MU­SIC Eter­nally Beloved

Luke Good­sell on Cher

The Monthly (Australia) - - CONTENTS - Luke Good­sell on Cher

Time-travel fic­tion main­tains that the abil­ity to move through the space-time con­tin­uum re­quires a con­stant, un­chang­ing ves­sel, ide­ally of durable de­sign. In pop­u­lar cul­ture, this has var­i­ously man­i­fested as a po­lice box, a glow­ing ball of neon en­ergy, a 1980s sports car, and even a plat­inum-wigged diva. Not co­in­ci­den­tally, one of the more strik­ing im­ages of the Amer­i­can singer and ac­tor Cher de­picts her in flaxen ringlets and cave­girl two-piece, look­ing man­nequin-serene and flanked by two gruff simian cen­tu­ri­ons from Planet of the Apes. It os­ten­si­bly comes from a goof­ball skit on 1972’s The Sonny & Cher Com­edy Hour, par­o­dy­ing the orig­i­nal film, but such is Cher’s abil­ity to slip in and out of time as a con­stant that it could be from 2018 or 3978 – so flu­idly has she moved, Zelig-like, across a 54-year ca­reer with near-ubiq­uity. There she is, ex­e­cut­ing a per­fect ro­bot move next to a free-spin­ning teenage Michael Jack­son, bring­ing a be­sot­ted David Bowie to his knees, pioneer­ing the outré Os­car en­sem­ble, tire­lessly ad­vo­cat­ing for LGBT rights or ca­su­ally in­vent­ing mod­ern pop via Auto-Tune. For sheer cul­tural scale, con­sider that Cher was one of the back-up singers on The Ronettes’ 1963 ur­text “Be My Baby”, which is the pop equiv­a­lent of be­ing in the con­trol room when the ar­chi­tects of the uni­verse flipped the switch for the Big Bang. If there’s a per­son left stand­ing when the apes do in­herit the Earth, you can bet it’ll be her.

Part of this power, of course, de­rives from Cher’s un­canny abil­ity to de­scend from her se­quinned strato­sphere into the down­right or­di­nary. This low-key ge­nius tal­ent is doc­u­mented in the pub­lic-ser­vice Twit­ter ac­count Cher Do­ing Things, but it’s her own so­cial

me­dia pres­ence – in which she reg­u­larly trolls the cur­rent Amer­i­can pres­i­dent, posts clips in Snapchat fil­ter dog ears, and ex­plores the outer lim­its of gram­mar and emoji use – that has en­deared her to gen­er­a­tions for whom the name “Sonny Bono” might sound like a par­tic­u­larly wor­ry­ing rock’n’roll off­spring.

“C’Mon Wheres Your WHIMSY,& IMAG­I­NA­TION .... Act­ing Like a GROWN UP IS HIGHLY OVER­RATED,” goes a re­cent, typ­i­cal tweet. “FOL­LOW THIS YOU BITCHES,” ends an­other.

Cher, who is 72 in hu­man years, is both tour­ing Aus­tralia this month and re­leas­ing a new record, her 26th as a solo artist. Nei­ther of these events is es­pe­cially re­mark­able in a ca­reer of such pro­duc­tive longevity, ex­cept that the lat­ter com­prises, of all things, an en­tire al­bum’s worth of ABBA cov­ers, aptly en­ti­tled Danc­ing Queen. On the sleeve art she is seen cheer­fully mim­ick­ing Anni-Frid Lyn­gstad and Agnetha Fält­skog’s har­monic pro­file, with the brunette Cher wel­com­ing the lis­tener while plat­inum blonde Cher gazes off into some un­know­able dance floor – the earthy and the ethe­real for­ever con­spir­ing in youth­ful mis­chief, like the Tau­rus– Gem­ini cusp that she is.

It’s a pop su­per-sum­mit at once con­cep­tu­ally ob­vi­ous and freighted with cul­tural res­o­nance. In­spired by her film-steal­ing cameo in Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again (Cher crashes a Greek is­land party in a he­li­copter and power suit, puts all the other ac­tors to shame), Cher’s adap­ta­tion of these songs con­firms her sta­tus at the shim­mer­ing heart of the cul­tural cos­mos. ABBA pre­dicted a whole swathe of con­tem­po­rary mu­sic’s more el­e­gant pop, from avowed fan Troye Si­van’s crys­talline love songs to Carly Rae Jepsen’s eu­phoric bangers and Lady Gaga’s elec­tro an­thems, and Danc­ing Queen rep­re­sents a kind of home­com­ing, son­i­cally and emo­tion­ally.

The al­bum’s first sin­gle, “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Mid­night)”, adds its own rip­ple to the great pop con­junc­tion. It was orig­i­nally a hit for ABBA in 1979, as they grap­pled, mostly suc­cess­fully, with puls­ing syn­the­sis­ers in the wake of Gior­gio Moroder and Donna Sum­mer’s disco; the song’s key­board loop fa­mously pro­vided the ba­sis for some­time Cher ri­val Madonna’s 2005 smash “Hung Up”. The no­to­ri­ous hook – Benny An­der­s­son’s ARP Odyssey synth whistling like R2-D2 high on he­lium – is the jump­ing-off point for a new ver­sion that throbs and gleams like 21st-cen­tury Eurodisco, evok­ing both Cher’s own col­lab­o­ra­tion with Moroder, 1980’s “Bad Love”, and her 1998 track “All or Noth­ing”, which pre­ceded the Ma­te­rial Girl’s ABBA riff­ing by sev­eral years. It’s sig­na­ture work by Cher and reg­u­lar pro­ducer Mark Tay­lor, who’s been pro­cess­ing her vo­cals for two decades now, and to­gether they su­per­charge the ABBA sound while pre­serv­ing its struc­tural in­tegrity. (Some­what sur­pris­ingly, it’s not even the song’s de­fin­i­tive queer­ing: the English band Era­sure can lay claim to that with their 1986 min­i­mal synth in­ver­sion, a pre­cur­sor to their ex­cel­lent 1992 EP ABBA-es­que.)

Many of the tracks on Danc­ing Queen like­wise share DNA with Cher’s neo-mil­len­nium disco, those club-en­gi­neered stomps that hov­ered like glit­ter balls in an anti-grav­ity vac­uum. A fa­mil­iar dig­i­tal sheen en­velops the sub­merged vo­cal in the verses of “S.O.S.”, in which Cher’s avatar is en­cased in sonic glass, await­ing the rush of re­lease. Then, as the cho­rus takes flight, she breaks free, turn­ing a line like “When you’re gone, how can I even try to go on?” into a dec­la­ra­tion of in­de­pen­dence.

Cher’s un­mis­tak­able con­tralto has, un­like other voices as they age, seem­ingly be­come sup­pler and more pow­er­ful in de­liv­ery, and her ac­tor’s ap­ti­tude for per­for­mance ex­pands the emo­tional depth of these com­po­si­tions. Just as ABBA’s ap­par­ently bub­bly pop barely con­cealed its darker un­der­tow, Cher’s tough­ened show­biz (su­per) trooper de­liv­ery re­minds us that in pop the authen­tic and the artis­tic are of­ten one and the same.

As the teenage part­ner of Sonny Bono – an as­pir­ing pro­ducer, keen stu­dent of Phil Spec­tor, and fu­ture Re­pub­li­can con­gress­man – Cher was part of the con­glom­er­ate that ush­ered in and helped de­fine the sound of mid-1960s Amer­i­can pop. To­gether they crafted early era-defin­ing clas­sics – the in­escapable folk bal­lad “I Got You Babe”, the bleak, and bril­liant, “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)” – be­fore Cher went su­per­nova with sin­gles like 1971’s “Gyp­sys, Tramps & Thieves”, a whirligig of carousel pop that still daz­zles, and 1972’s “Liv­ing in a House Di­vided”, which charted ABBAstyle di­vorce heartache when the Swedes were but a twin­kle in Euro­vi­sion’s eye.

Re­garded as squares, Sonny and Cher were ren­dered un­cool by chang­ing cul­tural tides in the late 1960s, only to be re­born as va­ri­ety show stars the fol­low­ing decade – a pe­riod in which Cher in­creas­ingly showed up Sonny’s straight-man fal­li­bil­ity, en­dured the forced ca­ma­raderie of a pa­rade of guests (in­clud­ing Ron­ald Rea­gan look­ing like a glazed ham), and watched as her 12-inch plas­tic like­ness out­sold Bar­bie. The cou­ple’s mar­riage, like most, would in­evitably un­ravel. But Cher was just get­ting started.

A gen­er­a­tion’s for­ma­tive en­counter with the singer would come in 1989, at the zenith of her hard-rock­ing power bal­ladry, as she ca­vorted along­side a bat­tle­ship’s worth of sea­men in the video to “If I Could Turn Back Time”, and dealt with the snick­er­ing misog­yny of be­ing la­belled a se­nior chart-top­per – at the ripe old age of 43. That Cher could trans­form a meat-and-po­ta­toes Diane War­ren rocker into a tears-in-your-eyes all-timer, or pull off the cheese­ball “Just Like Jesse James” (in which Cher gets to shoot her baby down), is tes­ta­ment to the per­se­ver­ance of her star – and those sten­to­rian pipes. The pe­riod also yielded per­haps Cher’s great­est cover – of

Re­garded as squares, Sonny and Cher were ren­dered un­cool by chang­ing cul­tural tides in the late 1960s

her own song, natch: a 1993 duet on “I Got You Babe” with MTV’s an­i­mated met­al­heads Beavis and Butt-Head, whose ju­ve­nile minds are duly blown in the face of Cher’s awe­some­ness.

Cher’s ca­reer au­ton­omy was hard won, and it in­formed her choices: tak­ing down the ul­ti­mate en­ti­tled man with her fel­low coven in The Witches of East­wick (1987), sin­gle-hand­edly run­ning a fam­ily (and be­ing a mother to ev­ery ’90s video kid) in Mer­maids (1990), and declar­ing the re­dun­dancy of the male species in a much-memed Date­line in­ter­view from 1996. “My mom said to me, ‘You know, sweet­heart, one day you should set­tle down and marry a rich man,’” she re­called. “I said, ‘Mom, I am a rich man.’”

It’s why her 1998 megahit “Be­lieve”, a pre­mil­len­nium, post-hu­man dis­patch from some im­pos­si­bly ad­vanced fu­ture, still res­onates. In the video, Cher and her spec­tral dop­pel­ganger pre­side over young lovers en­joy­ing the mo­ment, ready to guide them into a world in which be­ing alone is em­pow­er­ing. The song’s ahead-of-the-curve Auto-Tune was dubbed “the Cher ef­fect”; the term might as well have been ap­plied to her ca­reer.

Such in­de­pen­dence is in­sep­a­ra­ble from Cher’s read­ings on Danc­ing Queen. “I wasn’t a big fan of ABBA in the ’70s,” she con­fessed to The New York Times. “Benny took the girls and used them like in­stru­ments. Sonny used to do that to me … [Benny] didn’t give them space to sing the way they might have wanted to.” While that doesn’t give Agnetha and Anni-Frid nearly enough credit – the songs are im­printed with their in­deli­ble har­monies – Cher is de­ter­mined to re­claim fe­male au­ton­omy. What she be­gan un­der Sonny she makes ex­plicit here. When she goes on the prowl in “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!”, you know she’s not mouthing empty words en route to re­turn­ing home to her hus­band; else­where, she turns “The Win­ner Takes It All” into a vol­canic shout of de­fi­ance. “I saw my­self as a con­cealed at­trac­tion,” she sings on “One of Us”, a late-pe­riod ABBA bal­lad that she names as her per­sonal favourite. “I felt you kept me away from the heat and the ac­tion.” It isn’t hard to con­nect her ren­di­tion of An­der­s­son’s lyrics to Bono. She per­forms these songs like she wrote them.

If there’s a lot of ABBA in Danc­ing Queen, then there was more than a lit­tle Cher in ABBA to be­gin with. If she could turn back time, would she sim­ply end up right here in the present? M

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