As a teenager in the ’80s, I can’t say I was a huge fan of Cyndi Lauper. I didn’t dislike her, but she was a bit too pop-oriented and quirky for my record collection, which featured heavier rock acts such as the Who, Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin. However, one song that always gave me goose bumps at the high school dance (although I hid this from my buddies, obviously) was Lauper’s 1986 hit “True Colours.” There was something irresistible about the lyrics and the way they worked with the musical structure. And Lauper’s dramatic delivery was almost frightening in its potency. It was cold-shiver material. If I felt this way about it, I can’t imagine what the girls on the other side of the gym were feeling when it came on.
Later as I developed as a musician, I came to appreciate even more the complexities of what was going on within this recording. True magic in music happens when elements of chords and melodies weave together as they create and release tension. When an emotive lyric is infused throughout these changes, the perfect synergy is created. Cyndi Lauper’s version of “True Colours” is a shining example of this musical nirvana. It isn’t a surprise that she won the Best Vocal Performance Grammy in 1987 for this song.
“True Colours” was written by the successful songwriting duo of Billy Steinberg and Tom Kelly, who also wrote “Like a Virgin” for Madonna as well as the Bangles’ “Eternal Flame.” Interestingly it was the only song on Lauper’s second record that she didn’t write or co-write. They pitched it to her, and she made it her first single as well as the title of the album. It is arguably her most well-known song and has been covered countless times all over the world, and for good reason: it can carry the weight of numerous lyrical interpretations.
Originally written about Steinberg’s mother, the song has gone on to represent the causes of female objectification in advertising, the LGBT community, and most recently anti-bullying – a much-publicized problem in recent years. The themes in “True Colours” fit the cause of anti-bullying very well: encouragement in the face of adversity, overcoming depressive thoughts, the importance of reaching out to one another, etc.
A group of Canadian musicians, calling themselves Artists Against Bullying, has recently released a version of this song, with the proceeds going to Kids’ Help Phone. There is no arguing that this is a great cause. Anything we can do to shed more light on this problem is beneficial. However, there is a major problem with the recording itself that has to be addressed. This rendition takes shocking liberties with the original chord structure, rendering it abysmal in light of Lauper’s near-perfect initial recording. They managed to squeeze the beautifully unique shape of the original into the cookie cutter machine of mindless pop music – complete with a rap that makes a dismal attempt at emotionally connecting with the real lyric. Great cause, bad effort.
People who understand the structure of music will immediately detect the specific problems with this latest version compared to the original. However, you don’t need to be a musician to hear that something’s wrong when both versions are played back to back. Listen to the Artists Against version first:
Now, listen to the Cyndi Lauper version:
First of all, without even talking in technical music terms, you must be able to hear the rich chord changes and intertwining notes that ebb and flow through the structure of Lauper’s version. These complexities were commonplace in many mainstream Top 40 hits back in the ’80s, and even into the ‘90s. I’d never try to argue that cookie cutter music wasn’t permeating the airwaves during this time. We’ve had lowest common denominator songs charting as long as charts have been in existence. However, as the music business entered into the new millennium the internet gutted the long-standing infrastructure and this denominator got much, much lower. In a panic, the powers that be scrambled to make mainstream pop as simple and accessible to the masses as possible. They started to use the McDonald’s business model: fast, easy to digest, simple, predictable. Unfortunately, it makes you feel a little sick afterwards.
Technically this latest version of “True Colours” suffers the dumbed-down treatment. The arrangers have taken an overused chord progression – found in an infinite amount of hits in the past ten years – and applied it to the melody and lyrics. This chord progression can be traced back to numerous Nickelback songs as well as a few by Justin Beiber and others. The result is an embarrassing, unimaginative ruining of a song traditionally treated with reverence by a plethora of artists. Even the cast of Glee got the chords right, and even some of the harmonic complexities of the original arrangement. It is plain galling when a producer or an artist changes fundamental aspects of a song, and up until the Artists Against version practically everyone who tackled this song did so with a sensitivity to its hallowed legacy in pop history.
Why have Artists Against Bullying not received a bigger backlash for butchering this great song? Probably because people are afraid the criticism will affect the anti-bullying strategy which is the main goal of the song’s release. Understandable. I guess. But going back to the McDonald’s analogy, it’s ultimately not too surprising when you realize that people are content to go back for the same old tasteless, half-cold empty food that has no nutritional value. McDonald’s even tries to sell food such as salads, which are traditionally seen as healthy yet in this context are sprayed with chemicals and drowned in fatty dressings. Why should this prevailing attitude and approach limit itself to food? It makes total sense for artists and producers to do the bait and switch on something with merit, then try to streamline it for mass sale – no matter the compromise in quality.
Luckily, for the more discerning restaurant goers and music fans there are many choices out there to satisfy a true desire for quality. Therefore, when something of quality is presented as a piece of crap – such as this latest take on a wonderful piece of music – people who have taste are understandably offended. So to everyone responsible for producing this miserable rendition of “True Colours,” including the self-serving and vapid pop singers who eagerly aided and abetted in this musical travesty, you need to know that despite the cause, despite the intention, despite the pseudo-emotive delivery, you let the spirit of music down by failing to respect three very important elements in music: the songwriter, the original version, and the fan.