The Number Ones

October 25, 1986

The Number Ones: Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors”

Stayed at #1:

2 Weeks

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

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Cyndi Lauper wasn’t built to be a part of the pop establishment — or, at least, she wasn’t built to remain a part of the pop establishment. When Lauper showed up with her debut album She’s So Unusual at the end of 1983, she was a true American pop oddball — a new-wave Muppet with neon hair, thrift-shop clothes, and a voice that sounded like Joe Cocker had a baby with Betty Boop. The loopy energy of She’s So Unusual was perfectly timed for that early-MTV moment. The album sold six million copies and sent four singles into the top 10. The incandescent ballad “Time After Time” made it to #1. With one album, the 30-year-old Lauper had moved from the margins to the center.

But Cyndi Lauper was not Madonna, another singer who came from the New York new wave landscape around the same time and who figured out, again and again, how to ride the constantly-shifting zeitgeist. Lauper, on the other hand, never seemed determined to remain the center of attention, to keep the solar system revolving around her. Madonna had a killer instinct, and that was a key element of her starpower. Lauper, by contrast, has a natural-goofball charisma, which isn’t necessarily the same thing as starpower. Lauper turned out to be more Joe Pesci than Robert De Niro — the character actor, not the movie star. But when Cyndi Lauper was on top, she did something with it.

With her second and final #1 single, Lauper sang the kind of song that lingers — a soft anthem of warm, friendly encouragement. “True Colors” has transcended both its moment and its original recording. It has found its way to the people who need it.

Lauper definitely had some star moments during her run. She reportedly didn’t think “We Are The World” was a good song, but she still nailed her part, giving arguably the most memorable vocal performance of the whole track. On that song, her voice and presence are huge. For the few seconds that she’s singing, she makes the song about her. She used her celebrity in the same way. For instance: She helped make wrestling popular.

After the wrestler-turned-manager Captain Lou Albano made cameos in a bunch of her early videos, Lauper started showing up at World Wrestling Federation shows just as the WWF was making a push to go from a regional promotion to the world’s biggest wrestling company. At the first WrestleMania in 1985, for instance, Lauper managed Wendi Richter, dancing around the ring with Richter when she won the Women’s Championship. That same year, a bunch of WWF wrestlers, most notably Rowdy Roddy Piper and the Iron Shiek, starred in Lauper’s awesomely cartoonish video for “The Goonies ‘R’ Good Enough,” her song from the soundtrack to The Goonies. (“The Goonies ‘R’ Good Enough” peaked at #10. It’s a 7.)

Lauper’s bright, outlandish energy was perfect for pro wrestling. Like most of the mid-’80s WWF roster, she was a human cartoon character. That’s why she popped on MTV, too. But as the center of pop turned away from early-MTV new wave and back toward corporate rock, Lauper no longer fit in quite the same way. Compared to She’s So Unusual, True Colors, Lauper’s second album, is a bit bloated and unwieldy. True Colors has contributions from a whole lot of famous people: Billy Joel, Nile Rodgers, the Bangles, Rick Derringer, Pee Wee Herman. It’s got a cover of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” that nobody really needed. It’s weighed down by the thudding corporate-pop production sound that every big album had at the time. And True Colors ultimately resonated way less than She’s So Unusual, selling only about a third of what her first album had moved. (That was still good enough, mind you, for True Colors to go double platinum.)

But True Colors has “True Colors.” “True Colors” isn’t Cyndi Lauper’s best song, and it’s not her most famous. But “True Colors” is probably the Cyndi Lauper song that’s offered the most comfort to the most people over the decades. The song’s message is a little bit pat and simplistic, and it’s got some production choices that anchor it to its moment in some regrettable ways. But pop songs are allowed to be pat and simplistic, and they’re allowed to be dated, too. “True Colors” gets away with all that because it radiates a sheer, overwhelming goodness. It sounds like a friend.

Cyndi Lauper didn’t write “True Colors.” In fact, “True Colors” is one of the only songs on True Colors that doesn’t list Lauper as a songwriter. (The others are the covers: The aforementioned version of “What’s Going On,” which peaked at #12, and a take on the Dixie Cups’ girl-group classic “Iko Iko.”) Instead, “True Colors” came from Tom Kelly and Billy Steinberg, the songwriting team responsible for Madonna’s “Like A Virgin.” Steinberg initially wrote “True Colors” about his mother, and then he rewrote it to make it more universal, a process that took some time.

Kelly and Steinberg offered an earlier version of “True Colors” to Kenny Rogers, who was working with the Beatles producer George Martin at the time. Rogers and Martin passed on the song, but Martin’s interest pushed the duo to finish “True Colors.” Kelly and Steinberg brought the song to Lauper only after previous Number Ones artist Anne Murray had turned it down. Lauper took their demo, which had been a more traditional ballad, and turned it into a whisper-to-howl synth-rocker.

Lauper had her own reasons for singing “True Colors” the way she did. When she recorded the song, she was thinking about her friend Gregory Natal, who had recently died of AIDS. On the Australian version of 60 Minutes years later, Lauper talked about the choices that she made on “True Colors”: “I realized it had to be a voice that whispers to you — a voice that’s almost childlike, so that it would speak to the basic DNA — the softest, most gentle part of a human being. Then you’d hear a voice whisper to you and tell you, ‘It’s gonna be OK.'” Honestly, Lauper’s explanation fucks me up just as much as the song itself.

The song does a lot, too. Lauper sounds like one little kid trying to give a pep talk to another little kid. On the verses, she sings as softly as her bazooka voice will allow, murmuring consolation and encouragement: “You with the sad eyes, don’t be discouraged.” On the chorus, she starts to blow it open and then pulls herself back. She swings between a whisper and a wail, as if she’s trying to rein in her own fear and despair. Her elemental howl sometimes wells up, but then she smushes it back down. It’s a hell of a performance, emotional and vulnerable and nuanced and strong.

Lauper co-produced “True Colors” with Lennie Petze, and their production on the song holds it back a bit. There’s something primal and inviting about the deep, resonant drum hits and the quiet synth-drones. But the big-’80s sheen on everything clashes with the unvarnished sentiment, and all the processed synths and guitars sound canned and sickly. These days, when Lauper sings “True Colors,” she usually sings it as an acoustic lullaby. That’s probably what the song should be. But then, maybe those production choices, which can’t help but make “True Colors” sound dated, helped push the song up the charts in 1986. Maybe they helped “True Colors” find an audience that needed a song like that.

At the end of the “True Colors” chorus, Lauper sings that your true colors “are beautiful, like a rainbow.” She delivers that line a few different ways on the song, but she always since those last three words gently, with a sort of hushed awe. I don’t know whether Lauper meant for “True Colors” to click with LGBTQ audiences the way it did. Maybe, when it comes to that kind of thing, intent goes out the window. Maybe something like fate guides the song.

The first rainbow flag had flown at the Gay Freedom Day Parade in 1978, but I don’t remember the rainbow being anywhere near as recognized in 1986 as it is today. (“True Colors” hit #1 a few weeks after my seventh birthday, so correct me if I’m wrong there.) But when she recorded “True Colors,” Lauper had been thinking about a gay man who died of a disease that American authorities were loathe to even recognize. And when “True Colors” became a queer anthem, Lauper embraced it. In 2008, Lauper founded True Colors United, a nonprofit to help homeless LGBTQ kids. (It later changed its name to the True Colors Fund.) It’s hard to imagine a song having a better legacy than that.

Lauper never returned to #1 after “True Colors,” and she only hit the top 10 a couple more times. Lauper followed “True Colors” with the heartsick dance-pop track “Change Of Heart,” which peaked at #3. (It’s a 7.) Then, in 1989, Lauper made it to #6 with “I Drove All Night,” another song written by Tom Kelly and Billy Steinberg. (That one is an 8. Kelly and Steinberg’s work will appear in this column again.) “I Drove All Night” was the lead single from Lauper’s album A Night To Remember, which merely went gold. Lauper was no longer at the center of the pop conversation. None of her later singles went anywhere near the top 10. Her run as a pop star was great, but it was also short.

But Lauper never seemed too worried about holding onto pop stardom. Instead, she seemed way more concerned with doing fun, cool shit. Lauper sang the theme song for Pee Wee’s Playhouse. She played a psychic in the campy 1988 comedy Vibes. She won an Emmy for a recurring role on Mad About You. Then, in 2012, Lauper wrote the music and lyrics for the musical Kinky Boots. The show became a Broadway hit, and Lauper won a Tony. She’s just an Oscar away from the full EGOT.

Cyndi Lauper seems pretty perfectly suited to Broadway. In recent years, she’s been working on writing songs for a musical version of the 1988 movie Working Girl, and that’ll apparently be ready to open soon after Broadway theaters return. In the meantime, Cyndi Lauper is just a delightful person to have around. It’s great that she got to be a pop star, and it’s just as great that she’s stuck around afterward.

GRADE: 8/10

BONUS BEATS: In 1998, Phil Collins released a Babyface-produced “True Colors” cover as part of a greatest-hits album. Here’s Collins’ video for his version of the song:

(Phil Collins has been in this column a bunch of times already, and he’ll be here a bunch more times. As lead artist, Babyface’s highest-charting single is 1994’s “When Can I See You,” which peaked at #4. It’s an 8. As a songwriter and producer, Babyface will eventually appear in this column.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Fredro Starr and Jill Scott interpolated “True Colors” on “Shining Through,” a track from the soundtrack to the 2000 movie Save The Last Dance. (Seven years earlier, Save The Last Dance star Julia Stiles had been in Cyndi Lauper’s “Sally’s Pigeons” video.) Here’s “Shining Through”:

(Fredro Starr has never had a Hot 100 hit as a solo artist. But Starr is also a member of Onyx, whose highest-charting single, 1993’s “Slam,” peaked at #4. It’s a 9. Jill Scott’s highest-charting single, 2001’s “A Long Walk,” peaked at #43.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the raggedly triumphant “True Colors” cover that the great British punk band Leatherface released in 2000:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the bit from a 2006 Veronica Mars episode where a sorority a cappella group sings “True Colors” to Kristen Bell:

(Kristen Bell’s highest-charting single is 2013’s “Love Is An Open Door,” the Santino Fontana duet from the Frozen soundtrack. It peaked at #49.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: The emotional climax from the garbage-ass 2016 movie Trolls is the bit where Justin Timberlake and Anna Kendrick sing “True Colors” to each other. Here’s that scene:

(Justin Timberlake will eventually appear in this column. Anna Kendrick’s highest-charting single is 2013’s “Cups,” which peaked at #6. It’s a 4.)

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