cher: the ultimate pop culture outsider we still don't deserve

She will probably out live everything; her ABBA covers album could go either way and she owns more crystal-studded clobber than a rhinestone cowperson, so why is Cher kind of an outsider?

by Nick Levine
23 August 2018, 7:45am

image via YouTube

The first song I remember hearing on the radio was Love and Understanding by Cher. Released in 1991, it's a glossy soft-rock bop whose socially conscious and gloriously corny lyrics I wouldn't clock until many years later. I think what I really responded to, besides the unstoppable chorus, was Cher's voice. It was strong, for sure, but also kind of androgynous -- Cher didn't sound typically male or typically female, and on a subconscious level that resonated with seven-year-old me, long before I realised that I was kind of different because I was kind of gay.

Some 27 years later, I'm sitting in the cinema sipping special offer prosecco as Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again entertains me more than any Marvel movie could. I've already been told to pipe down by a fellow patron who didn't appreciate me (quietly) trying to make my friend laugh by suggesting Meryl Streep will get her 22nd Oscar nomination for a scene in which a large photograph of her character from the first film is positioned quite prominently on a chair. But when Cher finally materialises, two-thirds in and after we’ve been teased with shots of a helicopter and her spangly open-toed shoe, I instinctively knew it would be OK. No one is going to shush me for screaming "YASSS CHER!" And no one does.

What is it about Cher that makes it OK to shriek at a cinema screen at 6.30pm on a Saturday evening? Obviously Cher is heroically camp -- she's spent large swathes of the last two decades head to toe in sequins and wigs, so I'm still shocked it took RuPaul's Drag Race

10 seasons to celebrate her properly. But camp isn't all Cher is. In a way, she's built her incredibly successful 55-year career by being the ultimate pop culture outsider. Cher is such a unique vessel of energy that she's even managed to develop a style of tweeting that's different from Twitter's 336m other users.

Because she's been one-name-only famous for as long as anyone can remember, it's easy to forget just how weird and wonderful Cher's career trajectory has been. A quick recap: in the 60s she worked as a backing singer for super-producer Phil Spector before finding fame in hippie-ish pop duo Sonny and Cher. Then in the 70s she and Sonny hosted their own hugely popular TV show, as Cher scored solo hits like Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves (still incredible) and Half Breed (now super-problematic, as Drag Race spotlighted).

When she reached number one with 1998's Believe, 52-year-old Cher became the oldest woman ever to top the UK singles chart, a somewhat dubious honour she still holds.

In the 80s, after a brief fling with disco, she relaunched herself as a soft-rock singer -- I like to call her music during this period "Bon Jovi, but for queers" -- and straddled a canon in the If I Could Turn Back Time video. I don’t care where you sit on the Kinsey scale, that video could give anyone a boner. At the same time, and even more impressively, she established herself as a proper Hollywood actress, with roles in Mask, Moonstruck and Mermaids. Then the 90s brought -- are you exhausted yet? -- Cher the dance diva. When she reached number one with 1998's Believe, 52-year-old Cher became the oldest woman ever to top the UK singles chart, a somewhat dubious honour she still holds.

In the 2000s she embarked on a three-year farewell tour, telling audiences from Sydney to Sheffield "I'm never doing this again!" before landing a $180m deal to belt out her bangers once more in Vegas. More recently, she's endeared herself to Generation Z by becoming a politically impassioned and fabulously unfiltered tweeter: if you tell Cher to sit on your face, she will clap back. Oh, and now she’s releasing an album of Abba covers, because… well, Cher.

But seriously, you couldn’t make up her career arc. She's spent decades exceeding everyone’s expectations. During a recent appearance on The Graham Norton Show, she recalled sneaking into a local movie theatre that was showing the trailer for 1983's Silkwood, one of her first big films. When the name "Cher" appeared on screen following those of Meryl Streep and Jeff Bridges, the audience started laughing. The following year, she received an Oscar nomination for the performance that people had sniggered at before they’d even seen. Then in 1988, she won one for Moonstruck, despite fearing that the Academy "didn’t think I was a serious actress”, after she'd worn an iconic Bob Mackie outfit and headdress to the ceremony two years earlier.

Cher may have spent decades being underestimated by both music and movie execs, but she's now so embedded in the collective psyche that she can get away with telling us -- repeatedly -- "I'm not a Cher fan." At this stage in her career she's celebrated for being a longtime LGBTQ icon and ally, a symbol of female autonomy in a male-dominated world, a genuine showbiz survivor, proof that a very rich person can also be very woke, and a strangely ageless wonder. I don't give a shit what Cher may or may not have "had done" -- she looks incredible and has stamina to match.

Although she first became popular alongside Sonny Bono and went on to date Tom Cruise and Val Kilmer, Cher has never been defined by her romantic partners. As she explained brilliantly in a 1996 interview, “My mom said to me, ‘You know, sweetheart, one day you should settle down and marry a rich man.’ And I said, ‘Mom, I am a rich man.’”

Cher's latest single Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight), the first from her Abba covers album Dancing Queen, sort of epitomises her unruly brilliance. In theory, a massive gay icon covering a massive gay banger from a band who were rediscovered by massive gays before everyone else cottoned on should be, well, redundant and too much. But it's not. Cher's rendition, complete with the vocoder effects that have been her hallmark since Believe, feels fun, infectious and strangely life-affirming. In 2018, we still don't deserve Cher, and we probably never will.

This article originally appeared on i-D UK.

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