There was a cartoon once that said, “After the nuclear holocaust, there’ll be cockroaches and Cher.” I think that pretty much sums it up.
Cher. That name conjures up all kinds of memories, feelings, and thoughts. She has been a pop culture fixture for nearly 60 years. She always seems present, never too far away, whether on the radio, on our TV screens, or on the silver screen. Every time Cher releases another project, it’s celebrated as a comeback, the latest in a series of comebacks. A cultural and musical shapeshifter, Cher is an artist who finds a trend, leaps onto it, and rides it to massive success. Her music career has been a study of dogged determinism. As a young, fresh-faced ingenue (it’s so hard to picture Cher being an ingenue), Cher sang folk-pop songs with Sonny Bono, the duo finding immortality with the classic 1960s love song, “I Got You Babe”.
When pop trends shifted and moved, Sonny and Cher looked to variety television, and Cher reinvented herself as a droll comedienne. After their split, Cher went solo, releasing a string of dramatic story songs like “Dark Lady” and “Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves”, before jumping on the disco bandwagon with “Take Me Home”. As the 1970s drew to a close, Cher entered the 1980s determined to make it as a movie star, becoming one of the decade’s greatest thespians, surprising critics with her wide range. Her film career included an Oscar nomination for her powerful turn in Mike Nichols’ 1983 ecological drama Silkwood and a win for her charming turn in the classic romantic comedy Moonstruck (1988).
Like many multi-hyphenates, Cher had to juggle several careers, and though she seemed happiest as a movie star in the 1980s, she didn’t forget music. Signing to Geffen Records, she released a trio of albums: Cher (1987), Heart of Stone (1989), and Love Hurts (1991), which saw Cher remake herself as a soft-rock power balladeer. As with her music career in the 1960s and 1970s, the 1980s seemed to greet the grand diva with another commercial peak.
Then the unthinkable happened: Cher seemed to step back.
The triumph of an Oscar-winning film career and a multi-platinum-selling music career seemed to make way for a confusing time for the singer-actress. There was the unfortunate decision to appear in a series of infomercials for Lori Davis, an entrepreneur who came out with a series of beauty and hair care products. The result was quick and damning: Cher’s Oscar-winning luster was dimmed as she became a punchline, her infomercials parodies on Saturday Night Live and In Living Color. Summing up her choice to appear in these ads, Cher pithily noted, “The worst thing in the world is to be uncool. And I was just completely uncool.” She added, “It’s smarmy…I did a smarmy thing.”
Her struggle with an Epstein-Barr virus infection meant she had to ease up on the pace of her work. By 1995, she hadn’t put out a studio LP in four years. Though her celebrity was mostly intact in Europe (the UK is probably her most loyal audience), the US was cooler to her efforts. One studio executive was quoted as saying, “She can get European financing, but not [in the United States].” She hadn’t had a top-ten hit in the USA pop charts in six years. In the UK, her last studio album, 1991’s Love Hurts was a number-one hit on the album charts, going three-times platinum, and spinning off hit singles, including the number-one UK hit “The Shoop Shoop Song (It’s in His Kiss)” from the film Mermaids and the top-ten UK hit, “Love and Understanding”.
During this relatively quiet time, Cher released her 21st studio album, It’s a Man’s World, with surprising restraint. The album’s November UK release was preceeded by a cover of Marc Cohn’s 1992 light-rock standard, “Walking in Memphis”. In Cher’s hands, the song was transformed from Cohn’s A/C soft-rock into a smooth, slick R&B/pop tune. It was a significant stylistic shift from the bombastic power balladeering of her Geffen work. Cohn’s song tells the story of a young artist finding inspiration after visiting Memphis, the birthplace of some of America’s best music. The lyrics reference Elvis Presley which dovetails with Cher’s vocals, which often can sound like Presley (or at least an impression of Presley). Not only does Cher channel the King on vinyl, but in the song’s music video, she dons Elvis drag.
Cher’s tribute to Elvis Presley and gospel soul may have been surprising to her audiences in 1995, but it wasn’t unprecedented for the singer. In the late 1960s, perhaps inspired by the blue-eyed soul classic Dusty in Memphis, Cher put out a soul album of her own, 3614 Jackson Highway, named after the address of the legendary Muscle Shoals Sound Studios. The record included soul covers like “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” and “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man”.
But “Walkin’ in Memphis” was released in the high-tech soundscape of 1995. Producer Christopher Neil surrounds Cher’s idiosyncratic voice in thick programmed beats and luxurious synthesizers. A similar treatment is given to the album’s titular song, a cover of the James Brown classic. In the original, Brown’s anguished vocals cry over the steady, smoldering melody. The lyrics unfurl Brown’s anxieties about the differences between the sexes, highlighting the many achievements of men but the paradoxical co-dependence men have on their women. Cher’s performance is far cooler and languid, a torch song, lush with full orchestration.
It’s a Man’s World is a strange album in that it’s a collection of covers (originally recorded by male singers) as well as original pop tunes. It’s also one of the least characteristically ‘Cher’ albums in the singer’s discography. For a singer who thrived on camp bombast and kitsch bravado, the arrangements and vocal performances on the album were surprisingly restrained and subtle. Cher’s strange voice – that androgynous instrument with the stuttering vibrato – is often relaxed and sweet on the album’s wistful ballads. She even flexes her vocal chops, singing in a surprisingly adroit falsetto. That falsetto is put to use on the album’s second single, “One by One”, a mid-tempo pop number that would find success remixed by Junior Vasquez as a dance song (hitting the top ten on the dance charts), predicting her gargantuan success with her 1998 Euro-disco song, “Believe”.
To hear the full range of Cher’s stylistic versatility, it’s helpful to listen to the three main versions of “One by One”. The original, UK version, is a rhythmic-pop tune with that struts with an insanely catchy chorus. It sounds like Tina Turner circa 1990s Europe. The American version, which was released a year later, is a slinky R&B number. And the Vasquez version takes Cher to the dance floor. The relative neutrality of Cher’s voice, as well as her adaptability as an artist, means that if the material is solid, she’s a sure fit.
It’s that adaptability that has lent Cher that legendary longevity (but it’s also kept Cher from establishing a genuine musical sound or persona – it feels as if Cher ‘sounds’ like whatever current iteration she’s inhabiting at the moment). That is why It’s a Man’s World is such an important entry in her discography because rarely has there been so much attention paid to songcraft on a Cher album. For the most part, her records are vehicles for a hit single, as well as an accompaniment to her celebrity and movie career. But It’s a Man’s World is a lovely moment when Cher embraces a calmer sound that doesn’t merely rely on her estimable attitude and charisma as well as her celebrity.
After the muted response to It’s a Man’s World (it did well in the UK but was a remixed-USA edition was a disappointment in her homeland), Cher came back in 1998 with Believe and its monster hit single, which reinvented Cher – yet again – this time as a robotic dance diva. Her throaty yodel was pinched, squeezed, and chopped with studio effects, rendering her almost unrecognizable on the song. The anonymity in “Believe” is an unfortunate side effect of some of Cher’s most successful hits. Anyone could have sung on that record. The massive success of that single and its parent album gave Cher a new career she held for the ensuing decades.
Though nothing she recorded hit the high of “Believe”, she seemed to have settled into her late-career guise as a dance diva. Cher also become a professional Legend, her wit and charm making her a popular presence on talk shows (her presence on social media has also become legendary). In 2018, following her well-received turn in the blockbuster musical Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, Cher returned with her 26th studio album Dancing Queen, a collection of Euro-dance covers of ABBA tunes. Because of the songwriting – Benny Andersson, Björn Ulvaeus, and Stig Anderson are underrated geniuses – Dancing Queen is an unusually consistent effort for the singer. Still, it sounds like a sequel to Believe (actually, it sounds like the fourth entry in the franchise – Dancing Queen is Cher’s fifth dance album, one of the longest stretches of her career in which she sticks to one musical style).