Cyndi Lauper’s “Time after Time” is about Time Travel
Posted On February 21, 2021
I’m on the 40th or 50ths loop of Cyndi Lauper’s seminal 80s hit, Time after Time, when the tears start. Maybe it’s because it is Sunday night, or that my meds are off, or that it is winter and the short days aren’t good for me. But it feels like a breakthrough of sorts. I’ve been returning to this track late at night, headphones on, eyes closed. I cannot sleep and songs like “Time after Time” provide a simple background that I can let my mind sink down into like a hot bath.
Born in the 80s I am too young to have specific memories associated with the release of Cindi Lauper’s debut album “She’s so unusual”. I must have listened to Time after Time 100 times as a kid on the radio though. Like many songs, I haven’t bothered to learn the words or even think about what they are saying. They were just background pop I “liked” or “didn’t like”. I don’t remember particularly liking this song. It could be reduced down to a nice melody, and maybe a heartsick “I’ll be there for you“.
Lately though I’m convinced the song refers more to a place beyond time, and an invitation to meet there.
My memory of this song and video conjure images of a heartsick girl assuring her (soon to be ex) boyfriend that she will always be there for him, even as she leaves him. It’s a love song, right?
Even a surface reading betrays some interesting contradictions. The chorus contains reassurance – “I’ll always be there for you” but the rest of the lyrics suggest the opposite. It presents an image of loneliness or isolation, followed by the assertion that the songwriter will be there for the other person.
I’m walking too far ahead You’re calling to me, I can’t hear What you’ve said Then you say, “go slow” And I fall behind
Watching through windows You’re wondering if I’m okay Secrets stolen from deep inside
The video supports this with images of a break up. The boyfriend hates the songwriters new hair cut and he berates her. She has made it clear she is moving on, and he can come with her or stay behind. In the end he is unwilling ( or unable ) to follow.
So then why does she promise to be there for him? If anything, we’re given 3 times where she most definitely was not.
The not-so-subtle clue at the start of the video shows the songwriter in bed with her boyfriend. She watches a scene from Garden Of Allah – where a newly married couple separates. He had hidden a secret from his past – he was a monk. And she ends the relationship because he had broken his promise to God.
Perhaps then the song, like the movie, tells the tale of the broken promise and the inevitable result. When viewed through the lens of a broken promise, the heartsick chords from the song make more sense. What should be a joyful reassurance is instead whispered out at the end. Promises broken, time after time.
Let’s look again at the lyrics where the songwriter references these painful moments:
I’m walking too far ahead You’re calling to me, I can’t hear What you’ve said Then you say, “go slow” And I fall behind The second hand unwinds
Watching through windows You’re wondering if I’m okay Secrets stolen from deep inside And the drum beats out of time
While there are several different interpretations, I think it is evident that these show the consequence of the isolation and disconnect experienced by the songwriter. They both indicate something larger has changed as a result. While this could reference a shift from memory flashback to present ( Time begins moving again / Awareness of two parallel stories ) they also present visual images of things specifically broken. ( A clock spinning out of control, possibly even backwards. A song with the wrong rhythm to it ). And then we shift to the broken promise in the chorus.
Next weeks’ exciting issue will focus on who exactly is talking to whom, which one of them is dead, and whether we are talking about something akin to Ghost
or perhaps closer to the novel Time after Time in which a fictional H.G. Wells builds an actual time machine.
Editor: You don’t need to write “fictional”. If the real HG Wells created a Time Machine, we’d know the story.