Cher requires no grand critical reappraisal.
Music criticism's poptimist readjustments have done that work already, sweeping Cher up in the mass redemption of artists once derided as unserious fodder for unthinking audiences. So let's start here: Cher is good, period. And everyone talks a big game about hating “Believe” until a DJ plays it, full stop.
So instead let's discuss what Cher represents in 2019, which is remarkably often herself. The category of sexy septuagenarians who’ve spent the better part of the past five decades in show business and still command a loyal, multi-generational following is a minuscule one. Dolly Parton, also 73, may be Cher's only real contemporary. (Madonna, for the record, is twelve years younger than those two. Jennifer Lopez, at fifty, is another 23.) Like every facet of popular entertainment, the music industry is no country for older women; shinier, younger female stars have lorded over marketing budgets for decades. And in that respect, both Parton and Cher are lone survivors — their already healthy feminist cred boosted by their managing careers past perceived (if openly misogynistic) expiration dates.
Parton’s appeal, however, is notably bipartisan: She’s famous for appealing to down-home Republicans while staying a favorite of the online left. Cher, on the other hand, has no hangups about alienating anyone, and uses Twitter to conduct a one-woman emoji-filled crusade against the current president (peppered by lovingly bizarre and often viral asides like “whats going on with mycareer” and “IM NOT YELLING… IM CHER”). Nevertheless, their individual talent, longevity and style have endeared them to the younger generations and, in turn, inoculated them against the hilarious “OK Boomer” online discourse.
Off Twitter, established institutions have treated 21st-century Cher with somewhat overdue reverence. She received a Kennedy Center Honor in 2018, the same year her career-spanning jukebox music The Cher Show opened on Broadway. The show, helmed by three separate actresses playing their subject at different points in her artistic life, received lukewarm reviews, but it fits that Cher would encapsulate her career in this format. Cher knows her audience (read: the girls and the gays, who have sustained the American musical theater tradition from high school up since day one), and she knows her name alone will sell tickets, approximately $40 million worth, just short of a year into her current tour's run.
Also in her watershed 2018: her fourth-act appearance in summertime smash-hit sequel Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, in which she plays the coolly glamorous showbiz lifer and grandmother to main character Sophie — in other words, herself, calibrated only slightly to fit the plot. When told during an interview with the New York Times that she “stole that movie,” she responded, “I haven’t seen it. But I don’t remember doing anything memorable except singing ‘Fernando.’” (Yet another wonderfully aloof, trademark-Cher answer to an interviewer, as it was.)
"Fernando" ended up proving memorable enough to entice her to record and release the ABBA covers album Dancing Queen that September, part of which I serendipitously experienced for the first time at a crowded and receptive gay bar. It’s remarkably straightforward in its approach, and relatively faithful in its execution. She trots out all the necessary disco hits (“Dancing Queen,” “Waterloo”) early, and spends the back half on glossy marquee ballads best suited for her voice: “Chiquitita,” “One of Us.” Every track is granted a shiny, if campy, post-’70s pop production update — the final disco crescendo of “The Winner Takes It All” is characteristically slathered in Auto-Tune, the original sprightly snare-heavy pop beat wrestled into a mid-’90s thudding dance-pop beat not totally unlike the one underneath the chorus of “Believe.”
Even when its commitment to pop sheen proves relentless, Dancing Queen is an entertaining record that arrives in an era where cover albums are cool again. It’s breezy party music, the project of someone with nothing left to prove, doing what she wants. Like many of Cher’s artistic choices, it revels in camp without apology, often as only she can. Cher’s reputation for being plainspoken, clever, sarcastic, saucy and hilariously frank lets her get away with murderous panache everywhere else. Combined with her dramatic talents in quote-unquote serious movies (there’s an Oscar for Moonstruck to prove it), Cher manages to claim full allegiance to neither camp nor sincerity and plays with both, juggling a real-world sincerity and refreshing wit with shameless and sparkling extravagance.
But the extravagance itself, especially as it manifests in her sartorial choices, is no accident: Cher understands her sex appeal. She knows what she looks like (even now, it bears repeating, with an unimaginably great body at 73). She spent decades effortlessly pulling off everything Bob Mackie could tape to her. She won a CFDA Fashion Award for her influence on the industry. Like David Bowie, Cher is gorgeous and talented, capable of recognizing and weaponizing pop spectacle, her own persona massive and glorious enough to only ever be enhanced, never eclipsed, by the artistic choices of a given moment, however ridiculous.
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It has made her an icon. Cher's Pepsi Center date is part of her second tour since her official farewell tour, a 325-date juggernaut that took three years to complete. That it's happening is proof in and of itself that the contemporary demand for Cher still packs stadiums. As every dad with a crush on Cher would argue, popularity is not necessarily indicative of quality, but if Cher was going to fade from our culture and imagination, it would have happened already.
Given her stature now, it's easy to forget Cher is a quintessential comeback queen: Her most notable rebounds include her post-divorce resurgence in the late 1970s via pure disco record Take Me Home (complete with a Vegas residency) and, most famously, her transformation into the Y2K dance-pop queen who pioneered Auto-Tune (yes, seriously). Every comeback, however derided at the time, was successful enough that we’re still talking about Cher in 2019. Maybe it was always the Cher show.
Hear Cher and more favorites from Westword writers on our Westword Staff Picks playlist.