Recently an interviewer asked me what I’ve learned personally from Cher. This was hard for me to answer. I tend to think about Cher in terms of the stuff, or more recently in terms of her impact on culture. I struggled to find something to say, like maybe a lesson about letting small things go, (from Cher’s mother’s edict: “If it doesn’t matter in five years, it doesn’t matter”) or that you should always stay friends with your exes. (If Cher can do it…) Oh, and how to fluff my hair by flipping it upside down. Yes...that I did learn from the Cher show. But that’s it.
And when I think about any Cher essay (something for formal than a blog post), it always wraps around the idea of Cher lacking proper respect in pop culture. And maybe that’s personal in some way, like maybe I had two 70s-rock-loving older brothers who disparaged my taste in Cher or all those years being self-conscious about liking the things I like. This digs to the very concept about what rock and roll is, of which the Hall of Fame in Cleveland is but a part. Whether or not Cher is in the Hall is secondary, symptomatic. She’s not part of the insider’s club and that’s the issue, Chronically snubbed. The perpetual underdog. And this has been the case for much longer than the Hall of Fame has existed.
Cher is bigger than her sequins and Cher impersonations often fail for the lack of Cher’s personality embodied in them. You can slap a gowns on very talented boys and girls, but no dice. Cher is not, as previously claimed (over the last half a century), merely a clothes horse, a hanger, a shallow tower of sequins. She embodies those things and makes meaning of them. But shallow people do not look very deep. And they see shallowness everywhere.
What gives someone rock and roll credibility? Is it an outfit? Tight pants? A scarf? A stance? Is it creation of material? Is it hit-making? Is it breaking Billboard records? Is it a greatest hits compilations? Is it longevity with live shows and ticket sales? Is it respect from critics? Is it longevity across mediums and genres? Some would say it is this idea of authenticity. But can that be possible when so much of rock and roll is a pose and a cliché, a posture of coolness, a sales job.
To me the idea of "authenticity" is a code for the real judgement: is it "cool."
Sonny & Cher weren’t accepted as authentically folk, authentically hippies, or authentically rock and roll. Maybe Sonny wasn’t but Cher was. Sonny wasn’t even considered to be a legitimate Hollywood mogul and now, ironically, Cher is considered powerful in Hollywood. What that really means though is they were uncool.
And who determines cool? Is it popular audiences, critics, cult followings? Is it a roundtable of select few who decide?
Cher has had Billboard hits in give decades, arena shows in multiple decades AND a cult, gay following, records sold, popularization of a music style (the controversial auto-tune), hits that have bled into our mainstream idioms ("the beat goes on"), a subversive influence in fashion, both in the 60s (flares and furs), the 70s (long, straight hair that thousands of young girls took to emulating with hair ironed on real ironing boards), red carpet fashion, her big circus shows are now imitated by younger pop stars, her tattoos are now ubiquitous on the ass of America...and so on.
But to me what makes Cher really cool is her otherness, her inclusion of various underrepresented cultures all in her one self. Not only did Sonny & Cher bring people of color and international cultures to their 70s television show, but Cher embodied those identities in her performances, and she did so with dignity and power.
She’s also a living example of a single woman taking control of her career in show business and having the audacity to survive and tell the story. She’s a survivor, making no apologies for any of it, crossing genres, moving from glitz to the realism (in shows and in movies). And that very realism that works in her movies is the same authenticity working in her music videos and in her live performances.
So can we stop with the authenticity thing?
Over the years my interest has gravitated to figuring out the gap between what Cher means and how she’s perceived by the rock-and-roll-establishment. Cher says it best herself: “Singers don’t think I’m a singer. Actors don’t think I’m an actor.”
Arguably there are fewer women at the top of the music business. Thus, Brook Marine points out women make up only 13% of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. There should be more.
It’s been rumored there is this issue of Sonny at play: Cher might be resisting nomination herself, preferring to be inducted as Sonny & Cher. I don’t know if this is true, but she does reference Sonny & Cher whenever she’s confronted with the lack of a nomination. It would seem a likely holdup. Cher has always felt Sonny was entirely responsible for her career. “There would be no Cher without Sonny” has been Cher’s mantra since the mid-1980s. And they didn’t call him a Svengali for nothing. He had ideas about their inception and architecture, he created their act, as well as writing some of their music.
But Cher brought things to the table, too. She had ideas about their look that Sonny was game to pursue.
- The Guardian talks about how Sonny & Cher helped popularize flares.
Cher also had the budding charisma, the sex appeal and that “special something.”
But arguably Sonny not only discovered Cher but set her up to thrive for five decades. Can you get into the HoF for that? Orchestrating a Cher?
They were a recording team and his influence was life changing (as Cher illustrates in her Broadway musical) and life-testing (you could argue Sonny was her drug).
Cher loves rock and roll. Elvis is an obvious influence. (Someone recently called her Chelvis; but I prefer to think of her as the female Fonz.) Imagine how easy it would be for Cher to stand over Sonny’s grave and say, “Hey, I tried. They wouldn’t let you in. But hey, I got in!”
As my grandfather used to say, “she’s got the courage of her convictions” if she is, in fact, holding out for Sonny in the face of the prime accolade of one’s pop recording career. To take a stand against the defining group exercising power over the rock canon and Meriam-Webster defines establishment as “an institution or group in a society exercising power and influence over policy or taste.” The Hall of Fame as it sits in Cleveland is by definition a rock-and-roll establishment.
Yeah, she knows you don’t like Sonny & Cher even if you might begrudgingly like Cher. Standing her ground as a Sonny & Cher inductee could be showing all of her integrity and authenticity and, you could argue, an almost heroic love against the pressures of the in-crowd. To stand up for someone you love, particularly someone not many others appreciate, takes monster balls and a big middle finger to the powers that be. And even if Sonny & Cher aren't the issue and Cher is simply suffering the eternal, hypocritical debates around authenticity, to stand up for your sequins, to be apologetically who you are...if that isn’t rock and roll, I don’t know WTF we’re talking out.