In defense of True Colors

It comes down, as these things so often do, to timing and nostalgia. The year was 1986, and though I’d been listening to top 40 on the radio for several years by that point, I didn’t own any of it. It all kicked off finally when I got a cassette recorder small enough to keep in my room, and I started buying cassettes. As far as I can remember, the very first one I bought was Different Light by the Bangles, maybe not their most critically acclaimed record, but full of hits and, crucially, the one getting airplay at this formative moment.

Cyndi Lauper’s True Colors emerged during this same moment. Of course I’d heard the hits from She’s So Unusual on the radio, seen the videos on MTV, loved them. I don’t remember whether I knew any of the songs on True Colors by the time I got hold of it (surely at least the title track) but the point is: it was the first Cyndi Lauper album I’d heard. So it couldn’t disappoint me as a follow-up because for me, it wasn’t one. (A similar thing would happen a year or so later with the movie Aliens, but that’s another story.)

I got the cassette from the library, which is where I got so much of my music at the time (that and the various 10-for-a-penny mail order clubs I was joining and quitting and rejoining on a regular basis), and since this was one of the first albums I really got to know, I just assumed all of them sounded like this. I didn’t know much about production and arrangement at the time (I know only a little more now), but the sounds on so many of the tracks (“Change of Heart,” “Boy Blue,” and “One Track Mind” especially) are just what the 80s sounded like to me. The crazy leaps from idiom to idiom between songs seemed like exactly what you’d want to do to keep things interesting, and grew with repetition to seem perfectly natural. That voice united it all, barely, somehow, and it seemed like what I still imagine it was: an eccentric singer with eclectic taste coming off what must have seemed at the time like the start of her career rather than its zenith, singing all the weird songs she wanted to sing because she liked them.

It’s easy to prosecute, of course. “Boy Blue” has some lyrics I like but musically is probably the limpest handshake on the record after “One Track Mind”‘s anticlimactic outro. “Change of Heart” still gives me chills every time I hear the thunder in the beginning, but its 1986 pop/rock vibe is probably the most dated sound on the record. The title track I have to admit I still find lovely, largely because of Lauper’s vocal, but is so precariously earnest and overexposed through commercial use that I rarely sit through it; it’s no “Time After Time.” Her cover of “What’s Going On” is redundant if you know the original (but then, at the time, I didn’t). Many of the other tracks are enthusiastic, but miles away from duplicating the power of her Unusual singles.

Even at the time it seemed at least a little uncool. But somehow that’s what I liked about it. Put on “Time After Time” or “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” and the whole room sings along. Put on “Calm Inside the Storm” or “The Faraway Nearby” and the whole room looks at each other bewildered and leaves the dance floor for the bar. But I’m still there, in 1987 almost as nerdy as I would ever get, expecting as a matter of course to like uncool things that no one else did. So I embraced this weird-ass album tightly with both arms, and I still feel protective of it; its social awkwardness is undeniable, but remains a lot more charming than mine did. All my favorite Cyndi Lauper songs are the same as everyone else’s, and they’re all on She’s So Unusual. But if you really want to hear unusual, this is the place to get it.