Cyndi Lauper and the art of video storytelling: Can a good pop song carry a bad story?
I needed a beer.
I’d spent the week driving to meetings in the early-October heat and I’d done a lot of listening. I needed a patient listener of my own that was at least 6% alcohol by volume and preferably as bitter as my next-door neighbor.
I ended up in a crappy bar surrounded by people eating and about fifty silent TVs. But there was beer on the menu and I was feeling hopeful.
Then Cyndi Lauper popped onto the sumo-sized TV in front of me. Lauper in 1983 singing Time After Time. As soon as the video began, a strange thing happened. I forgot all about my beer, my facial muscles relaxed and drool started to pool in the corners of my mouth.
I was sucked straight back into my childhood like that video had been implanted in my head via microchip.
In a sense, it had.
How many of you remember MTV when it was the most captivating idea to land in our homes since cordless telephones? When we used to record songs straight off the radio onto mix tapes? How we coveted those mix tapes like they would one day be buried with us?
It goes without saying that the creative director who first conceived of the music video was a genius. Those videos were like intimate backstage passes for a whole generation of kids who would later be cringing in bars watching how badly they spent their youth.
But at the time, they planted our idols in our living rooms for three solid minutes. Put them in our faces with close-ups of their weird clothes and funny attempts at acting. And they did it by telling stories.
If you weren’t Boston or Freddie Mercury, you told a story, which was a very sneaky way of embedding those pops songs in our brains for the rest of our lives, as I found out as I was sitting there drinking my beer decades later.
But what did a story in a music video actually feel like? Did it follow traditional story structure? We were mesmerized by Lauper and her porcelain-white skin and clown-red hair, her plaid granny pants and neon blue baseball jacket in 1983—mesmerized by the train wreck of her style instincts—but were we actually following the story? Did that story make any sense?
I have the feeling the answer to this question may help me and many others traumatized by 80s pop finally move on with our lives.
For your reference, the official Time After Time video from YouTube.
From opening to climax
Framing the story with an old Marlene Dietrich film (The Garden of Allah, 1935) that the Lauper character is watching in bed next to her sleeping boyfriend, I have to admit, is pretty brilliant.
It takes care of the backstory in a flash. We know that Lauper isn’t happy in her relationship—though, weirdly, the situation is reversed in the music video: in the movie, it’s the boyfriend who’s leaving Dietrich.
The Airstream trailer in the woods, the pink plastic flamingo in the yard, Lauper’s plaid pajama pants, the vision of Lauper qua Lauper, I won’t comment on, because it doesn’t bear on the story.
Let’s just say if Lauper was an actual character in a story, you wouldn’t have any trouble describing her. Now we just need to find out why she wants to leave her boyfriend and if she’s actually going to go through with it.
So far so good.
• • •
Here Lauper scores more points because she tells the story of her hope and disillusionment in two quick scenes.
The first scene shows their new love, when Lauper is wearing a silvery pigtail wig and looking only half as deranged as she would eventually become. She appears to be working at a stationery. I’d place her in her mid-teens, arguably about ten years younger than her pedophilic suitor.
Her aged mother is behind the counter with Lauper, looking like she’s been airlifted straight out of a Sicilian funeral. She doesn’t like what’s going on here, but when the two lovebirds seal their love with the gift of a lunchbox, she acknowledges her defeat. This isn’t Sicily, after all, and she can’t ask Uncle Vito to bump the creep off.
The next scene unfolds in a diner where some years later Lauper and boyfriend get into a fight because Lauper’s big surprise—she appears to have styled her hair with a lawnmower—doesn’t go over well with the more traditional boyfriend. Lauper runs out into the night in a glittery skirt, possibly made from Marlene Dietrich’s curtains, and a bowl hat. She sings the refrain to Time After Time.
This is the climax of the story, where the tension peaks and breaks. It doesn’t really hit, but ok, it’s technically there.
Unfortunately, it’s all downhill from here.
In the middle of the climax, the Sicilian mother reappears in a flashback. In the flashback, Lauper is mysteriously drinking milk out of an America the Beautiful-themed milk glass, struggling with her homework. Her mother is comforting her.
Which means what? That Time After Time is a song about a mother’s unconditional love? I thought it was a tawdry love story.
We don’t have much time to ponder that, because in the next scene we’re back in the trailer in the woods—which tells us that we’ve reached the final act, when things will be resolved.
This is actually odd, because we’re only at minute 2:40, i.e. halfway into the video. Pacing alert.
• • •
We’re back in the present. It’s early morning. Lauper slams the trailer door on her way out, waking up the boyfriend. She kicks a plastic flamingo as she walks into the leaves in her pajamas. The boyfriend comes running out of the trailer (also in plaid pajamas, but real pajamas), pulls Lauper back inside and helps her pack.
This is a very nice guy. He even folds Lauper’s funny clothes for her.
I notice at this point that Lauper is actually wearing a plaid cap with a pattern that is slightly different from her pajama pants.
This is where the story really starts to implode, because Lauper takes a taxi to her mother, who is isn’t dead (I’d assumed she was long gone) and is sweeping her tiny front porch in a scarf. Again, we hear the refrain of Time After Time, from which we must admit defeat and conclude that we haven’t been listening to a song about leaving at all, but a song about a young woman’s love for her mother.
This is truly a revelation.
But it gets even more disturbing, and more chaotic as a story.
As Lauper and the man she’s just dumped race into a seedy New Jersey train station with three suitcases of Lauper’s clown clothes, Lauper sings the refrain to her heartbroken, soon-to-be-former lover, suggesting with convincing Italian sensibility that Lauper, the girlfriend, has now replaced her own mother as the ghostly, consolatory figure who will be haunting—and supporting—her ex-lover in moments of indecision.
The boyfriend, in other words, has a new mommy and it is Cindy Lauper, but she must leave.
Why she must leave is the video’s greatest mystery. We have no idea, which is actually a serious problem, because it means the story has no tension. Time After Time, in other words, lacks a convincing conflict, i.e. something that’s pulling Lauper away from her boyfriend besides a disagreement over a lousy haircut.
• • •
What we’ve learned
Have I gone into too much depth? Sure, but by this time I was on my third pint and I’d already suffered through REM’s truly cringy Losing My Religion and was far into a video of Rod Stewart with Stewart tumbling around in a series of tight outfits that were all tank tops and suit jackets that draped his knees. Stewart’s little outfits were so inexplicable by any style standards I thought I may have already started hallucinating.
But I wasn’t.
I was at a lousy bar and I’d seen—and been moved by—a Cyndi Lauper video from 1983 that wasn’t a good story but worked in mysterious ways on areas of my brain I hadn’t accessed in years.
What I’d learned was one of life’s greatest truths: that with good pop music even a story full of holes can turn us into drooling imbeciles.
Max Sheridan's writing has appeared in a number of online and print publications in the US, UK and elsewhere. He's worked as a teacher, journalist, editor and copywriter. He's the founder and director of Write CY, a Nicosia-based platform for creative writing and community storytelling, where he teaches Story Craft, a 10-week short story writing course. His novel Dillo was released by Shotgun Honey in December 2017. Talk to him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.