October 2018

Arts & Letters

Eternally Cher

By Luke Goodsell

Cher, 1979. © Harry Langdon / Getty Images

The queen of reinvention turns her attention to the works of ABBA

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 ABBA-style 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 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 pre-millennium, 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?

Luke Goodsell

Luke Goodsell is a critic and editor who has contributed to the ABC, SBS and the Melbourne International Film Festival.


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