Over the summer I did a bit of Cher scholarship and some awesome scholarship came to me.
One of the most exciting things was this analytics data Cher scholar Aurélien sent me, this study conducted by the site Chart Masters. I love this nerdy stuff! Numbers have been crunched to combine physical sales, compilation and live album sales with digital sales to get a better understanding of a song or artist’s overall popularity. For longtime Cher fans, there aren’t many surprises in this report, but it's still fascinating nonetheless, especially the streaming aspect. Madonna fans in the comments took great umbrage with the new Cher moniker “goddess of pop” (was this a fan label or a press one, I never did know). This week my friend Ann suggested the title "the Nefertiti of Pop Music," but the article suggests possibly a more accurate alternative moniker: the “Godmother of All Divas.”
Something to keep in mind, these statistics don’t take into account Cher's popularity in movies, television programs or any other products and these diminutive sales might prove that Cher’s true popularity lies more in other products beyond music, which makes the longevity of her career making music (to date: 1964-2017) and the Billboard record breaking stats all the more mysterious.
Ranking of Top Albums
The first section lists the sales of albums, both physical and digital. I’ve re-ordered the list by top albums by total world sales. However, early 60s and 70s albums numbers were hindered by the fact that apparently few people invested in buying full albums (is this true?) and there weren’t many international sales. The deep catalog is also severely compromised by the fact that almost a decade of Cher’s output has never been officially released digitally (on iTunes, Spotify, YouTube).
- Believe – 11,800,000
- Heart of Stone – 6,000,000
- Love Hurts – 3,500,000
- Cher (1987) – 2,050,000
- Burlesque Soundtrack – 1,375,000
- Look at Us – 1,300,000 (the best of 60s albums)
- Living Proof – 1,125,000 (said to be bomb because it landed next to Believe but it doesn’t seem awful, like other Cher bombs below)
- Gypsies, Tramps & Thieves – 1,000,000 (strong comeback for the time)
- It’s a Man’s World – 850,000
- All I Ever Need Is You – 700,000
- Half Breed – 600,000 (half of Gypsies)
- Closer to the Truth – 600,000
- Take Me Home – 550,000 (not as good as Half Breed)
- All I Really Want to Do – 450,000 (second best of the 60s)
Ranking of Albums That Didn’t Do So Well
- Foxy Lady – 375,000
- The Sonny Side of Cher – 325,000
- Dark Lady – 300,000 (I was surprised at this low ranking considering the album had a #1 hit attached to it; but maybe being in the middle of a highly publicized divorce with the sad end of a popular television show compromised its chances. But it’s nutty to me that Foxy Lady outperformed it.)
- Cher (1966) – 250,000
- With Love, Cher – 250,000
- Wondrous World of S&C – 250,000
- In Case You’re in Love – 250,000
- Good Times Soundtrack – 150,000
- Stars – 125,000 (sad results for three of Cher’s best albums, Stars, Backstage and 3614 Jackson Highway)
- Backstage – 100,000
- 3614 Jackson Highway – 100,000
- Bittersweet White Light -- 100,000
- Mama Was a Rock and Roll Singer – 75,000
- I’d Rather Believe in You – 75,000
- Prisoner – 75,000
- Cherished – 50,000
- Two the Hard Way – 50,000
- I Paralyze – 50,000
The single “Believe” is a legitimate phenomenon and all the more so for Cher being 52 at the time.
- Believe – 7,020,000
- I Got You Babe – 2,870,000
- Gypsies, Tramps & Thieves – 2,370,000
- Half Breed – 1,850,000
- If I Could Turn Back Time – 1,780,000
- The Shoop Shoop Song – 1,710,000
- Bang Bang – 1,570,000
- Dark Lady 1,510,000
- The Beat Goes On – 1,360,000
- Baby Don’t Go – 1,300,000
- All I Ever Need Is You – 1,290,000
- Little Man—1,270,000 (I’m very surprised this song made the list; I always assumed it was a minor hit.)
- Strong Enough – 1,170,000
- A Cowboy’s Work Is Never Done – 1,140,000
- Just Like Jesse James – 1,010,000
Take Me Home doesn’t even make the list. Due to the funkiness of the disco era where they were counting 12-inch singles and chart rankings based on units shipped, the single was certified Gold and it charted #8 on the U.S. Billboard chart.
Other songs that charted in the U.S. but did not make the sales list: After All, Walking in Memphis, The Way of Love, You Better Sit Down Kids, I Found Someone, We All Sleep Alone, All I Really Want to Do, Love and Understanding, and Heart of Stone.
I found it interesting that even for streaming statistics on old catalog albums that have been released digitally, the blips that did occur in sales were usually for single releases, even non-successful singles, for instance a song like “Carousel Man.“ Sometimes music companies make strange choices for singles, (“Sing C’est La Vie” instead of “I Got You Babe” being a famous example of Sonny having to fight the ideas of Ahmet Ertegun at ATCO). You’d think streaming would even the playing field a bit, especially for young people who don’t have the cultural memory of what those unsuccessful single releases even were. According to MJD, this is because most users on Spotify rely on playlists, which just reinforce the "best" of an era.
Some of the charts also have misapplied orphan songs that really belong in another artist category, (Cher versus Sonny & Cher), are actually from soundtracks or live albums or may just be bootlegs.
The brutal summary is that Cher has a dead catalog compared to other artists Chart Masters has studied. I don’t know how she compares to other artists her age or other artists who began releasing material in the 1960s, (besides The Rolling Stones and the Beatles). But Chart Masters does list the records she has broken: longest span between two hits (she’s 8 years ahead of Michael Jackson), oldest artist to have a top Hot 100 song, “Believe” is also the most successful album from an artist over 50, and she’s one of the few artists to win an Oscar, Grammy, Emmy and a Golden Globe.
Cher in Music Guides (It's Never Pretty)
I posted this article a few months ago (http://www.ninjajournalist.com/entertainment/secrets-cher/) but I revisited it over the summer. I like the thematic dissections of Cherness and the article points out that the Burlesque soundtrack was nominated for Grammy. Really? It was and it also won the Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association Campy Film of the Year. It must have been a camp-free year. They also call out the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Good!
But the article doesn’t debunk the silly rib removal story, passes an impersonator photo off as Cher, in once place Cher is spelled “share,” and the article claims S&C sang harmonies. They really didn’t. In one place it says Cher excelled in school despite her dyslexia and then later states she always got Cs and D.
Most interestingly, the article quotes writer Nicholas E. Tawa to say Cher’s voice is “bold, deep, and with a spacious vibrato.” That sounded like a rare compliment so I looked up the attribution. In his book Supremely American: Popular Song in the 20th Century (2005) Tawa spends a paragraph on Cher. Here’s the excerpt from Google books.
One small paragraph full of so many common inaccuracies about Cher.
“During the seventies, too, a new kind of performer came into view – the chameleon, always ready to adapt his or her public personality and tailor a singing style to suit the prevalent fashion.”
This is both true and not true. Sonny, Cher's first producer, was a bona fide folk rock artist. He picked the material and he didn’t change in the 1970s. He just handed Cher over to producer Snuff Garrett and so her music style changed. Cher never endorsed adult contemporary and fared only adequately with it (aside from 3 #1 hits), considering how long she was assigned this style by producers). Cher critics are constantly having it both ways. Tawa sees Cher as an exploiter of styles and cynical chameleon (when actually she felt powerless at the time to choose her material). Tawa even admits further down that some artists are “steered hither and yon.” But he must not be thinking of Cher here.
Tawa calls Cher a “case in point” of someone “who gave careful consideration to advancing her career.” If you’re a real student of Cher, you know her career is not Madonna-esque. It was always a fly-by-the-seat music career with occasional attempts at steering, some of which worked, but most of which did not.
The Chart Master’s study above proves all this. As I said in my comments there: “Cher has never been a successful pop star in comparison (to Madonna) and yet she is consistently accused of being simultaneously too popular and calculated (by rock artists who never have pop hits) and not being popular and calculated enough (by fans of young pop hit-makers). This survey proves she is neither calculated nor popular. Which just makes her icon status all the more mysterious and remarkable.”
From Tawa, this is poor scholarship:
“In order to prove irresistible to her audiences, she had her nose and teeth straightened, her teeth capped, her breasts firmed up, and her body reshaped” and that this is why she succeeded.
First of all WTF does having your body reshaped even mean? That could simply mean twelve months at the gym. Secondly, Cher did have her nose and teeth done in her mid-40s, starting at her third decade of her career after the bulk of her music career was ostensibly over with. Those were fixes for her acting career, beyond the scope of this book on popular music. Other body amendments were allegedly made after pregnancies or in the 1990s and beyond. Tawa implies that she did all this as a young woman in order to make it in the music business. His chronology is completely off base but he plunges ahead with his conclusions.
When he lists her music styles, he includes 60s folk-rocker (true), pop-rock (true), wailed power ballads (is wail really the word one would use if Cher weren't a woman? Does Bon Jovi wail?), disco numbers (true, but why are disco songs always called “numbers”?), New Wave glitter rock queen in the early 80s (one album of New Wave that was as far as queen-dom as you could possibly get, see album's ranking above), punk (ah, no), an exponent of arena-rock (ok maybe), and in a later reincarnation tried hip hop (is this a reference to It’s a Man’s World?). He leaves out dance (or as some would say Eurotrash) and the biggest hit of her career.
The Poet Scholar
A while back I posted the text of a poem called “Cher” by Dorianne Laux, who does a lot of pop culture pieces. The poem made the rounds again on a fan site and I decided to give it a closer reading and research other comments about it. There are some factual errors in the poem. And I hate to a Nelly-Nit-Pick but…a poem is all about particulars so...
- Cher's labeled as tall. I guess she was perceived as tall on television but in reality looks tiny.
- Laux says “before the shaving knife/took her…before they shoved/pillows in her tits” --Cher has never had huge breast implants, only breasts lifts…and even if she has had some, they are not quite “pillows inserted.” That was a huge recurring joke on the television shows, how flat Cher was. She may be bustier now...but not at a pillow level.
- In general the language is vague and presents a weak ending that doesn’t really say anything: “singing in a sloppy alto/the oldest, saddest songs.”
But there are some really great lines too:
- “bony shoulders draped/with a curtain of dark hair”
- “nonexistent butt…I wanted to wear a lantern/for a hat”
- “throaty panache, her voice/of gravel and clover, the hokum/of her clothes….bullet-hole navel….her crooked/teeth, hit-and-miss beauty” - all this stuff is great, if sometimes backhanded.
The poem originally appeared in a book called The Book of Men in 2011 but Laux re-published it in a book with her husband called Duets (2017). Laux says,
"All the poems are about music and musicians. I love rock ’n’ roll and pop music so my poems feature Cher and Dolly Parton, Mick Jagger, and Paul Simon. And Joe loves jazz and the blues so his poems are about Bo Diddley and Lightnin’ Hopkins, Ray Charles and Monk, among others.
"I’ve written poems about some of the icons of my time (Cher, Mick Jagger, the Beatles), and I’ve written poems about the artist Manet and his subject, Olympia, a failed poem about Van Gogh’s room in Arles. Those are obvious influences. But I think other influences are subtler and more profound. The music of my time included the harmonic complexities of Joni Mitchell, Simon and Garfunkel, The Beatles, the rough-edged energy of the Rolling Stones and Janis Joplin, the lonely solo of Otis Redding singing “Dock of the Bay.” This is a music I try to bring to my poems and look for in the poems of others."
The Cher poem is singled out here:
In “Cher,” the entire poem is a list of descriptors both plain and precise. Only two verbs activate the poem—and it’s the same verb—“wanted.” The movement comes in the swivels, the mini voltas that spin the poem along its axis. And, of course, how fitting to write a catalogue poem about J.C. Penney’s. It is as if the form was made for such a poem.
And here is a quote saved from Laux's defunct blog:
"Laux wrote "Cher" after he husband Joe Millar gave her 10 words and told her to use them while saying something she'd wanted to say but hadn't. Laux took the chance to talk about her Cher envy."
So okay that makes sense. Cher envy. It doesn't even need to be based on reality. My bad.
How Does Cher Sound to a Classically Trained Musician?
And finally, my most favorite scholarshipping over the summer: a new interview and research project!
Musician Todd Grossman, a classically trained musician and teacher, took some time to discuss Cher and her oeuvre, her strengths and flaws all from a more professional perspective.
We talked about Cher’s 60s sound, ticks of self-consciousness, and an objective review on what’s still messy in her catalog and what was maybe overlooked.
Check it out!
The Idiom of The Beat Goes On
And now the research! I hear the phrase “the beat goes on” spoken as a common idiom constantly on the radio and I read it in print articles, attached to stories that have nothing to do with Sonny or Cher. And I started to wonder what people think this phrase means and how popular it might have become since 1967. I started a survey and found the phrase in lyric tributes, in Internet and scholarly articles and news stories, as book, album and movie titles, made into random images. Then I explored a possible etymology that predates Sonny’s lyric.
Check it out!