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NEW YORK - Working in the music biz can feel a lot like flunking remedial high school.
At 15, Cyndi Lauper was demoted from a "special" class for "nonachieving geniuses" to one where she spent the day cutting paper cones with rounded scissors.
"A lot of times, I look at the situations I'm in and I think: Does this look familiar?" she asks, her distinct Queens twang rising as she recalls those who have tried to tell her who she was and what to sing during her career. "Are you sitting with the round scissors, cutting the cones?"
"For years. that made me feel like not writing anymore, not wanting to sing anymore. Then you realize who you are again. and you reclaim yourself."
And your greatest hits.
Tuesday, Lauper unveiled "The Body Acoustic," a reinterpretation of some of her favorite songs plus two new ones.
Chart-toppers such as "Time After Time" and "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" are accompanied by, among other instruments, the stringed dulcimer, which Lauper plays on her knees.
"I don't do the scales like they always said, or press my fingers down like they say," the casual student says of her dulcimer skills. "But the instruments do what I need them to do."
In the process, they transform her music. Lauper giggles about what she describes as her "plaintive" take on the self-pleasure pop anthem "She Bop." "It's kind of sad now, isn't it?" she asks. "I think that's really interesting ... and really funny."
Guest singers on the album include Shaggy, Sarah McLachlan, Ani DiFranco and Puffy AmiYumi.
When she debuted in 1984 with outrageous ensembles, sky-high fiery hair and the album "She's So Unusual," Lauper achieved instant stardom. Though critics in the early days predicted she would outlast Madonna, she floundered during the 1990s.
"Fame came really quickly for her, and she was pulled in a lot of directions in terms of creativity, management, label - everything all at once," says Tamara Conniff, co-executive editor of Billboard magazine.
"But she is still a cool chick with a fantastic voice. She was always out of left field and was very outspoken and nonconformist," Conniff adds. "Her songwriting has really stood the test of time."
Lauper is already working on a collection of new songs inspired by everything from Dutch marshmallow candies to her hockey-playing 7-year-old son, Declyn. She is trying to overcome one insecurity - turning near-complete songs over to a collaborator to finish.
"The hardest thing for me to do when I am writing is to think it's good enough," the singer confesses, worry lines furrowing her otherwise smooth skin.
"I finish it with someone else because I don't think I can do it."
Of course, she can. Still strutting in fishnets and stiletto heels, the 52-year-old style icon practices yoga and playfully shrieks, "I want to be pretty, too! I'm older, but I'm not dead!"
She's very much alive and at home on Manhattan's upper West Side. The warbler, who directs her own videos and art-directs her album covers, says she strives for musical independence and acknowledgment in a "sexist" business.
"(The) big lesson I've learned to get where I want to go is to claim my power and my soul," she says. "I just write what's in my head."
(c) 2005, New York Daily News. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.