Because I am a nerd, I am very familiar with the academic essay searching engine Jstor. Two weeks ago I was running a Difficult Book Club night on B.S. Johnson's The Unfortunates and looking for essays on the book for discussion ideas. And whenever I go into Jstor I always check for new Cher essays, too. And bingo! This search pulled up Michael Morris’ “Cher’s “Dark Ladies” Showbiz Liberation" chapter from his book “The Persistence of Sentiment: Display and Feeling in Popular Music of the 1970s,” a book which also has Karen Carpenter and Barry Manilow essays inside.
What’s awesome is that this writer knows his music AND his pop culture sociology. I bought the book, if only to see his back notes on the Cher article, which weren’t included in the jstor download of the chapter.
Morris starts by discussing Cher’s longevity during her farewell tour. He goes into detail about the design of the tour logo and the tour book by LA designer Margo Chase, how it “reflected an attitude of memory distilled into excess….the wings symbolize the enduring spirit of Cher’s music, while the cross refers to the religious symbols used in the stage production…the cross also nods to the gothic, Cher’s most recognizable style…the front cover, all blue and platinum blonde to represent the ‘angel’ Cher, contrasted with the red and green ‘devil’ Cher on the back.”
All that seems a bit much...if not a sales pitch from an ad exec.
But the essay then starts cooking:
“it’s the mythology surrounding the incomparable Cherilyn Sarkisian LaPiere that pugs these songs [GT&Th, HB and DL] up into fluffy, airy bits of pop, into songs that continue to soothe and inspire us, not because of the music, but because of who is singing it.”
YES…Cher is bigger somehow or apart from the music. That’s why dressing other women in Mackie costumes and doing Cher karaoke fails to work properly.
“The cult of Cherness is about much more than the lavish goddess worship….It was the sheer endurance that grounded that delirious hail and farewell of the [LIVING PROOF] tour. But it raises the question of what it was, amid all the feathers, the spangles, and the wigs that was supposed to be doing the enduring….it is worth searching for a few more details concerning its core of resonance.”
He then goes on to discuss Cher references in:
- The 1995 Canadian film Dance Me Outside where a mixed group of First Nations/Native Americans and a white male relative all sing Cher’s “Half Breed.”
- “The Post-Modern Prometheus” episode of The X-Files
- References to Cher on the show Will and Grace
Morris says there are all texts which explore ideas about originals (or aboriginals) and imitations. Morris explores how Cher’s three songs, “Gypsies, Tramps & Thieves,” “Half Breed,” and “Dark Lady” provided Cher with a mythology that was both real and fake, and were all (1) explorations of “social anxieties about racial mixing, class conflict and sexual irregularity” and also (2) blatant entertainments, two things which seem, on the surface, “almost always contradictory.” He calls these songs “the imagistic core out of which her later reputation grew.”
I would agree with that. He points out that we audiences rarely think of Cher songs as autobiographical. And they probably haven’t been very personal outside of Sonny or Cher’s own self-penned lyrics. But listeners still grant a song’s mythology to its singer. And here is where the Cher effect becomes a commentary on “realness.” Morris says,
“…a persistent problem with ‘realness’ is at the root of Cher’s glorious manifestation of diva-hood and the attractions of her and her songs. The questions circulating around the play of appearance and essence in Cher’s performances have provided her with powerful ways of connecting to a huge cluster of issues circulating in American culture and beyond, precisely to the degree that they cannot be permanently resolved. She is faking, we know that she is faking, but we are not sure how much she is faking because although she knows we know she is faking, she keeps us uncertain about the precise degree to which she is faking. Or does she? When authenticity—or rather the illusion of authenticity—is held in abeyance for such a long time, it’s rewards begin to seem paltry compared to the energy coming from the juicy sense of permanent masquerade.”
Yes. Juicy masquerade.
He then goes into Cher’s real history from El Centro, California, her Arkansas/Armenian heritage, pinpointing her sort of “non-white” cast of features.
“The ethnic complexity of Cher’s actual background is significantly tied into her family’s economic disadvantages; taken together they place her in a liminal place. She counts as white—but not that white.”
Then Morris juxtapositions Cher’s ethnicity with Sonny’s working-class Italian background from Detroit and Hawthorne, California, connecting him with other Italians interested in early rhythm and blues music.
“During this period [1950s], ethnically marked whiteness played an important role in mediating between black musicians and white mainstream audiences. Consider the way doo-wop groups, when not black, where usually visibly ethnic-white (often Italian) and blue-collar.”
Morris then traces the rise of Sonny & Cher through the 1960s into the late 1970s. And this next part blew my mind, where he quotes "a journalist" about what Cher-sing is.
“Cher-sing is an interesting concoction, the foundation of which is actually soul, believe it or not…Because a young Cher imitated everything Sonny, right down to the whoop, you might say Cher-sing is actually a genetic Armenian contralto imitation of an Italian interpretation of Soul.”
Wow. When I saw that quote a few weeks ago, I read it to Mr. Cher Scholar. We were both duly impressed by this piece of Cher scholarship. I was even glad the full book was coming because I would able to go into the back notes to trace the cryptic attribution. I was feeling lazy when I wrote this post and almost didn’t look it up, although I was in the same room as the book. (It’s been a long week.) But when I peeked through his back notes I quickly saw I had been quoted somewhere in the essay. How cool is that? So then I matched the footnote to the attribution. And…
it was ME!
Surely some mistake, right? So I rechecked the attribution. I still didn't believe it. So then I searched the text online and one of my old Cher tour reviews came up. I still didn't believe it! I have no memory of saying this. So I searched the text on the article. Sure enough, I said this thing back in 1999: http://www.apeculture.com/music/cher.htm.
This caused some real confused guffaws for about 20 minutes. I’ve been scholarin’ so long I’m scholarin’ people who are scholarin’ me! It’s always a shock to see some half-baked thing I’ve said in a “serious” book. When I say "Cher Scholar" it's so tongue-in-cheek. As a Cher fan, how else would I?
Morris even called me a journalist (which is generous). Feel free to let me know how sound you think my "cher-sing" theory is. Personally, I think it's only half as brilliant as I did when I thought someone else said it. So anyway, Morris continues to say,
“Once again the spectacle of the 1960s soul, with its attachment to showbiz display, underwrites an intertwining of imitation between ethnicities. The farrago of styles and strategies points up a joyous musical promiscuity common to this region of the industry. What matters is what entertains, what diverts, and it is worth noting how much closer Sonny & Cher’s aesthetic was to Elvis Presley and especially producers like Berry Gordy, Jr."
Then he talks about "Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves" specifically and how Snuff Garret was looking for a “Son of a Preacher Man” for Cher.
“Already many of the crucial mythologems are in place. First, there is the artist herself: a power-alto with mysteriously cross-racial affinities, fond enough of costume to keep us aware at all times that she is projecting n image while still tempting us to believe it.”
Morris even suggests Cher’s depictions of poverty and even a southern-white-trash poverty, race and class struggles and illicit sexcapades are believable and might even reflect the “tragic mulatto” or the “fallen women” stereotypical mythologies. Morris talks about the issues with the term of gypsy instead of the more appreciated reference of Rom or Romani and the history of their persecution in the United States, which apparently was still an issue in the early 1970s.
The explication of the themes in the music and instruments used is where Morris sets himself apart from other pop-culture academics. He goes into the song structures, the vamps, chords, motives, countermelodies (shows pieces of musical notation)…all things outside my sphere of knowledge but illuminating nonetheless, what connotes gypsyness, despair, the sound of being trapped and the parts of the song which “uncover proof of deep feeling.”
“To a correctly sentimental listener, the music’s struggle between rigid determinism and failed visions of freedom is quite poignant….the song’s picture of an eternal wheel of abject femininity…an echo chamber of shaming…we enjoy the spectacle all the more because we are to some extent at risk ourselves….but the vicariousness of our identification also suggests that the song is simply flattering our narcissism while allowing us to indulge in a voyeuristic thrill….we’ve been hijacked by the opulent fun of the arrangement and its too-muchness.”
Then we move on to "Half Breed:"
Morris goes into the history of miscegenation laws from Reconstruction era, various issues around Indian identity and the activism happening among American Indian groups in the early 1970s and how that affected Cher’s identity presentation on her TV shows. Here he highlights the 1971 movie Billy Jack. Morris says Cher’s last name wasn’t generally known at the time and her early 1970s claims to be “part Indian” coincided with public service announcements Sonny & Cher did for the Alaskan Native Land Claims Settlement Act.
The lyrics of Cher’s song “focuses on the ‘here and now’ problem of prejudice against people of mixed race without letting any desires for accuracy get in the way.” Like the prior song, Morris deconstructs the structures of the music, including the stereotypical male “heyas,” the drum patters, all which belong to “the Hollywood Indianist strain.” But Morris also hears “proto-disco countermelodies.”
“Cher’s vocal style….sits somewhere between Indianist ornament, bargain-counter verismo, and a country-western larmes aux voix. It picks up the spectacular elements of the arrangement perfectly."
He also deconstructs Bob Mackie’s 'Half Breed' dress, commenting “the fantastic nature of the getup is apparent even to the most casual viewer.” The spectacle is disorienting however because Cher’s apparel is male, “a kind of double-drag—and the effectiveness of the costume depends on the history of Wild West Shows and Indian Princess pageants, rather than the kinds of pow-wow regalia to which it ostensibly refers.”
Costume is an unfortunate term here but it may apply to Cher and Mackie’s re-suse of solemn, religious clothing: Morris talks about the problems of ethnic drag but wonders,
“Could it be any other way? The kind of identification that the song means to foster is sentimental in the best traditions of melodrama. There is no place for the complexities of authenticity in this tale. Hence the music, like the clothing, must be unreal. The song is not about actual Indians; it is not even really about actual white persecutors. It is about those of us who sympathize with the narrator’s plight.”
Morris ends the essay by looking at Cher’s Vamp characters, the best of which he considers to be the “Dark Lady” character:
He reviews the term “vamp” and silent film star Theda Bara's movies and ideas around a threatening “female sexual power.” He also gives historical context to the character of Sadie Thompson from a W. Somerset Maugham novel. (Who says Cher isn’t literary?) Morris talks about the ironic power of those performances:
“Lampooning ironically reinstates its object as a source of strength. By making such a joke of her sexual power as Sadie Thompson, Cher reinforced her own ethnic glamour.”
He also covers Cher’s Take Me Home era, culminating in this feminist position:
"...the strategies of unreality that were so central to the effect of her early 1970s hits….the obscured lines between reality and spectacle…these became the basis for Cher’s real celebrity life because in casting her as an abject, marginal figure, her self-presentation has made it possible to enact a narrative of progressive emancipation and self-ownership. This kind of autonomy was not exactly like that imagined by the 1970s women’s liberation mainstream, of course. Cher’s dependence on Hollywood/Vegas archetypes violated the restrictions on bodily display that seemed necessary at the time in order to neutralize sexism.”
He then talks about the Take Me Home album cover. He even mentions “her direct glare at us…the fourth wall…. so crucial to the mechanics of voyeurism is relinquished in favor or reciprocal confrontation.”
The song, he reminds us, is a command, not a plea. He talks about divas and their history and their “archetypes of female abjection or defiance...audiences love her most for her ability to keep going…the stigmata of a diva are crucial to her appeal, for they are the points at which the investments of an audience at the margins (almost certainly the most passionate part of the public) can be most easily attached.”
He then points to Cher’s film roles, her earthy, lower-class characters and their own dark lady personas and how her acting further complicates the real/fake dichotomies:
“Was she acting when she portrayed these characters, or merely uncovering some prior truth about her interior self? How could we separate fictions of fictions from fictions of realities?..thus duplicat[ing] the interpretive instabilities already put into place in the ‘dark lady’ songs...And so what? Fiction-versus-reality are surely dime-a-dozen in the careers of overtly theatrical artists like Cher...It is useful to discuss them as a way of reminding ourselves to be suspicious about claims to truth and reality in musical performance.”
He ends with this gem:
“Cher’s ‘dark lady’ songs sought to put questions and attitudes into play in a way that turned out to be especially important to the politics of gay liberation. The stigmata of mixed race and class disadvantage were translatable into those of sexual marginality. Cher’s enactment of triumph over her initial abjection could be taken as an allegory for the successes of the gay and lesbian rights movement, as well as for the general project of sexual liberation in the late twentieth-century North America.”
I think this is the best essay on Cher I've ever read. And not just because he quoted moi.