With album sales hitting a historic low this week, there’s currently no shortage of hand-wringing think pieces on the “Death of the Album,” all lamenting that in the age of all-you-can-stream, the art of the album has given way to the bite-size-only beast that is digital culture.
Conversely, Cyndi Lauper’s Grammy-winning, platinum-selling She’s So Unusual was released 30 years and three weeks ago, in the age the spawned the standard against which we’re currently measuring the 21st century’s waning record sales. Maybe it was the disclaimer just before the show — which urged in a witty, pun-ridden an “unusual” manner for attendees to enjoy the show as if it were still the smartphone-free '80s — that kept it fresh on The Spin’s mind just how novel what we were watching has become.
There was indeed a healthy turnout in TPAC’s Jackson Hall (though not a sell-out), where adults as young as 25-ish came out to hear what was promised to be the singer’s debut record in its entirety, as it was originally recorded. We caught just half of opening act Hunter Valentine’s last song. They were a female crew of Torontonians heavy on the riffage, howling at top volume and revving up an already antsy crowd.
Given the fact that The Spin’s last few pop shows were glossy arena spectacles, Lauper’s production was actually refreshingly bare-bones. The 60-year-old singer was backed by a five-piece band (with Unusual co-producer William Wittman on bass), and her pale, pouty face was framed by fire-engine red ringlets that resembled a deluge of confetti spirals, the rest of her clad in leather, fringe and combat boots. Her squeaky Queens accent was instantly both familiar and endearing as she delivered a brief introduction just before the band whizzed through side A with hardly a breath. Meaning, of course, that the set was front-loaded with some of the singer’s best-known hits. The crowd rose and fell all throughout "Money Changes Everything" (seemingly uncertain of whether they could afford to commit so much energy to standing), but when Lauper and band started in on the career-defining second track of She's So Unusual ("Girls Just Wanna Have Fun," of course), no one was seated.
“Time After Time” and the Prince-penned “When U Were Mine were rocked with little or no pre-recorded accompaniment. Not that they needed it: The band was professional-grade tight, and Lauper’s performance was animated, dramatic, impassioned and at times unsettlingly peculiar. Her voice was powerful as ever, but her occasionally melismatic and/or imperfect vocal choices reminded us, “This is what real people sound like when they just sing into a mic.”
Lauper also included a fistful of long-winded but ultimately endearing anecdotes, aided by a generous helping of expletives. Like the one about recording the controversial “She Bop” (apparently she sang the song topless while tickling her own ribs, which prompted the laughter you hear on the album’s finished track). The stories came more and more frequently throughout the set — she talked about opening for The Human League, a disastrous gig with The Kinks (people through quarters at her, but she needed the money), and an ex-boyfriend who gave her a clock so loud that it inspired the first line of “Time After Time.”
With Side B, the band got tighter — dipping into extended instrumental breakdowns, Lauper got looser, her voice warming into a shimmery warble projecting at top volume, her moves more carefree. The ska-inspired “Witness” and hit “All Through the Night” were standouts. The album’s vaudevillian semi-title track “He’s So Unusual” (originally performed by the Helen Kane, who was the inspiration for Betty Boop) was performed solo on solo ukulele.
It’s tough to tell if we got two encores or one. The band only left the stage once, but they did abandon their stations to take a bow another time. Lauper broke out “Goonies R Good Enough” from the 1985 film The Goonies, "Sex Is in the Heel" from her Harvey Fierstein co-penned musical Kinky Boots, her 2001 single “Shine” and a fierce a cappella rendition of Frankie Laine's “I’m Gonna Be Strong” before closing the evening with perhaps her finest jam, “True Colors” — a stark but powerful ballad championing individuality that has since become a gay-pride anthem ... and at one time helped Kodak sell film.
Tuesday night's turnout proved that no one’s yet signed the death certificate on “the album” as we know it, even if it’s not likely that a record as impeccable as She’s So Unusual could replicate its success in the modern market. Will the album still be gasping along in 29 years, when Taylor Swift’s 30th Anniversary Red tour tickets go on sale? We'll be there to let you know.