In 1983, Cyndi Lauper released her debut album, She’s So Unusual, and instantly became one of the most iconographic pop-stars of the 80s. While I liked Lauper’s hits back then, my pop-girl crush was only for Madonna, whose self-titled debut album also came out that same year. I never gave Cyndi much thought, to tell you the truth, until I saw a recent interview with her discussing her Broadway Musical, Kinky Boots, and I thought, hey, annoying voice notwithstanding, that Cyndi Lauper is one smart cookie.
Lauper is finishing up a 30th anniversary tour–unbelievable to me that thirty years have passed– for She’s So Unusual and we went to see the sold out show at the Keswick in Philadelphia this past Friday. For this tour, she performed the album start to finish but it was so much more than just an album concert. Blending song, dance, inspirational storytelling and crude, raunchy stand-up comedy, Lauper delivers a real show. But it was even more than that. One of the things I have noticed over my years of concert-going is whether the performer connects with the audience, whether he or she acknowledges their presence, whether he or she is really there, wherever that might be, sharing a real moment with people whose hearts and souls have been touched by the art of a musician they love and showing gratitude for what that means. Sadly, I have noticed that so many performers trot out onto the stage, do their songs, barely looking up from their microphones, do their encores, take their bows and that’s it. It’s got to be mechanical to do the same songs over and over again, I’m sure, but there’s a weird sense of entitlement and disconnect with some musicians that makes me regret spending my money and time to see them live, regardless of how much I might like their music.
Lauper, however, set the tenor of her concert from the get-go. As the music to the first song, “Money Changes Everything,” began and she entered the stage, but before one single lyric was sung, her first words to the audience were, “You get one song. Just one song for your phones and your cameras. And then you put them away and we share this time together.” Her tone was parental and conveyed her seriousness on the matter. This was hard for everyone to do so security spent the entire concert making people put away their phones (and, really, don’t you hate going to a performance and sitting there looking at the stage through a sea of cellphone screens?!?). Throughout the 90-minute show she reiterated the importance of connectedness with revelations about the origins of her lyrics and stories from her early recording days. She even told anecdotes about her family and their love of hockey and relayed conversations she’d had with her son. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a pop-star tell a story that included a conversation they had with their kid. I kept thinking, its like she’s one of us, that’s what this is all about. And she feels it, too… that’s why it seems so real. She’s present, both in her life and right here, right now, in this music hall. At one point, she even stopped the band and came down into the audience to mediate a girl fight that had erupted near the stage. Security was about to escort one of the women out and Lauper talked everyone back into their own corners. She said, “There’s all different kinds of people here tonight but it’s not OK to touch someone like that. You go over there and you stay here. Come on now, it’s all done.” I’ve never seen anything like that happen at a concert.
Now, ever since my kids were old enough to hold a game player in their hands, I have banned all devices from the dinner table. It’s sacred space, the dinner table. They are young men now and still follow that rule. I told them, when you give your attention to that device, it means that what’s going on there is more important than what’s going on here. As much of a militant on this topic as I am, I will tell you that on one occasion, I was even busted for doing it–texting during a dinner party–and I will admit that, yes, that is what it means. When you are pulled to the device, you are most certainly more interested in the there than the here. So, when Cyndi Lauper said no phones, I was elated for two reasons. One, because I think it showed her understanding of what it means to pay attention and establish real mutual respect between people. Two, because she was getting at something else which became evident near the very end of her show.
During one of the last songs, people got their phones back out and began filming the videos they would post later to their Facebook walls prove they were there. Lauper looked out at the audience full of held up devices and said, “You know, I hope that tomorrow you will really remember actually being here.” I heard that statement and thought of a night about ten years ago. It was a school music concert that one of my kids was performing in and, as usual, I’d taken the camcorder to capture every second of my son’s playing. Sitting back a few rows, I experienced his performance through the viewfinder of the device as I’d done so many times before. But, for whatever reason, it struck me all of the sudden that as long as I was filming, as long as I was dutifully holding the camera still, panning if necessary and zooming in to get his expression, there was a feeling that I wasn’t really there. Like Lauper’s fans, I could put the videos up on Facebook as proof of my attendance, but I wasn’t really there feeling the energy of the room, the people in it, and taking in the experience with every one of my senses.
I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t record stuff, that we shouldn’t document the important things that happen in our lives and that family videos aren’t wonderful and hilarious to watch years later. What I’m saying is that, sometimes, a viewfinder is truly a lesser way to experience something meaningful. I’m saying that maybe we ought to stop and think, do I need to record every minute of my life or are some parts just better lived live? I’m saying that just about any text message or email can wait until dinner is over. I’m saying that really being there is a powerful way to live our lives and that when we are truly there, others can feel it and respond to it with their own commitment to being there, too.
I’ll end today with Cyndi’s final words from Friday…
TRY THIS WEEK: “Be kind to each other. Do great things.”