Cyndi Lauper wasn't always a world-famous musician. The Queens-born singer was once a young person with big dreams, who would travel to Manhattan to immerse herself in a world of music and culture. And that's where she met Michael Alago.
Lauper is one of several subjects in a new documentary, Who the Fuck Is That Guy?, which shows how Alago — a Hispanic gay man from Brooklyn — rose to become a prominent music executive, who signed and worked with a variety of artists, including Metallica, White Zombie, Nina Simone, and Lauper.
Directed by Drew Stone, the film is also a love letter to a golden era of music in New York City — when artists like Lauper and music-lovers like Alago found community in venues like Max's Kansas City and CBGB in the 1970s and '80s.
In an interview with The Advocate, Lauper discussed her relationship with Alago, her own love of heavy metal, and the role of music in The Resistance. She also talked about why the world needs Working Girl — a new musical adaptation of the 1988 film that she is scoring — now more than ever.
The Advocate: You called yourself “bridge and tunnel” in the documentary. Like Michael, you were from an outer borough of New York, and you went into the city to be a part of the music scene. What advice do you have for young people today, who feel disconnected from culture and the arts, and who want to seek it out?
Lauper: I think you can find art and culture in most communities. Sometimes it's hard to find, but if you have a thirst for it, you can probably find culture. Score the local entertainment rags. There’s a DIY scene in most cities. There’s also the internet. You can’t get to it, bring it to you!
What impact did Michael have on you as an A&R executive?
Michael and I worked together on my blues cover project, Memphis Blues. We made a good team. We listened to hours and hours of music for many weeks until we came up with the list of songs that I eventually recorded for the album. We had a great time, and we had an easy time connecting to each other.
Michael, who signed Metallica, became known as the “guy you go to for heavy metal,” which surprised some since he's a gay man. Are you a fan of heavy metal?
Ha! Metallica is one of the greatest rock bands of all time — who Michael discovered, and at that time, it was a brand-new sound for metal. Growing up I listened to Black Sabbath; I thought Ozzy was wild and amazing. Alice Cooper, Grand Funk, I mean, come on. When I was a kid and wanted to get some frustrations out, you put one of their records on and dance wildly and get it all out.
In this documentary, viewers got a taste of a music scene that was also a true movement of rebellion. Do you think that music is doing enough today to rebel in today’s political climate?
I think when things get really bad, artists respond. The '90s and first part of the 2000s were pretty good times overall. I mean, unfortunately, there are always horrible atrocities happening around the world, but by and large it was a peaceful time. The last 10 years have been bad. The last few years have been really bad, and this year in particular has been horrific, so I would not be surprised if you hear a response from the community. The '70s were like that. Artists started to scream the thoughts of the people. They had to. How better to get to the folks in Washington, D.C., than to have a hit on the radio or sold-out concerts where we all say enough.
You are set to write the songs for the new stage version of Working Girl. Why does this story need to be heard today?
I'm really excited for so many reasons to start composing the score for Working Girl. I love the film and its story about a woman’s very unconventional road to success in the '80s. [It] is something I know a lot about. Women are still fighting for fundamental rights and equal pay!
How do you hope your music helps tell this story of a woman breaking the glass ceiling?
You shouldn't take no for an answer. No matter if you are female, male, [trans], white, not white, poor, middle-class, rich, we all deserve a joyful life, and if we all pound on that ceiling together, the 1 percent will have to catch up to us.