Cyndi Lauper Talks Memoirs, Music—And Seders with Springsteen

"Everything in life that you don’t understand opens up to you as you live."

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Cyndi Lauper photographed May 8, 2012 in New York City.

It’s been nearly 30 years since Cyndi Lauper’s 1983 album She’s So Unusual rocketed the singer to stardom with songs like “Girls Just Want To Have Fun,” “Time After Time” and “She Bop”—but her most famous album is only a small piece of Lauper’s story. In a new book, Cyndi Lauper: A Memoir—out Sept. 18—the pop songstress recounts her life, from the sexual traumas of a rough youth and the importance of being the first female streaker on a Vermont college campus to her time on Celebrity Apprentice and her work helping homeless transgender youth. And that’s not all she’s up to: she’s also writing the music for the upcoming musical theater version of Kinky Boots (opening on Broadway next March) and getting ready for her new reality show, Cyndi Lauper: Still So Unusual (coming soon on WE tv).

Lauper spoke to TIME about saving the world with rock and roll, opening for The Kinks and the importance of music-industry seders.

TIME: Why did you decide to write a memoir now?

Cyndi Lauper: I had been wanting to write this for many years. As I was living through it, as a kid and as a young adult, I always thought to myself, “Well, it’ll make a great book.”

The tone of the book is very conversational. What was the writing process like?

Originally I wanted to write it [alone] and then I realized, fat chance I’ll have the time to write the way I was imagining I would be able to write. I don’t know what I was thinking, but you see stories about writers where they go for a walk, they come back, they type all day. [Jancee Dunn, with whom Lauper wrote,] is a rocker. She worked for Rolling Stone and she had written her own memoir, so I felt that she was perfect for me. I’m not Ernest Hemingway. I’m gonna write how I talk. I’ve always felt even as a songwriter that the rhythm of speech is in itself a language for me.

Speaking of writing the way you talk, a lot of the stories in the book have to do with you saying everything that comes mind.

Yeah, some of it, we would laugh and say “there’s no filter.” But I think that as I got older I got a little wise to that action. Maybe perhaps you don’t have to agree with someone but you don’t have to jump in.

What was the most unfiltered thing you ever said?

It was probably to the suits. They had no conception that I was an artist and didn’t understand what they did, as our business got more and more corporate, which was never what it was supposed to be. Rock and roll was going to save the world.

(MOREMove Over ‘Song of Summer’—the ‘Song of Fall’ Is Here)

Do you still think rock and roll can save the world?

It’s up to the individuals. People can save the world by the way they think and by the way they behave and what they hold to be important. The industry has changed a lot; every kid wants to be famous but they don’t know for what. The reality star has become huge, because of the oddity of it, I guess. But then I can’t say because I have a reality show!

How has the environment for female musicians changed since you started?

I don’t know that it has. I went to [a concert at] Randall’s Island to go see Matt & Kim and Snoop Dogg and some really wonderful deejays, and a girl came up to me and thanked me for my work. She was an African-African young woman who was in the industry, and she said “especially now”—and this really shocked me—“in the environment of all the rape music that’s so popular.” I guess things will change, because if the young start to be inundated with one way they’ll go completely the other. That’s just how it goes. That’s one thing I learned from writing the book. Everything does go in a circle.

I was sitting in an office because my editor finally said, “She’ll never finish unless she can focus.” But the phone was ringing, so I picked it up one day. I said, “Simon & Schuster. How may I help you?” I put the phone down and I said, “Oh my God. I’ve said those words before.” I realized that my first job was for Simon & Schuster. I was 17 and told them I was 19. I really wasn’t cut out for an office and I would daydream a lot and I would fall asleep reading the mail because it was boring. That did not last. But I realized that I guess, in life, if you don’t get it right the first time, you just come around again in a different way.

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As a performer, who’s the most fun person you’ve ever toured with or performed with?

I always enjoyed the Bangles. They were fun. With the Kinks, I didn’t understand that the road crew is a lot different from the band. Sometimes the road crew, to an opening act, can be real bitchy. But then I got to know Ray [Davies] and I thought what a nutty, fantastically creative artist. I was so young—I wasn’t really young; I think I was never young in this industry—and finally I said, “Listen, if you’re not going to give me the tools to do what I do, I’m not going to be on this tour. I’m going to go on TV and I’m going to be famous on television.” The last time I sang with him I left [Roseland Ballroom in New York City, on New Year’s Eve 1983,] and I went to MTV [for the 1983-1984 Rock ‘N’ Roll Ball and the first live television performance of “Girls Just Want To Have Fun”]. And after that, it started to roll.

What do you mean, you were never really young in the industry?

When “Girls Just Want To Have Fun” came out, I was 30. They were saying, “How old are you?” and even then I was like, “Why? You think I’m a car? You need to check under the hood and kick the tires?” I had a mindset to contribute to music and make an effective change that would help women in the world. When I was told “Girls Just Want To Have Fun” would be an anthem, I thought about how it really could be an anthem. And you know, I burnt my training bra, kinda-sorta, at the first women’s demonstration in Central Park. I was there.

Are there any of your songs that you don’t particularly like to perform?

Actually, no. I wouldn’t record any song that I didn’t like. Everyone said to me, “Oh, you know, it doesn’t matter.” And I was thinking, “Oh, yes, it does.” Dick Clark was a really great influence in my career; he helped me a lot with his whole organization and they were awesome to me at all different points—but one thing that I really disagreed with him on was when he said that what I do, pop music, is a disposable art form. That I took issue with.

Are there any young artists today who have that kind of integrity?

Plenty! Not all of them are on the radio because radio doesn’t play music; the record companies promote three acts, that’s what they put their money into, and that’s why you only hear three songs over and over again. The music you hear now, you hear in the clubs and you seek them out. Like Matt & Kim. And I like Hunter Valentine.

(MOREWatch Cyndi Lauper’s Impromptu Airport Performance of “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun”)

One of my favorite moments in your book was your quip about “Et tu, Bru-cay?” when Bruce Springsteen gave you a dirty look at a record-industry seder. 

It was no fun. All the women spoke when they were spoken to and when they did speak they talked about their husbands and they were promoting their husbands because, let’s face it, we were at a business dinner. I have been to awesome seders. One of them, in the ’90s, was a dress-up seder and everyone sang different songs. I came as the child in a school uniform with my ukulele, and I sang “Kumbaya-slash-Let My People Go.” Now that’s a kick-ass seder; that was not the case that day. And when I went up to [Springsteen] he was with his first wife and I was looking at them going, “Finally, people I can talk to.” I said, “Oh my God, it’s awful, you can’t speak your mind…” and she said “Yeah, I know.” Then Bruce just looked at me with a dirty look. I thought, “What about “Rosalita”?” I was so upset. But now Bruce has daughters, so his life changed; I have a son, I live in a guy’s house. Everything in life that you don’t understand opens up to you as you live.

Did you worry at all about what the people you mention would think when they read the book—like Springsteen?

I didn’t say anything terrible. Did you think I did?

Not at all. It just seems like it might be nerve-wracking.

Well, I don’t know what the hell he was going through. Apparently [Springsteen and his wife] weren’t doing so well.

I also notice that you write a lot about having dreams or visions before big moments in your life, like seeing angels when you were recording “True Colors.” Does that still happen?

Not like it used to when I was a kid.

Have you had any visions lately?

When I sing I have a lot of visions. Like what’s happening now in my life. There are three big, huge things—the book, writing the music for the musical of Kinky Boots, and the reality show. Sometimes I have visions about that. You feel like you’re standing in the middle of the perfect storm, this triangle thing.

And do you ever bust out your Ethel Merman impression anymore?

I used to do a lot of Ethel singing the Beatles and Johnny Mathis singing “Stairway to Heaven,” but no, I don’t do that much anymore. You just find yourself in a hurry all the time and you miss out on all the cuckoo stuff. Sometimes, if it’s a late night, I’ll do something. But usually it’s Maureen Stapleton.