Now, I know what you’re thinking—Isn’t Cyndi Lauper sort of a one-shot 80’s fashion-nerd pop princess, the one who came out with the killer debut album She’s So Unusual that sold a gazillion copies, with, what, four or five Top Ten hits, and then she kinda never did anything ever again? Goofy, helium-voiced, Bronxy blond-in-a-bottle bubblehead?
Why, oh, why would one of my low low-culture tolerances and advanced station in life want to attend such an event?
Well, there are a few reasons. The first and by far the most important one, is that watching my (shhhhh—very quiet here—whispering) tone-deaf /rhythm –challenged husband rock out to anything is one of the very great pleasures of my marrying him. He loves the music that he loves, and I love to watch him enjoy it so much. And he loves Cyndi L with a fierce lollipop passion that will not be quenched by snickers and rolled eyeballs no matter who does the snickering and the eye-rolling. (Even me.)
Another reason to go see Cyndi is that, while she’s no longer producing hit pop records, what she has become is somewhat….unusual, as you might well expect. I don’t know if this is a second act, unversed in the twists and turns of her career in the intervening 25+ years since her monster album, or if she’s gone through other iterations. But now, with a massively talented band behind her, she has become a more-than-credible Delta Blues singer. For, like, realsies. If you remember her voice, she relied a lot on a baby-talk delivery along with nasal intonations and the occasional breathy barely-making-it high-pitched “Bop!” as main staples of her vocal repertoire.
Fast forward to now: she lacks the gravel and the lower register that gives so many blues singers gravitas and knowing sexuality. But when she locates her voice in her chest rather than from her nose and throat, she has a surprisingly supple soprano, sure and open; strong, long, with perfect pitch and dynamite timing. And when she puts her mind to the blues, it turns out it’s well worth listening to.
So it turns out Cyndi’s day job is working as a white blues singer. Who knew? I, for one, did not know. My Other Nostril showed me a clip from a recent Grammy’s performance (click here to see it-- I just don't seem to be smart enough to embed the YouTube videos directly into my blog... Boo!) where she was wailing it out with Buddy Guy and Mavis Staples singing the Howling Wolf/ Koko Taylor classic Wang Dang Doodle. (Holding her own up there with Miss Mavis Staples? Stealing the show, actually? Well, ex-cuse me!)
But what the crowd came for, in droves, was Cyndi Classic. More on that in a minute…
As it turns out, there are other reasons to be interested in what Sister Cyndi is up to—she’s become quite the gay icon, and she, like Lady Gaga, works hard for the fans that worship her. She and Our Lady G are the faces of the MAC Glam campaign that, among other goals, works to educate young women about protecting themselves from HIV/AIDS and other STDs. And she’s started the True Colors Foundation to help keep LGBT homeless kids off the street. She's performed for the Gay Games up in Vancouver and in Chicago. I saw her kick the Vancouver games off with an inspired version of Girls Just Wanna Have Fun with a veritable army of drag queens as back-up singers and dancers. Cyndi, along with Bette Midler, Megan Mullally, and Kathy Griffin, seems to be taking up the time-honored Elizabeth Taylor mantle of being those gals who are sorta-mostly-straight best-friends-of-the-gays broads, doing a lot of good work and having a lot of fun doing it.
But the last, and, for me, perhaps the most interesting reason for me to go see her was the phenomenon I’m still marveling over all these many years of traveling the wider world, which is the indestructible life and nearly universal “love,” if that’s the word, of American pop music. I mean seriously. American music is the cockroach of all human artistic endeavor—it will just forever survive. As sure you can safely count on being able to find a pizza anyplace a backpacker has ever hoofed to on this earth. Nothing—not language barriers, not anti-American sentiment, and certainly not the boundaries of good taste can kill this stuff. Pop music, and by that I mean made in the good ole’ U. S. of A., is in every cab, every café, and every club you walk into all over the world. As an example, I have never quite gotten over the huge play that Lionel Ritchie gets, in all places, Cambodian buses.
I mean, South America is the proud cradle of some of the world’s highest dance music forms: samba, mamba, salsa, tango. And really what cabdrivers wanna listen to as they toodle around town is Total Eclipse of the Heart? I can’t figure it.
So I wanted to see who was going to show up for this espectaculo, and how they would react to her performance.
I’ll get to the crowd right quick, but let me take a brief moment and describe the teatro, which was really something to see—a ~dreamy~ deco classic, clearly based on Radio City Music Hall. Much smaller of course, but beautifully proportioned with a huge high arch framing the stage, all done in a smooth cocoa wood, and just a handful of spare, tasteful carved finials. (I downloaded this image, it doesn't give you a sense of how lovely the stage opening is...)
The crowd was… well, surprisingly young, to my eyes. I’m much more used to the relatively new, and somewhat mortifying phenomenon of classic “rock” concerts, where all of the headline performers and 85% of the crowds are comfortably in their “middle” years (this is how I’m nicely saying 55+.)
(Do I sound like a horrible ageist snob, I, who am about to turn 43 next week, I, who am solidly set in middle agedom, making snark about such things? Well, yes, yes I am. I happen to believe that rock is by and for the young. It is meant to be a big “f*ck you” to all that came before it, and clinging to that signifier of radical revolution while worrying more and more about your 401(k)’s performance and how long you can put off getting a new knee is a bit foolish to my eyes. Let it go. Youth is for the young.)
Ok about all that, and never mind. We are all here to see Miss Cyndi, and the crowd is younger. Maybe thirty-two is the median age, with a handful of kids under ten and a few heads of white hair. The crowd is certainly gayer and more fashion-forward than the average Porteño on the street, and that’s always super fun to see.
Our tickets say the show starts at 9:30. We get there at 9:15, and the warm-up act is on stage. I think their name was “La Carita.” I wish I could remember the band’s name, because then I could warn you to never, ever go see them. Their set was painfully bad, destructively loud, and blessedly short. At 9:20, after several horrible, generic garage rock songs, they thanked the crowd, and took leave of the stage. The crowd applauded graciously to see them go.
The curtain closed, and then opened again, right at 9:30, to reveal the stage tricked out with several snazzy drum sets, an elaborate keyboard station, and all the rest, ready for Cyndi’s band. The crowd stood and roared. Then nobody came out, and after a while, everyone sat down again. Let’s say it was now 9:32.
Here’s where it got interesting. I was struck many times through the night by the active participation of the Porteño audience, and this was the first sign of it. Just about every two minutes after 9:30 as we all waited for the show to begin, the crowd would start clapping and chanting, often invoking the tune of the classic soccer taunt, “O-lééé/ Olé, olé, olé/ O-lééé, o-léééé,” except using her name: “Cyn-dííí/ Cyndí, Cyndí, Cyndí/ Cyn-dííí, Cyn-díííí.”
I have to tell you: I loved this. I think the whole rock-and-roll f*ck-the-crowd my-show-starts-45-minutes late routine is one word, and that is rude.
Well BsAs wasn’t gonna sit on their hands and take her lateness quietly. The tickets said the show starts at 9:30, and that’s what they were expecting. Two words: Right on.
Ok, so this goes on for about 20 minutes—The Other Nostril and I were laying small bets about whether the crowd was going to turn ugly—either riot or walk out-- or just keep chanting. Bazr proclaimed that for all the fussing the second the show started all would be forgiven, and turns out, as in most things, he was right.
Because the second Cyndi took to the stage at about 9:50, the crowd was on its feet, and it was with her. They absolutely loved her, and, for her part, she put on a hell of a show.
I’ll talk more about that in a minute, but there was more crowd action that warrants reporting.
So, when I say the crowd was on its feet, that’s just what I meant—When she came out on stage, everyone stood and cheered—no surprise there, considering how much the crowd adored her. But then, because a good third of the crowd was either filming or taking pictures of the concert, they remained standing, with their video camera or cell phones over their heads, flashing and snapping and filming away the entire time. If you were sitting behind someone who had decided they were going to film the whole two hours of music to treasure this night forever, well too bad for you!!! It was beyond obnoxious. It was beyond beyond!!
We were about 14 rows back, and on the aisle, and so thankfully for most of the concert, most of our view was unblocked. This was also a function of the fact that the group in front of us, after the first 10 minutes of the show, chose to remain seated. Not so for the one big guy in front of them, who, no matter how many times the usher came by to ask him to sit down, refused, and remained standing throughout the entire show. You could tell the folks in front of us were aggravated by his unwillingness to do the polite thing and let them have their sitting view. Raucous exchanges at the breaks between songs with the folks further back hollering and gesticulating at the folks standing up in front, and the folks in front, when they deigned to turn around at all, basically telling the others fongool, seemed to my untrained eye a most…Italian social exchange.
I realize I’m getting old and crotchety, and one should always be wary of sentences that start, “It used to be…”, but here I go.
It used to be that there was a contract implicit in buying a ticket for a seat at a performance. It's quite a different thing when you just pay to get in the door, and then if you want to see- not just hear—the show, it is incumbent upon you to stake out space on the floor, to navigate the taller heads in front of you, and to tolerate assaults on your personal space in the spirit of becoming one with a music-besotted crowd. When you pay to go see someone in a theater, the unstated arrangement was you have paid for a seat, and you have also paid for the privilege of enjoying the show from that seat.
Well, not at this particular show. It was like one of those shady real estate deals where you’ve paid for the land rights, but nobody mentioned anything about those pesky air rights, and we’re just gonna land planes right over your head night and day and there’s nothing you can do about it.
Let me moan a few seconds longer about the breakdown of fun in the implications of this new development. As I said before, the reason so many people were standing wasn’t just to see the show—obviously, if everyone sat, everyone could see—that’s how a theater is designed. People were standing so they could record the show. Folks felt they needed a standing-arms-held-up-over-the-head view so they could get a clean shot from their hand-held phone to the stage, so they could capture the evening for all time.
I was reminded of the classic François Truffaut line about the best way to see the impact that a movie has is to go all the way to the first row of a movie theater, turn around, and to experience the film through watching the crowd’s faces. I was thinking of this in reverse: go to the back of the theater and look out over the hundreds and hundreds of little lit-up screens and imagine how the concert was going to look on YouTube.
It raised this perverse contradiction in my mind: It used to be (“It used to be…” Oh, please explain, Grandma!!!) the whole appeal of going to hear a live band is you didn’t have an electronic device between you and the music. There was no separation—you had a direct connection to the performers. Now the experience has become not about actually being there and experiencing it in the moment, but watching the show through their damned cellphone cameras. Go fracking figure…
Ok. I’ll calm down now.
So because everyone was working so hard to steal a little piece of this show's soul, fortunately, you did not need to be in BsAs to see it-- there are multiple versions of the entire setlist up on YouTube. Just type in "Cyndi", "Buenos Aires," and "2011," and you can watch the spectacle all you want.
At least from the YouTubes you can get a sense of her wicked band—The tattooed, bare-footed “Bam-Bam” from Brazil—she tore up the bongos. And for several songs Cyndi had a local Argentine bandoneon player—“Mintcho” Garrammone from Bulnes. I did not know that the accordion could be used as a blues instrument, but my mind has been expanded now. It was a hoot! (See here.)
And you can check out her look for yourself. Not to be mean, but her “fashion” sense hasn’t changed. (By this, I mean improved.) I think her outfit can be most succinctly summarized as “Leather Daddy-Baby Momma as Conceived by Stevie Nicks.” It was…witchy. And leathery. Both. And bulky. All three. Interesting choice.
Ok, ok, Rita!! But what about the show?
The show itself, I may have mentioned, was ~*fabulous*~.
Most of the two hour set was the blues, interspersed with her classic hits. It made for an interesting set, the juxtaposition of all this blues music—one definition of the blues is music about feeling sad that makes you feel good-- and all of her classic hits. The songs that have stuck with people are either party tunes: Girls Just Wanna Have Fun, She Bop! Or they are songs about true-love-friendship. About loving a person over time and through all the highs and lows, about forever loyalty: Time After Time, True Colors, All Through the Night. (Mercifully, she left out the crass, braying Money Changes Everything. Maybe it’s got staying power in the public consciousness, but even she’s gotta admit that song is obnoxious.)
Her patter was her trademark ditsy New Yawk squawk—she mangled her Spanish salutations beyond all comprehension, and, at one point, when someone shouted something to her, she replied, “Don’t worry. I don’t understand English either.” (¿?) And she didn’t have to introduce her song Don’t Cry No More as Don’t Cry No More, Argentina, but she did. Everyone forgave her…
The crowd was happy enough when she was singing stuff from her new album, Memphis Blues. But when she started up a Cyndi standard, the crowd had fits. Several times streams of people stormed the aisles, hundreds of folks rushing to the stage trying to get close to her. The ushers bravely fought the hordes back, but it was not easy—the people wanted their Cyndi.
The theater had side balconies that started at the stage that ran along either wall that rose all the way to the side corners of the first balconies—late in the show she climbed up one side all the way to the corner side seats, and then the other. You could see folks in the balconies rushing to down to the front corners to get close to her—it was completely unnerving sitting underneath all this, because it seemed like someone in their excitement might just pitch right over the balcony to the orchestra seats below.
But no. It was not a night for tragedy. It was a night for triumph.
And I’ll tell you what. You would have to be pretty hard-hearted not to be moved from the emotion that the crowd put into singing every single word along with for Time After Time:
"If you fall/ I will catch you/ I’ll be waiting/ Time after time.”
You would have to be pretty dedicated to not wanting to have any fun at all to not feel the raucous joy that ran through the crowds, all the girls and boys and everyone in between jumping up and down in time when she fired up Girls Just Wanna Have Fun. (My Other Nostril was rocking hard to this one.)
And when she sang her final song of the night, True Colors, singing out to each and every one of us:
I see your true colors
I see your true colors
And that’s why I love you
So don’t be afraid
To let them show
Your true colors
True colors are beautiful
Like a rainbow
... the Cyndi Lauper Love Bubble was expanding to fill everywhere, all at once.
Dynamite show, Cyndi, and thank you. You’ve more than earned all the love you get.
The Buenos Aires Herald reports that Cyndi was delayed at the BsAs airport getting out of town, and that she led an impromptu sing-a-long with the crowds there while everyone was waiting for the plane.
How cool is that?