Rolling Stone Greatest Songs

Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Songs: Cyndi Lauper, ‘Time After Time’ (#494)

A culture’s hit songs are the hotline to its memory; enduring mile markers on our collective life’s road.  They’re both reflective and representative of the time and circumstance in which they were made.

Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Time After Time’ was released as her second single in February 1984, from her debut album, She’s So Unusual.  The song hit #1 in the US the second week of June 1984.  Nine of the songs, including Lauper’s, that were in that week’s Top Ten had videos that were in moderate to heavy rotation on MTV.[1]For the record, in addition to Lauper at #1, those songs were:  2. Deniece Williams, ‘Let’s Hear It for the Boy’; 3. Steve Perry, ‘Oh Sherrie’; 4. Duran Duran, … Continue reading    Let’s allow that videos weren’t necessarily the sole or primary reason these songs were in the Top Ten; we might just as well say the videos saw heavy rotation because the songs were in the Top Ten.

But still…those videos most definitely had some effect.

The early 80’s were the crest of a media tidal wave that in some ways is still rolling inland.  FM radio overtook listener market share in the late 70’s, and by 1982 was commanding 70% of listeners.  The first US Sony Walkman was introduced in 1980.  Cassettes would overtake vinyl as a preferred format in the mid-80’s, and be themselves overtaken less than ten years later by CD’s.

MTV made its debut in August 1981.

Over time, video would change the game, altering not only how music would be created and consumed (and in some cases, who would do the creating and consuming), but also — germane to our purposes — how it would be remembered.

Where Cyndi Lauper fits in amidst all this talk of memory and perception is that she’s so representative, both sonically and visually, of the very particular time and circumstance in which ‘Time After Time’ was recorded and performed.  She was one of the first real stars of the video era, and as such is both defining and defined by her specific time in music history.

Now make no mistake:  Cyndi Lauper could really sing.  This was no auto-tuned dancer propped up by slick production and crack marketing.  Lauper had a powerful voice with a wide range, and was singing and performing professionally long before She’s So Unusual ever saw the light of day.

That voice was used to marvelous effect on ‘Time After Time’.  Written by Lauper and the Hooters’ Rob Hyman, ‘Time’ is one of pop’s great good-bye songs, achingly sad, in which love fails to conquer all.  Its heavy synth and bright guitars notwithstanding, it’s a structurally spare and sure-footed song.  The secret sauce here is Lauper herself, honest and unadorned.  She spends most of the song sounding like she’s choking back tears, and restrains herself for everything but the crucial payoff point in the chorus (“I will be waiting!”). 

Be warned:  that chorus is likely to elicit a tear or two from the unwary.

Michael Strum: “What makes something ‘good’? The greatness of ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ (1994) is indubitable, but what of ‘Airplane’ (1980)? Can a cheeseburger be great What about a fast food one? I’m of the school that something can be good—or even great—without fanciness or even significant complexity. What we get from Lauper is a beautifully-constructed pop song, with nice execution to boot. A definitive ‘80s sound to my ear. I find sublime beauty and grace in Ken Griffey Jr’s swing, even if it’s not ‘The Nutcracker’. I marvel at a NY strip from Ruth’s Chris (the two times that I’ve had one, anyway), but I also revere Five Guy’s cheeseburger (double, extra cheese). ‘Time After Time’ is perfectly brilliant at being what it is, and that’s enough for me at 494.”

Rolling Stone: Cyndi Lauper was nervous about “Time After Time” — the aching ballad she wrote in the studio with keyboardist Rob Hyman to finish off her blockbuster solo debut, She’s So Unusual. “I asked them to please not put ‘Time After Time’ out as the first single,” Lauper said. “People would never have accepted me. If you do a ballad first, and then a rocker, that doesn’t work.” Her instincts were right: Following the jaunty “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” “Time” became her first Number One.


1 For the record, in addition to Lauper at #1, those songs were:  2. Deniece Williams, ‘Let’s Hear It for the Boy’; 3. Steve Perry, ‘Oh Sherrie’; 4. Duran Duran, ‘The Reflex’; 5. Night Ranger, ‘Sister Christian’; 6. Huey Lewis & the News, ‘The Heart of Rock ‘n Roll’; 7. Lionel Richie, ‘Hello’; 8. Irene Cara, ‘Breakdance’; 9. Laura Branigan, ‘Self Control’; and 10. The Pointer Sisters, ‘Jump (For My Love)’.