The Story of... 'True Colours' by Cyndi Lauper

23 May 2024, 09:20

"I see your true colours, shining through."
"I see your true colours, shining through.". Picture: Getty/Alamy

By Thomas Edward

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"I see your true colours, and that's why I love you."

It's one of the greatest songs ever written about seeing past superficiality, breaking the barriers that divide us, and embracing the person you were born to be.

'True Colours' (titled 'True Colors' for the US release) is Cyndi Lauper's call to arms for a more forgiving world.

She's released many anthems throughout her career in pop music, but this heart-aching ballad is one that continues to resonate through the ages.

But what is 'True Colours' actually about? Who wrote the song? Was it popular after its initial release? Here's all you need to know:

Who wrote 'True Colours'?

Cyndi Lauper - True Colors (Official HD Video)

Unusually for Cyndi Lauper, 'True Colours' was in fact not written by her, or at least co-written. The people behind the song were Billy Steinberg and Tom Kelly.

A songwriting team that penned the likes of Madonna's 'Like A Virgin', Heart's 'Alone' and The Bangles' 'Eternal Flame', Steinberg and Kelly wrote this song about what a person is truly like beneath the surface.

In a later interview, Steinberg recalled how he knew Lauper was the perfect artist to sing 'True Colours'.

"Sometimes an artist will copy your demo exactly as you present it. That would be the case with 'Like a Virgin' or 'Alone' by Heart - the records copied the demos. In 'True Colours,' more than any other song, Cyndi Lauper came up with a very, very creative departure from our demo."

"The demo was sort of rooted in the gospel ballad tradition of a song like 'Bridge Over Troubled Water', 'Let It Be' or 'Lean On Me,' that sort of thing with the piano. Cyndi completely dismantled that sort of traditional arrangement and came up with something that was breathtaking and stark."

"Tom and I were both elated when we heard her record of it because it was so much more adventurous than our demo, and to her credit, she produced it and did a beautiful job."

"That song, more than any other song I've written, has had tremendous life. I guess more than any other song that Tom and I wrote, that one seems to have the most universal appeal."

What influenced Cyndi Lauper's vocal performance on 'True Colours'?

Lauper lost a dear friend shortly before recording the song. (Photo by Koh Hasebe/Shinko Music/Getty Images)
Lauper lost a dear friend shortly before recording the song. (Photo by Koh Hasebe/Shinko Music/Getty Images). Picture: Getty

Shortly before Lauper heard Steinberg and Kelly's demo for 'True Colours', one of her dearest friends Gregory Natal tragically died of AIDS.

When recording her own vocals for the song, particularly the gentle, whispering sections, she had Natal at the front of her mind.

"I realised it had to be a voice that whispers to you," she told 60 Minutes. "A voice that's almost childlike so it will speak to the softest, most gentle part of a human being."

"It's a voice whispering to you, telling you it's going to be OK."

Why was 'True Colours' so warmly embraced by the LGBTQ community?

Cyndi Lauper has been a campaigner for LGBTQ rights throughout her career. (Photo by Michael Stewart/WireImage)
Cyndi Lauper has been a campaigner for LGBTQ rights throughout her career. (Photo by Michael Stewart/WireImage). Picture: Getty

Perhaps because Cyndi Lauper had her friend Gregory Natal in mind when recording it, or the fact she was an ally to the community, but 'True Colours' was embraced by the LGBTQ community.

Given the era when the AIDS epidemic tore through gay communities around the world, the prejudice they faced on a daily basis made public life difficult.

So songs like 'True Colours' - about seeing past differences and learning to live with your true self - resonated.

The colour aspect of the song also represented the rainbow pride flag, which overjoyed Cyndi Lauper who has always fought for gay rights.

Later in her career, Lauper launched the 'True Colors Tour' in an effort to support gay rights and fight hate crimes, inviting the likes of Erasure, Joan Jett, Debbie Harry, and Regina Spektor along too.

In 2008, she founded the True Colors Fund (which was later rebranded as True Colors United) which advocates for LGBTQ youths by working with communities and ensuring shelters and youth centres are inclusive.

When President Joe Biden signed the Respect For Marriage Law in 2022, Lauper performed the song at the ceremony, in a new era where the state recognises same-sex and interracial civil marriages.

How did 'True Colours' perform after its initial release?

'True Colors' was the title track from Cyndi's 1986 album of the same name.
'True Colors' was the title track from Cyndi's 1986 album of the same name. Picture: Alamy

'True Colours' (with the Americanised spelling 'True Colors' in the US) was released in 1986 from Cyndi Lauper's album of the same name.

It became a smash hit for Lauper, spending a total of two weeks at number one on the US Billboard charts, though it only peaked at number twelve in the UK.

Her second song to occupy the top of the charts in the US, 'True Colours' is now widely regarded as her signature song due to the work she's done for the LGBTQ community.

A year later, the song received a Grammy Award nomination for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance, though it lost out to Barbra Streisand.

Has anyone else covered 'True Colours'?

Phil Collins - True Colors (Official Music Video)

Because of its universal message and beautiful lyrics, 'True Colours' has been covered by many artists.

Most notably is Phil Collins who recorded a version in 1998, whilst the likes of Eva Cassidy, Tom Odell, and Justin Timberlake have all lent their voices to the gorgeous song too.