded away. She released more albums, got married, acted, had a kid. But she’s still loved most for that first album, She’s So Unusual, and its brilliant pop hits.



Twenty years later the press is pushing her new release as her comeback. At Last is a covers album and I have to say it’s dreadful. Too bad. Her voice is pristine and strong but her song choices are uninspired. Rickie Lee Jones and Laura Nyro got it right with their classic covers albums, Girl At Her Volcano and Gonna Take A Miracle. They chose forgotten songs, songs that fit them like gloves.



Lauper has chosen songs we’ve heard enough (“Unchained Melody,” “At Last,” “Walk On By”) and songs she shouldn’t be allowed to sing (“My Baby Just Cares For Me,” “If You Go Away”). Lauper has more in common with the great 1960s girl voices – Ronnie Spector, Timi Yuro, Darlene Love, Brenda Lee – she’s that good. She should be singing “River Deep, Mountain High” not “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” with its slow-as-a-mule arrangement.



There’s an annoying self importance, a public service of taste. On At Last, Lauper emphasizes every word as if she has you by the shoulders, is looking right at you, singing too close to your face. Listen to these words! Listen!



She co-produced the album with Russ Titelman (Rickie Lee Jones, Eric Clapton, Randy Newman) and with friends Stevie Wonder, Sheila E and Tony Bennett guesting. But it sounds so antiseptic, like a bad Christmas album. Her versions of “La Vie En Rose” and “Hymn Of Love” are the stand outs. She gets it. No showing off, just poetic and sombre in tone, reminiscent of Tom Waits’ Blue Valentine period. Lauper’s voice stays whispery and a touch gruff – suprisingly heart-breaking.



But fake impromptu Tony Bennett laughs on the “Makin’ Whoopee” duet, strange ska and sluggish reggae on a few tracks and changing the line “Even Lana Turner’s smile” on “My Baby Just Cares For Me,” to “Jennifer Aniston’s smile and Queen Latifah’s smile” is just the last straw.



***

Madonna, for some reason, has passed her powerful popularity torch to Britney (Ms Spears if you’re nasty), though I think Beyonce or Avril are more deserving. Britney comes across to me as a “beauty pageant baby, not yet a hockey mom” kinda gal – a hard shouldered, tax-paying enchantress, not a rebel. Right from the get go, Madonna was a headstrong rebel, willing to eat cheese popcorn out of trash cans. Doing it her way or no way. And Madge is Britney’s inspiration for her new album, In The Zone.



Smart move or rip off?



Not sure. But when the songs work, they work gangbusters. Britney hasn’t seen the light, she’s felt the cock and pussy. This album is about the power of her sex and letting go of fears and society’s expectations, discovering one’s self. And I thought math was hard.



We start with the Madonna co-written “Me Against The Music,” a brilliant dance track that owes a lot to Miss Jackson’s Rhythm Nation. But who cares? It’s pop.



Madonna gets the best lines. She can’t act in film but in song she’s Olivier. She coos, “Britney, you say you want to lose control/ Lady, I’d rather see you bare your soul.” Britney’s almost there, with the help of writers including Cathy Dennis and R Kelly and a long list of hot producers: Moby, The Matrix and Trixter to name a few. They give her a cooler more eccentric vibe: This is her Erotica with a generous helping of Ray Of Light.



“Showdown” is a dub/skankin’ pop confection where Britney is a dirty girl, taunting with lines like, “When you come, don’t get too hot.” Moby-produced “Early Morning” is incredibly atmospheric with “Love To Love You Baby” sexy whispers and a fun rap. She sees a boy and wants him.



“Toxic” is the killer track. It has a Bollywood feel, strings and spaghetti western guitars. What’s not to love? A boy is dangerous but she’s smitten. “I’m addicted to you/ But you know that you’re toxic.” Madonna would be proud.



Britney’s voice is sweeter and softer, not as robotic as in the past. The album has a few insipid generic ballads and a couple of duds but as the Material Girl drumbeats of “Brave New Girl” hit, Britney sings “She’s gonna step outside/ Uncover her eyes/ Don’t want to behave/ Isn’t it good to be a brave girl tonight.” Britney has become a gay man, finally, so I have to love her now.

AT LAST.
Cyndi Lauper.
Sony. $17.99.

IN THE ZONE.
Britney Spears.
BMG. $16.99.