It's been four years since A Cher Zine 1 and since then, I've noticed a new trend, mainly a shift in how Cher's music is perceived by critics. Exiting is the disdain of the 70s, which evolved to a neglectful omission in the 80s, to a begrudging gloss-over in the 80s. A revisionist rethinking of her contribution as a female rock act has arrived today. Her acting reviews have largely been good. She's naturally sincere on screen. But her music has been largely panned over the decades by everyone except a small army of stalwart fans who keep serious commentary alive in music magazines like Goldmine. They haven't become fans yet; but lately, critics have stopped ignoring Cher. Records she's broken over the last four years, with her single "Believe," her Farewell Tour, and her most recent greatest hits package, have caused the critical establishment to reconsider her place in music.
And when she makes VH1's "Best Of" lists and when she's spoken of in women-in-rock anthologies, she's spoken of as more than an act that has lasted by fluke, which was largely her footnote in the 90s. Today, her image as a female Lazarus in the hard-knocks rock biz and her musical influence on younger acts is considered. She has appeared on a remarkable number of VH1 Top 100 Lists of the Millennium, including best dance songs of all time, best love songs of all time, best music videos of all time, greatest TV moments of all time, most sexist artists of all time and top 100 pop icons of all time. And most interestingly, she made the top half (#43) of the 100 Greatest Women of Rock & Roll, a list compiled by contemporary female artists. In the 70s, such an idea was inconceivable. No one took Cher seriously. The same phenomenon is occurring in female rock history books. I've come across her name in respectful blurbs in She Bop: The Definitive History of Women in Rock, Pop and Soul by Lucy O'Brien, Women and Popular Music: Sexuality, Identity and Subjectivity by Sheila Whiteley, and We Gotta Get Out of This Place: The True, Tough Story of Women in Rock by Gerri Hirshey, in which one reviewer stated artists like Cher were finally getting their due. Keep in mind, her mentions are still small at this point. But they're there. They're respectfully there. And that's s big deal. That there are music anthologists out there who care if Cher gets her due is a 180 degree turn from the way we were
So what's up? For one thing, the critical guard has changed ranks. Children of the 70s and 80s are working Cher into these lists and anthologies. And her harshest critics, ones who have been dissing her for years, are late-60s baby boomers who are wearing loose fitting jeans right about now, still lamenting the capitalization of the new Woodstock and the proliferation of hip hop. Their voices are diminishing as they retire. Even more significantly, younger acts are finally calling Cher out as an influence on their style or music, artists ranging from Tracy Chapman to Britney Spears.
But even elder critics like Los Angeles Times rock-critic Robert Hillburn have devoted critical space to revisiting Cher in a musical context. His August 2002 re-evaluation, called "Cher Could Have Been a Contender," was significant by its very existence. That one of rock's biggest critics would consider Cher's potential, regardless of whether he sees it as a lost cause, is a seismic shift because it acknowledges her raw talent. Hilburn's theory, which has been consistent from his reviews of Cher from way back to 1975, is that the only good Cher is the 60s Cher, the Cher who stuck with Sonny Bono, the Cher who Hillburn claims was a possible influence on Chrissie Hynde, who at 13 played "I Got You Babe" over and over again in her bedroom. Hillburn fails to speak to the fact that Sonny was removed as Cher's producer by two labels, not by Cher herself, because his singles for Cher were failing miserably on charts and with critics. Their act was considered a joke by the entire psychedelic rock establishment. Hillburn calls Cher's revamped, early- 70s sound passionless and plodding but ignores the fact that it was Sonny himself who revamped Cher's sound this way. How does Hillburn feel about the poorly received Sonny-produced material on Foxy Lady in 1972, and Bittersweet White Light and Mama Was a Rock and Roll Singer in 1973? He doesn't say. In Hillburn's sketchy review of Cher's musical history, he conveniently creates a Sonny Bono musical wonderland that somehow ended disappointingly when Cher decided to "go pop" in 1971. But Hillburn went against the grain to speak of Cher as if she were worthy of discussion at all. At least he has proposed a theory of Cher a fan like me can seriously argue with. Once he claims Cher could have been a contender, the game is on. A sacred seal has been broken. We can now discuss her thoughtfully.
Many critics claim Cher has only survived due to her skill in marketing herself. If only this were true. More of her albums have failed than succeeded due to a lack of any marketing heft behind them. In fact, Warner Bros. failed to put any effort behind even the "sure thing" follow-up single to "Believe." It can't be said she stayed on top through savvy marketing because she never stayed on top in the first place. She crawled back up every time. She simply isn't part of the show biz marketing machine like the boy bands and the new blonde divas of the 90s. And she's never made alliances with powerful rock insiders to get ahead. She's never even had the security of one label who supports her and believes in her. She's had to bounce around, almost homeless, from label to label even to this day.
Remarkably, Cher exists as a hardy example of niceness in a seedy, male-dominated rock world. She could have melted down under the pressure, becoming either an ego-maniacal diva or a substance abuser. But she didn't. In many ways, this makes her a stronger figure than most of rock's infamous tough chicks. She stuck to her guns, regardless of ridicule and pressure to conform to rock and roll's own strict stereotypes. She's never subdued her style of outrageousness, even though critics punished her for it in ways they never punished Patti LaBelle or Elton John. She could have catered to rock's elite by playing by the rules, which means hitting rock bottom at some point with a drug or alcohol abuse drama. If we've learned anything at all from VH1's Behind The Music library, it's that serious rock acclaim only comes from hard living. All of Cher's scandals are scandal-lites in comparison. If you want the righteous artifice of rock and roll glory, follow the recipe: get arrested, trash hotel rooms. If you want to be accepted with the in-crowd, you must succumb to appetites, show-biz-sanctioned appetites, not necessarily legitimate or organic ones. Your appetites must be self-destructive and you must rise from them like a phoenix or be untimely undone by them and heralded into the well-respected pantheon of rock and roll tragedies.
Ironically, there is one legitimate badge of rock and roll honor Cher deserves but has eschewed, the badge other female rock stars wear like notches on a bedpost. Battle scars. Cher adheres to the wrinkle-free face, which is a shame because after all the shunning and ragging and tabloid slapping she's endured and survived, she's earned every one. She'll end up in the rock canon anyway, without pandering to rock's insiders. She's a true rebel outsider in a world of desperate posing insiders. She's beginning to get more respect for it these days.
I saw one of the most surprising subliminal bits of praise for Cher recently in a small catalogue insert, an ad for 2003's "Best Of" compilations. The small ad was a virtual who's who of rock legends. The list in its entirety: Fleetwood Mac, R.E.M, The Monkees, The Eagles, Paul Simon, Chicago, The Doors, America, Rod Stewart, James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt, Warren Zevon, The Doobie Brothers, War, Simon and Garfunkel, The Grateful Dead...and Cher.
(Cher Scholar, 2004)
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