This was an interview conducted by Emma Driver for the Australian magazine Women in Pop for the Pink! Issue #5. Buy copies.
Emma Driver: Musically, when do you think Cher has been at her strongest (or most original, or most interesting)? I have read what your top 10 songs are, and they span the decades; is there a period though when you felt she was really at her best or coming into her own? Or do you think her peaks appear all over the place through her career?
Cher Scholar: You can cut this many, many ways. Which is what’s interesting about Cher: she’s like the history of pop culture unto herself. She’s had many musical phases over the decades and also various vocal styles. I think her peak vocally came between 1974 and 1979. During the 1960s she sounded very raw and unsure. Many fans love this but it wasn’t my favorite period because (a) I wasn’t born yet and (b) I prefer her more confident sound. Pre-74 she hadn’t started owning the Elvis-drawl fully; but from 1974-79 she sounds crisp and fully carefree. Then in 1980 (Black Rose band era), her swallowed vowels and vibratos sounded too extreme. Then by the mid-1980s she was taking vocal lessons for the first time to control her vibrato; and although she does sounds cleaner during her Geffen Records era, it was an unfortunate turn of events if you loved the vibrato, which I did.
By Believe you can tell something has changed again. Her consonants are so soft, it sounds like she has a cold. It’s not awful, just but not the crisp, thrill of her more youthful sound.
You can also consider her phases by producers, entirely male. From this angle, Sonny’s helm was the most unified in sound and lyric. He had his themes: runaways, teen pregnancies, misspent youth, his whole reactionary response to the free love movement of the 1960s. I personally love the Snuff Garrett era (early 70s) because I felt he was most creative instrumentally. I elaborated on this once in a blog post. Garrett is not widely considered a very creative producer, but his Cher songs feel way less formulaic to me.
When she has an album with multiple producers (mid-80s to present), I never feel satisfied. She claims to do this intentionally, so those producers won’t shortchange her on songs they don’t like. It’s too bad she’s never found a later-day producer she fully trusted. Now, the ABBA album is a complete surprise. And it leads me to want to say her best era may be yet to come. For Cher fans, in that sense, Cher has always been a promise of what she might do, her potential, that brings us back time and again. Imagine Cher doing ABBA songs. Imagine Cher doing Joni Mitchell songs. Imagine Cher doing Stevie Nicks songs. Just this morning I was trying to image Cher covering “Hold on to Me” by the Sugarplum Fairies.
ED: I feel like Cher has been subjected to more intense and barbarous press scrutiny than any other woman in pop (maybe Madonna rivals it). Yet she has not only weathered it all but risen way above it, shrugging her shoulders, and basically saying, listen, I’m just doing what I want, and really, women do have choices in how to live a life. She didn’t break down, as most of us would have: she just kept making art. What do you think has made her able to do this – what factors or character aspects or gifts do you think have allowed her to keep it together and be creatively productive?
CS: Rock press has always been hard on Cher. They were critical of Sonny & Cher from the beginning. Sonny & Cher were perceived as folk opportunists. Part of the problem was probably everyone’s suspicion that Sonny Bono wasn’t a legitimate hippie. Which, honestly, was a good call. He wasn’t. Then in the early 1970s, Sonny & Cher “sold out” to variety TV when their folk stardom faded. And the rock establishment has always had an allergic reaction to sequins. Neil Diamond suffered the same flak for wearing his sequin-encrusted shirts. The constant paparazzi dramas, the infomercials Cher did in the 1990s, plastic surgery efforts, dance albums: none of that helped the situation. Rock establishment hated the sequins and the disco and the dance club records. And you have to wonder if they also hated the black and gay culture those music forms represented. Cher’s alignment with those cultures speaks for itself and about what it really means to be subversive and groundbreaking.
For these reasons, rock establishment critics have never felt Cher was a legitimate contender. She can win awards, pack stadiums in her 20s, 40s, 50s and 70s, break Billboard chart records, hang around in public life for over 50 years…where does the bar of greatness sit? Her career itself raises questions about what value pop culture has and who gets to assign value?
However, the tide of criticism did start to turn with Cher’s performance in the movie Silkwood, her first mainstream movie exposure. She performed without makeup. Which seems to scream serious actress. Sonny’s death also seemed a milestone in her reputation for some sentimental reason. After that, the successes of both the Believe single and her Greatest Hits album charting for so long both were significant milestones after which Cher started appearing for the first time in anthologies about women in music. This started at the turn of the century and I wrote about it in the introduction to my second Cher Zine (around 2002).
Cher is different than Madonna in two ways: (1) Madonna has always had a strong academic following. Almost from the beginning of pop culture studies in America, there was a course on Madonna. Her project has always be read by theorists as post-modern, meta and more blatantly feminist. It’s taken decades for Cher to get even a scratch of that same treatment. People are finally re-evaluating Cher in a feminist light: her movie character choices, her music video performances, her song lyrics, her running commentary; and critics are finally finding a more stealthy feminism there, one that is authentic to Cher and not a posed media statement. Cher herself disagrees with this idea that she has been primarily a project of reinvention. That idea itself is all smoke and feathers. The core of Cherness has remained constant.
How has she been able to achieve this over such a long period of time? Good question. Because it seems those characteristics about herself that have helped her persevere, (her authenticity, her longevity, her abstinence), those qualities have been perceived as liabilities by the cool kids. If she would have been a rock poser with a drug addiction to mourn, I propose she’d be in the rock and roll hall of fame today. It’s ironically the establishment’s intolerance of her audacious authenticity (albeit less destructive) projected as some kind of offensive inauthenticity.
Cher has a pretty strong defense mechanism that many rock stars claim to have but clearly don’t: on some very important level she just doesn’t give a shit. She doesn’t care enough to get discouraged by negative opinions. That’s likely a trait that was forged by association with Sonny, who was impenetrable in that area.
She’s also had pretty consistent and undying support from a core group of fans since the beginning. If those fans didn’t provide Cher a market, it wouldn’t matter what she cared about or how resilient she was. No label or movie producer would give her opportunities unless she wasn’t able to sell units and tickets. And that support is probably due to her unusual voice, face and personality. Fans love to wonder what the next Cher product will be. She’s interesting.
I would also give credit to her congeniality and her ability to maintain long-time working relationships. She’s not paranoid, mean or selfish in her business dealings. She’s worked with many of the same people for 20-40 years. She’s likable.
ED: What is something important (or multiple things) you’ve always wished would be included in commentary about Cher but never seems/seem to get a mention? (And I 100% GUARANTEE not to just take them as if they’re my own cool findings, but attribute them if they are included.)
CS: Another good question. We need to keep talking about Cher’s exclusion in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
I also just wish Cher (and Sonny) would get the kind of academic, deeply considered coverage Madonna gets. It’s starting to happen. There has been some small re-evaluation of her material. See: https://www.billboard.com/articles/columns/pop/7801038/cher-gypsys-tramps-thieves-greatest-song
But a good example of the “cartooning of Sonny & Cher” can be found in every docudrama or documentary which portrays Sonny simply as the character he played on their variety TV shows. See the movie And the Beat Goes On or their episode of Breaking the Band. Sonny was not that guy at all. And it bugs me, this misreading. He was not bumbling and hapless. He was savvy and ruthless. Ask anyone who actually worked with him in television. There was a real hard, smart person behind the scenes. So this cartoonish portrait is completely incorrect and condescending.
So, re-evaluating Cher’s career as something more than opportunistic reinventions, re-evaluating the work of feminism she’s done, how some of her early 70s “fluff” material was really more transgressive than it appeared to be. Those kitschy narrative songs were very dark. They were songs about sexual hypocrisy, exploitation, racial hatred and adultery leading to violence.
It’s important to note that the song titles “Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves,” “Dark Lady” and “Half Breed” are all considered pejorative terms now. But in these songs, the lyrics specifically argue that those words are pejorative slurs. Those songs-cum-arguments charted no less than 25-30 years before the terms were officially labeled offensive by mainstream linguists.
It’s not that she was ahead of her time. She was considered the Paris Hilton of her time.
ED: Tell me about starting up Cher Scholar. What was the impetus/collection of impetuses that made this something you wanted to bring to the world, and spend many of your hours doing? (Side question: Do you think Cher is particularly and uniquely deserving of being analysed seriously in our cultural landscape, or is she part of something bigger that is missing from our serious public discourse?)
CS: I started creating the site cherscholar.com back in 1999. The internet was new for most people and Cher fans were putting up fan sites that seemed more like shrines to me. I was really interested in web publishing, but the shrine thing made me very uncomfortable. I’ve always wanted to be cautious around the idea of celebrity obsession and hero worship. That might be a big rationalization on my part; but my first bright idea was to build a spoof to those shrines, the joke being that Cher was worthy of scholarship. I was an English major so I had all the tools of over-explication at my disposal. And in the process I met a lot of over-educated, nerdy Cher friends. This was before you could get a degree in pop culture studies. (Oh, if I could do it all over again...)
Anyway, I learned an important lesson because the joke ended up being on me. The more I spoofed scholarship, the more I actually started doing it. I picked up a used copy of the media-studies journal Camera Obscura and I’ve never been the same. Cher trivia suddenly became much less interesting to me than Cher scholarship.
I think her astounding longevity alone marks her as something worthy of studying but there are so many different angles to look at it: Cher as feminist, Cher as ethnic other, Cher as outsider, Cher as drag queen, queer culture, the female gaze, the tv shows, the MTV videos, the movies, the music, the political action, the svengali syndrome, her interview quotes, the extra material (dolls, perfume, makeup, skin care, infomercials)...how does every product or facet play into the whole scheme of her zeitgeist? And that’s just off the top of my head. It’s daunting and no-one’s even cracked it.
ED: Do you have a favourite Cher quote, and if you do, will you share it with me please? (Again, attributed to your findings if used.)
CS: Two that come immediately to mind: “If it doesn’t matter in five years, it doesn’t matter.” - that’s a handy life lesson. Actually a quote from her mother, Georgia Holt.
And the uber-feminist: "My mom said to me, 'You know, sweetheart, you should settle down and marry a rich man,’ I said, 'Mom, I am a rich man.'”
But I think the following quote is the one that had the strongest influence on me personally, looking back:
“I’m still friends with all of my exes, apart from my husbands.” Gregg Allman recently corrected that statement on Dan Rather’s The Big Interview when he said he and Cher had actually become very good friends.
But I read that quote back when I was in high school and it seemed revolutionary to me, especially as I was witnessing and experiencing the high drama of teen romance. But this idea that friendships are bigger than love dramas was a big idea to chew on. And when you practice it, you come to the understanding that you shouldn’t look for something in someone else that you should be finding in yourself. It’s not always easy. You have to “get over yourself” to accomplish it. And the quote speaks to both Cher’s ability to “get over herself” but also the proposition to “get over ourselves.” Again, not easy, but great emotional freedom can be found there.
Although we associate Cher with her lovers, she’s really a pillar unto herself...and yet also a combination of all her longtime friends and colleagues. I like the quote because I think it represents something very solid about Cher herself, but is also a subtle and useful piece of advice.