Before we get into the new album, it should be mentioned Cher’s placement on Billboards Top Female Artists of All Time list.
My Billboard sensei, Christopher, sent me this explication of the list’s meaning:
In celebration of the 60th anniversary of the Hot 100, Billboard posted the list of the Top 60 Female Artists of all time on the Hot 100. You will be glad to see Cher ensconced all the way up at #16, (and right beside P!nk, which I thought was a nice, appropriate coincidence). It's for real; no opinions factored in. The ranking was calculated based on how many weeks each hit spent on the chart and at which positions. It's a cumulative inverse point system. So, if you have a song at #23 on the chart, it is awarded 77 points for that week. If the following week it climbs to #19, for that week it earns an additional 81 points, and so on and so on. This system thereby rewards both longevity and ascension. It is the same system they use when determining the year-end charts.
The Dancing Queen Album
So this all happened really fast. Mid-year, we found out Cher was recording a new album of ABBA songs and by September, here it was.
Full disclosure: everyone has their own ideas about music they like. Methods are either cold and mathematical (example above) or infinitely subjective. There seems to be no in between. Even Cher fans have different inclinations. My personal favorite albums are: With Love (1967), Backstage (1968), All I Ever Need is You (1971 and for highly sentimental reasons), Stars (1975), Take Me Home (1979), It’s a Man’s World (1996), Believe (1999) and Living Proof (2001). I could go into my predilections for melody or unity but blah-blah-blah, who cares.
Cher’s last album, Closer to the Truth, was good but not great. It charted high (on the backs of concert ticket sales) and a few songs played on adult contemporary radio ("I Hope You Find It") but there was not a breakout hit. I'm liking this album much better. But I'm finding it hard to say why. Could it be outside cultural influences are working on me, (although don't we all feel like we loved Stars in a vacuum?). For sure, the advanced interest in this album was very high. Even Billboard predicts another high-chart debut, again possibly on the backs of merch and concert tickets sales.
On the other hand, you can’t really miss recording these ABBA songs. Are some arrangements are more original than others? Sure. Are some critics going to accuse Cher of being an opportunist,? Yes. But it would seem hard to sing ABBA songs (as Cher herself has admitted), so here is where the effort sits in my mind: in the stretch to do it. Cher could have picked easier opportunism.
What’s interesting to me, reading all the reviews, is how trends are showing up around who likes which songs. Dance clubs are already springing to the beats of “Gimme Gimme Gimme,” other fans are gravitating to Cher's more original take on “Chiquitta. ” I also love the novelty of hearing Cher sing “The Winner Takes it All.” Not everybody does. Boys seem to like the “SOS” track. “One of Us” consistently stands out as a critical favorite. Trends like this show this album has gems on it. I don’t remember any similar consensus around “Closer to the Truth.”
And the critical reviews are mostly favorable, which is an odd thing to experience with a Cher album. I tend to want to deconstruct those things. Why is it happening? Is this really Cher’s best album of all time? You’d think so by the reviews. I break it down to three aspects of the current Cher phenomenon: (1) old white reviewers are all retired or dead and women and gay men are in positions of reviewing albums, (2) Cher has been canonized lately (a sub-phenomenon we can't get into right now), (3) the concept of this album is so juicy, it’s immediately lovable, (4) the album has one producer for the most part and feels very unified, and (5) during these political times, we crave "the happy, happy."
But what do I know? I do know this: Believe was a very good album with a magical-single attached to it and Entertainment Weekly still dissed it. Music critics were not inclined to like Cher circa 1999. And that means everything because reviews are perceptions always based on the trends of a larger culture or sub-culture (which makes decoding "good" all but impossible). Culture is arbitrary, capriciously suggestible and apropos of nothing true. I can both hide behind that convenient fact, as a much maligned Cher fan, but it also makes my many rationalizations about it meaningless. Ah, what fun.
So the good reviews feel amazing, no doubt. But they’re so packed with so much unrelated, Cher love going on right now, it’s hard to know how good the new album really is. Do I overthink it? Yes, but that’s what cultural study is. You can make the claim that these songs are just cotton candy to give us a respite of happiness, (a point made in many Mama Mia 2 reviews), but I hate to think that way. It short-shrifts the album and our human capacity to deal with bad political times.
I love that Cher dedicated the album to her mom. I love that she thanked her bffs and her long-time assistant. And I dearly love “Chiquita.”
I have three ABBA greatest hits collections: one double LP, one cassette tape, one compact disc) and I still missed all the visual ABBA references in the “SOS” video and on the album cover. I had to read about video references in articles about the video and Mr. Cher Scholar pointed out the album cover similarity as we looked at a CD prominently displayed at Target last week.
The album is predicted to debut at #2 on Billboard's album chart. “Gimme Gimme Gimme” is now at #8 on the dance chart. “Fernando” (the Mama Mia 2 version with Andy Garcia) made it to #22 on the Adult Contemporary chart.
More Chart News:
As I said, the announcement of this album was big news, the track listing was big news, the single releases were news:
More on this later, but Cher has also done general interviews for The Today Show, The New York Times and the L.A. Times. All the songs have attracted a bee swarm of re-mixes. Search album song titles on YouTube and you'll find some, including a fabulous Madonna mashup with "Gimme Gimme Gimmie."
And then the “SOS” video made news:
Here's the original ABBA video to compare to the Cher version. A good scholarship project would be to do screen-capture comparisons. No time for that right now but someday. Cher also performed the song on Ellen. And Cher is performing "Waterloo," "SOS" and "Fernando" in her latest New Zealand and Australia shows.
The following are excerpts from the reviews so far.
"The pop icon turns Seventies classics into modern club bangers and brings out the dark burden of their late-career divorce songs......the idea of the bawdy, no-nonsense, always-evolving Cher tackling the emotional kitsch of Swedish pop’s most enduring, influential export feels like fate...the diva’s first-ever tribute album to one artist. With past releases like 3614 Jackson Highway and Stars being entirely dedicated to wide-ranging covers of popular rock and pop songs...While Jackson Highway and Stars found a young, budding solo star Cher trying on the folk and blues of those particular song choices like they were farewell tour wigs, the 72-year-old makes ABBA songs not only sound like they should’ve been written for her in the first place but like they firmly belong in 2018, a feat considering the sometimes deliciously dated production and performance of many of ABBA’s biggest hits....[the tracks contain] subtle changes that update ABBA classics without totally stripping them of the catchiness that made those songs beloved hits well beyond their heyday. ... given just enough of a knob turn that they’re transformed from upbeat FM radio pop into club bangers, pulsating with every beat.
'The Winner Takes It All' and 'One of Us' are two of the quartet’s most eviscerating, emotional divorce reflections, and Cher delivers each one with a incredible vulnerability. 'One of Us' in particular sees the biggest musical shift of any of the songs; the original is a breezy, tropical, mid-tempo pop moment that almost disguises the sadness of the lyrics. But that sadness can never hide from Cher, who strips it down to strings, piano and vocals, making sure you can feel every bit of the ego-shedding on the track."
"...ingenious Abba-dabbling, often surprisingly ingenious. Occasionally Cher uses her trademark Auto-Tune like a crutch – it’s a cop-out on 'One of Us' – but mostly it acts as a kind of interstellar portal that elevates Abba from the dancefloor to the cosmos....[and in 'Gimme Gimme Gimme'] amplifying the song’s existential loneliness...this blur between human and cyborg, where sequins become holograms, is a thrillingly clever distillation of pop immortality….Not that anyone’s coming to Dancing Queen for a pop thesis on transhumanism. The boozy, jostling arrangements of 'Waterloo' and a breathless 'Mamma Mia' spark like polyester-clad crotches grinding together...And her piercing rendition of Dancing Queen is quite unsettling, her miraculous voice – capable of conveying vulnerability, vengeance and pain all at once – is the perfect weapon to re-wreak Abba’s emotional devastation."
Variety (so much good stuff here)
"In covering the Great Swedish Songbook, aka the ABBA catalog, it's sheer Cher-aoke. But if you're a fan of either artist, extreme fealty may be more of a feature than a flaw...For anyone feeling like the time-honored art of stunt casting has gotten a little bit lost lately, what a breath of fresh-enough air it was to witness Cher’s small and yet somehow Godzilla-size cameo in the closing reel of Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again. Her Grandma has so little to do with the plot (such as it is) that it wouldn’t affect any narrative strand the slightest bit if you snipped her entire role. And — it probably goes without saying — who would want to do that? Apart from the fact that the sight of Cher in a white wig is the best excuse anyone could think of to cue up 'Now we’re old and gray, Fernando,' she is plenty life force to provide a climax for any occasion. Indeed, you might have to go back to Frank Sinatra’s inexplicable walk-on at the end of Cannonball Run II to see another icon so commandeering an apex with what looks like a day’s work...producer Mark Taylor appears to have spent less time thinking about whether to even slightly retool ABBA’s vintage arrangements than the time it takes to read this sentence.
It’s sheer Cher-aoke, with an extreme fealty that gives this album even less of a clear reason for being than her Mamma Mia 2 takeover. Yet it may bulldoze you anyway, just as Grandma bulldozes everyone in the movie’s digitalized Grecian dusk. At least it will if you’re inclined to think that Cher was an important figure in 20th-century pop and ABBA has a song catalog that stacks up against anybody’s from the 1970s and early ’80s. (We do all agree on these things, right?)...So it ain’t “Nilsson Does Newman,” but it’s not “Cybill Does It … to Cole Porter” either. Nor is it one of Rod Stewart’s Great American Songbook albums, and perhaps we should thank Cher for being one of the few middle-of-the-road-leaning icons of her generation not to give in to a big-band standards trip. The Great Swedish Songbook is a thing too, and despite ABBA’s world-clobbering success, the group’s oeuvre has never been overly mined for covers … perhaps because it was never taken as seriously in America as in the rest of the world. (Even the Mamma Mia theatrical and cinematic juggernauts haven’t completely brought ABBA due respect; the group’s legacy still appeals to folks at the very top and bottom of the hipness scale, with lots of lingering suspicion in the cred-conscious middle.) Erasure broke the logjam with an ABBA-esque covers EP in the early ’90s, and a few other brave souls on the edgier side have done their live or studio homages, from Elvis Costello to Sinéad O’Connor.
But it makes poetic sense that the deep dive has been left up to someone else who’s a bit of a zillionaire underdog. The group doesn’t need a Ryan Adams-style legitimization, as he did with Taylor Swift’s '1989.' It needs a senior superstar who can sing about a 17-year-old “Dancing Queen” without a hint of irony and sound slightly sad doing it….Every major pop diva worth her salt has two faces: the dance-floor-facilitating, moderately EDM-embracing, love-all-my-gays side, and then the noble tragedian side. The ABBA catalog certainly affords Cher plenty of opportunity to dig into either of those... these closing tearjerker stories bring out the natural sob in her vibrato and remind us that Cher has been a terrific, emotive singer as well as fashion history’s most stupendous headdress delivery system.
You can enjoy the album and still wish that producer Taylor had done more to put a new or distinctive signature on this time-honored material. Well, actually, he adds one trademark touch fairly often: The overt AutoTune phasing that made his collaboration with Cher on 1998’s “Believe” so memorable returns here any number of times. She even has one of those moments of sounding like she’s turning into a computer program on the fadeout of “Winner Takes It All,” which is not a song where you’re thinking: Send in the bots. But it doesn’t ruin the track. On a record where sometimes the only thing differentiating the covers from the originals is her voice being lower and less impossibly pure than Frida’s and Agnetha’s in their prime, the little AutoTune asides are Cher additionally marking her territory. No need for that, really. Her force of personality is the stamp, and decades after everyone in ABBA more or less retired, we know who the super trouper is."
"Cher’s year has been one of reassertion and galvanization as a capital-V Voice in greater pop culture. But Dancing Queen arrives as a plum autumn reminder of what the musician, left to her own devices (and that delicious Auto-Tune), can still singularly deliver in the studio...First, perspective: If pop culture is a cumulative pyramid, Cher is a cornerstone, one on which a score of musical ladies-in-waiting have built personas, with or without their young fans recognizing how the 72-year-old may have paved the way. But this isn’t about Cher’s trailblazing or her influence or who owes what to whom. It’s about the Cher of now, on her most significant release since 1998’s Believe, being presented to four generations of fans — two of which include the millennial and Gen-Z gatekeepers more familiar with Cher’s myth than her discography. And so Dancing Queen marks the first record for the newest evolution in Cher’s persona — Social Media Cher — yet maintains a perfectly manicured hand in the past (doubly compounded by the ABBA slice of the equation as if by delicious design). Perhaps, then, it can do what so many artists of legacy hope a sunset album can do: assert just how long a queen can reign on a pop landscape that has transformed on the surface but, sound for sound, hasn’t really changed a beat. Of course, consider an alternative read: Cher is just having a great goddamn time.
“Gimme!” is the anthem that most encapsulates what Cher accomplishes here: an unironic return to ‘70s disco glam-pop, more natural than nostalgic, delivered with the characteristic club coolness and lyrical earnestness that has always placed Cher in a lane of her own. (If there’s ever a time to get away with saying “je ne sais quoi,” it’s to describe what earthly realm Cher occupies.)... the album ender, “One of Us,” is frankly one of Cher’s best recordings in years.
The ubiquity of EDM in modern pop owes a great debt to disco floorfillers like Cher (among too many others to name), but Dancing Queen is not a staid history lesson. Instead, it’s a curious experiment that ultimately reveals the endurance of two musical institutions whose artistry has always been rather inimitable. Decades after their writing, ABBA’s songs brandish a strength to spark a listener to tear up a nightclub or tear up a sobbing mess. And Cher has floated through generation after generation, scooping up new fans, thrilling old ones, reinventing her own myth and glittering splendidly through it all. A-"
"These are classics that we already know intimately. In fact, it makes it an even stranger experience when, at times, Cher changes the emphasis on a word or delivery of a line...But trust us, it doesn't take long to come around to Cher's way...Worth noting that Cher, at 72, is not only hitting notes that Frida and Agnetha were doing when they were significantly younger, she's also singing both their parts. Because she's CHER and she damn well can."
Even AARP weighed in.
"Cher, at 72, has lost none of the strength or range in her husky contralto. Her voice is especially lovely and vulnerable on the restrained 'Chiquitita,' the melancholy 'One of Us' and the lively 'The Name of the Game.'...Her famous use of processed vocals is in heavy supply, but more for effect than necessity."
They even provided a good summary of her chart accomplishments:
"Cher has sold 100 million records worldwide and released 80 singles, 51 of which charted on Billboard’s Hot 100, the main pop chart. She had four No. 1 singles and 22 top-40 singles in that ranking. Including other charts like dance and adult contemporary, she’s had 33 top-10 hits. Her track record is good, but she wasn’t always on top. After “Dark Lady” reached the Hot 100 summit in 1974, 24 years passed before Cher returned to No. 1 with “Believe” in 1998. That’s the longest stretch between chart-topping hits in Billboard history."
"Cher's new album Dancing Queen is here to save 2018...Music snobs will try and dismiss Dancing Queen as tacky, disposable rubbish. Most without actually listening to it, of course. This couldn’t be further from the truth. There’s actually a razor sharp concept here, a sort of ‘nostalgia squared’, the genesis of which is plain to see…. Then Cher starts singing. It’s a wall of sound….This is no mean feat, given these songs are typically performed by two people. Anni-Frid’s underrated mezzo was always a crucial counterpart to Agnetha’s soprano, but Cher’s personality is big enough to make up for the subtraction...‘Chiquitita' is one of the loveliest and least theatrical moments on the album."
"just enough of an update to feel fresh, yet familiar enough to be nothing but a dose of glitzy, cheerful nostalgia."
"Cher largely forgoes the use of Auto-Tune, which has become her staple sound since her 1998 masterpiece 'Believe.' Instead, she showcases her rich contralto voice, which fans have grown to adore over the past five decades. There is still a bit of vocal processing on 'Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)' and 'SOS,' the first two singles released from the project, and it’s certainly off-putting. Otherwise, this is the first time in years that Cher has sounded less like Daft Punk and more like, well, Cher….Cher’s longtime collaborator Mark Taylor produced nearly every song on Dancing Queen, and his work is simply immaculate. He subtly transforms 'Mamma Mia' with the addition of electric guitars, crafting the perfect crossover between Europop and stadium rock. 'The Name of the Game,' meanwhile, is nothing short of a total groove….The disc’s shining moment comes at the very end in the form of a ballad. Cher’s rendition of 'One of Us' is beautifully unforgettable and powerful, but still refreshingly familiar."
"Cher’s stunning rendition of 'One Of Us,' a track which strips the production back to basics and places the emphasis on her powerful pipes. The pop icon has rarely sounded better than she does against this classy orchestral arrangement. Her rendition of the oft-covered 'The Winner Takes It All' is similarly impressive vocally, but detours into euro-disco towards the end… which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
'Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)' is a glittery train-wreck of tinny beats and dated synths, but that somehow makes it even more fabulous.
It’s hard to single out the best song on an album this critic-proof, but the arrangement of 'Chiquitita' is a thing of great beauty. It’s also the least karaoke-sounding track given the great diva’s ability to come at the strikingly-pretty love song from a completely different perspective.
[Most funny, apropos end:] You already know if Dancing Queen is the album for you. If Cher is your religion or you’re just feeling nostalgic for Swedish pop of yesteryear, buy a copy of now. You won’t regret it. If none of that applies to you, then save your coins for the new Post Malone or whatever miserable people are listening to these days."
Most interesting to me was what The Atlantic had to say about both Cher and ABBA:
"When one legend of pop camp covers another, the results are preposterous—and weirdly moving. As is the case for all great acts that rewrite the definition of 'pop music,' ABBA hacked the machinery of human emotion. They took the eternal ticktock of disco and latched it to the glorious confinement of the three-minute verse-chorus workout. They found a universal mean between four individualized singers. And they deduced the equation that specifies a certain amount of emotional down needs to enable the ecstatic up: Before smiling and having fun, you have to remember how sick and tired you felt last night in Glasgow. Such alchemy was so precise that it invited the standard-issue knock on perfect pop as soulless.
Two singles are out so far, and they gild in titanium what was originally a puff-pastry confection—and yet retain the warm center that Agnetha, Björn, Benny, and Anni-Frid whipped up decades ago.
Taylor has blown up an already enormous tune, one of the great gay dance-floor anthems, into the ultimate rejection of subtlety: all Top Gun guitar spindles and industrial-piston rhythms, with an iconic Madonna-appropriated synth riff spackled with yet more glitter. For the Lady Gaga–in-2011-esque breakdown, Cher’s voice goes glitchy and androidlike. Yet still, throughout, Cher is really singing, with each syllable evincing a choice to belt or to whisper—and generally, such choices emphasize not the man she needs after midnight, but the loneliness that leads her to call for him.
But the most important thing is Cher’s inimitable (though much imitated) Cherness, which somehow makes the words pop anew: 'I wish I understewd,' she blubbers. As the sing-along onslaught gives way to a quiet outro, a Cher fan might start thinking about the times in the singer’s life when she had to ask herself the question of the song: 'When you’re gone / How can I even try to go on?' And they might remember the answer is that she’s moved forward with the armor of pop excess, something she and ABBA have made available to all."
"To her credit, Cher pulls these classics into her world, rather than being drawn into the stylish Europop of the originals. She doesn’t hold back on the vocals, booming her way through the giddy Waterloo and the sweet Mamma Mia to give them more emotional heft and a more modern reading. But it’s the ballads where Cher shines brightest. Her powerful delivery of 'One of Us' makes it sounds like it was written just for her."
And here are the three bad reviews I've found, this one with a clear cynical distaste for Cher:
- Washington Post
"The album feels surprisingly derivative, even anonymous. Faithful to a fault. Sorely missed throughout Dancing Queen are Agnetha Faltskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad’s delicate harmonies; in their place, Cher feels a bit like a bull in a china shop."
- The Times UK
"Is it possible that someone decided Cher wasn’t quite camp enough, so they got her to make an entire album of Abba covers? Having stolen the show in Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again for the whole ten seconds she was in it, Cher has gone full Abba, with exactly the results you would expect. She sounds like a lascivious robot on the autotune-drenched Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight), pulls the pain from her very soul (while having a little disco dance) on The Winner Takes It All and heads off to Club Med for Chiquitita. There’s nothing to dislike, but also nothing to recommend beyond this being a fun, tacky choice for the Christmas party."
They didn't like the concept, let alone the final thing.