Pop star returns to Japan for Summer Sonic

Cyndi Lauper is having a great year

by Jason Richards

Special To The Japan Times

Cyndi Lauper is at a loss for words.

The musical icon, who turned 60 in June, has just been faced with the suggestion that her career is now hotter than it’s ever been.

“I don’t know …” she says in her thick Queens, New York, accent, sounding stumped. “Honestly, I’ve never thought about it.”

This year has already been huge for Lauper. So far, she has debuted a reality show, “Cyndi Lauper: Still So Unusual,” performed at the White House, and racked up six Tony Awards for her hit Broadway musical “Kinky Boots,” which included the Best Musical prize. The day after the Tonys, she set off on tour.

Of course, Lauper’s latest success is the result of both her boundless talent and work ethic, which have carried her through the 30 years that followed the release of her debut album, “She’s So Unusual,” in 1983. But perhaps just a bit of it is also the karmic result of a brave decision she made in March 2011 — to continue her Japanese tour despite the 9.0-magnitude Great East Japan Earthquake, which hit right as she and her team were landing at Narita Airport.

She’s been back each year since. In 2012, Lauper visited Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, during her countrywide tour, and this Sunday she will perform at Summer Sonic as part of an eclectic lineup that also includes Muse, Carly Rae Jepsen and The Smashing Pumpkins.

Because she kept touring throughout the disaster — while numerous musicians were canceling their shows — Lauper has become something of a folk hero in Japan. But she says that for her to leave the country would have simply been hypocritical.

“The material that I always chose (to perform) was to give people strength and courage,” she says. “So to leave them in their hour of need wouldn’t have been a good idea.”

She also says that there wasn’t a lot of time to really consider the situation, so she, her band, and the Japanese touring company all just did what felt right. Lauper says she was also inspired by Japan’s strong spirit of community in response to the disaster.

“I saw the people, how they were calm in a crisis and banded together to help each other, and I said to myself, ‘Yeah, the Japanese are so tough. They understand the severity of the situation and help each other,’ ” she says.

Lauper also felt this desire to help people, though at times she had to remind herself that it might not always be appropriate.

“I remember coming into the hotel on the first night, and saw people there with blankets and temporary situations because they couldn’t get home, because the subways were closed,” she says. “I went upstairs to my room feeling really kind of selfish that I was in this hotel room when all these people didn’t have a place. I wanted to share my room with some obāchan (little old lady) that I saw, and then I thought it might scare them. Like, ‘Hey, wanna come up to my room?’ “

The experience of touring Japan during that period was surreal at times. Lauper recalls marveling one night over Japan’s famous comfort technology as she dozed off on what she thought was a high-tech vibrating bed.

“I woke up and thought, wait a minute — this is no vibrating bed!” It was an aftershock.

The musician says she was happy to provide some catharsis during a tough time, and that the crowds she played for welcomed it.

“They wanted to forget. They wanted to be engaged. They wanted me to go out and dance with them,” she says. “Some people would stand there with a picture of someone they lost, who probably came to see me when they were kids. It was really kind of sad in that way. But I didn’t think about that, I just thought about giving them energy.”

Lauper has a long history of success in Japan. Her eighth album, “Shine,” was released exclusively here through Epic Japan, and she’s toured the country regularly since her 1983 pop breakthrough, “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.”

Thinking back to those early days, the singer recalls that the hit’s message was somewhat controversial, particularly in the context of Japan’s male-dominated society.

“The song tells girls to be entitled to a joyful experience, and kind of what’s good for the goose is good for the gander,” she says. “But people were afraid of inciting girls in that way.”

She also has some fond memories of Japan’s discotheque scene in the ’80s.

“I remember going to the club and my clothes were turned backwards, and literally my skirt was turned backwards and we were all just laughing thinking, this is so bizarre,” she says.

“Also, to me as a woman, I was not used to having women — or, young girls — screaming and crying over me. It was just hysteria,” she says. “The good thing these days is that there isn’t the same level of hysteria. I can live with that.”

Lauper, whose albums have ranged stylistically from electronic to adult contemporary to blues-rock, has not released a new record since 2010. But don’t expect a new one too soon — after her tour ends in September, she says she’ll be taking a break to think about her next move.

Well, she has the Grammy, the Emmy, and now the Tony — maybe she should be setting her sights on an Oscar? At this, Lauper lets out a slightly exasperated laugh.

“Well, you know … how ’bout I just get through the tour and take a breather.”

Cyndi Lauper plays the Mountain Stage at the Osaka installment of Summer Sonic on Aug. 10, and the Tokyo installment on Aug. 11. One-day tickets cost ¥13,000 (Osaka) or ¥ 15,500 (Tokyo). For more information, visit www.summersonic.com/2013 or www.cyndilauper.com.