Cher on Tour: Is It Just for the Moment We Live?

My friend Mary, a poetry scholar, e-mailed me last month.

"Cher is kicking off her new concert tour in Phoenix," Mary wrote. "Are you going?"

"The Cher I would like to see in concert doesn't exist anymore," I reminded Mary, who publishes an online zine called Cher Scholar, which uses Cher as a means of measuring pop culture in the 20th and 21st centuries. "I like the Cher who sat on a wooden stool singing Bob Dylan songs. The one who scared uptight suburban parents because she wore bell-bottoms and seven pounds of eyeliner and was married to a hippie who wrote songs for her about runaways and pregnant teens."

Cher, then and now: The bold and the banal.
Cher, then and now:
The bold and the banal.
Cher, then and now: The bold and the banal.
Cher, then and now:
The bold and the banal.

Mary is kind and patient, and so she didn't point out that although I like the Cher from 1965, I happen also to own every one of Cher's solo albums, as well as those she recorded with her husband Sonny Bono, as half of Sonny and Cher. That's because I'm a completist, I would have told her, and not because I think "Turn Back Time" is relevant or that Cher's disco albums from the late '70s are fun to listen to. (Take my word for it: They are not.) Instead, Mary took one last shot at getting me to reconsider blowing off Cher.

"Look here," Mary wrote back. "Cher's people are doing a promotional stunt where fans get to pick which songs she's going to sing on her tour. And 'Alfie' is on the list!"

I went to Cher's website to check out this obvious scam and, sure enough, there it was, listed among obvious Cher hit singles like "Half Breed" and "The Shoop Shoop Song": my favorite Cher tune and perhaps my favorite song of all time, "Alfie," the Burt Bacharach and Hal David number from the 1966 film of the same name about a slutty guy who refuses to settle down. Cher's version of the song, which appears in the movie, was the first version released in the U.S., although a cover by Dionne Warwick the following year was a bigger hit.

I wasn't buying it. In concert, Cher doesn't sing second-tier hits from the '60s like "Alfie" (which peaked at number 32); she sings "Believe" and (horrors!) "Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves." I saw this pick-the-hits bit for what it was: a promotional gimmick aimed at more gullible Cher fans who might believe that if enough of them click on "A Cowboy's Work Is Never Done," Cher will dust off this all-but-forgotten 1972 sequel to her 1966 hit "Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)" and force her band to learn it. Cher is not a marionette or a jukebox; she's a performer with a new record to promote. Her set list, prepared and rehearsed months ago, undoubtedly will feature material from the new album (including the most annoying Cher single in decades, "Woman's World") as well as her most recognizable radio hits from the '70s and beyond.

I couldn't find anything online where Cher herself mentioned the set-list stunt, but I did find an interview in which she complained that Sonny and Cher have not been inducted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame. Which got me to thinking about how, if ABBA and the Dave Clark Five are inductees, why not Sonny and Cher?

In the 1960s, Sonny and Cher were as popular as the Beatles, Elvis, and the Rolling Stones. They started out as part of wunderkind producer Phil Spector's Wall of Sound, singing backgrounds on everything from "Be My Baby" to "You've Lost That Loving Feeling" before launching their solo career and, between 1965 and 1966, scoring eight Billboard Top 20 singles as a duo and as solo acts. But chart domination doesn't necessarily mean a singer has anything worthwhile to say or a songwriter has any lasting influence. If it did, we'd all be downloading the new Herman's Hermits tribute album and Mark Lindsay would be writing songs for Miley Cyrus and not headlining an oldies tour. Sonny and Cher took a right turn in the late '60s and were never the same.

The duo started out as folk-rock pioneers who performed screeds against censorship (Sonny's "Revolution Kind") and anti-war propaganda (Cher's cover of Dylan's "Masters of War" from 1967's underrated, Harold Battiste-produced Backstage album) and launched an all-too-brief trend in '60s Worldpop (check out the Russian-folk break in the Bono-penned "Bang Bang" or Cher's canny cover of Miriam Makeba's "The Click Song" ).

Back then, Sonny produced Cher singing Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone" with absolutely no irony, no sense of impending danger: "Once upon a time you dressed so fine / You threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn't you? / People'd call, say, 'Beware doll, you're bound to fall' / You thought they were all kiddin' you." But by 1970, the duo had stopped trying to be relevant and began trying to remain popular. This scavenger hunt led them to their lauded TV variety show, a hybrid of the silly Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In and the white-bread Carol Burnett Show that traded goofing off for whatever musical relevance Sonny's compositions and Cher's teen angst had previously delivered.

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2 comments
j.lealgomez
j.lealgomez

I am a Cher fan and have been for the past 15 years. I became a fan when I was 11, so she got me in her Believe era. I loved this review. I think it is poignant, intelligent, balanced and says something refreshing and new aside from both poles of "I love Cher the larger than God Icon" vs the "She's too old and a crappy artist I hate her, hope she dies." This piece made me think that part of Cher's longevity and success is that she has put very different sides of herself out there, some to satisfy the commercial demands of the industry and others to do as she pleases. These often conflicting sides of her have created a fan base as diverse as her career. I love the power-ballad Cher, I love the songs where she hits long notes, like "Main Man," and "We All Sleep Alone." I think Cher always has something to say but sadly she has reduced herself in some records and tunes to continue the pop icon career. 


I agree with you on how insufferable some songs are. I hated "Woman's World," "Take it like a Man," "Strong Enough," "Believe," and "Dressed to Kill." Nevertheless, Cher does as Cher wants and hopefully the tour will have a little bit for every taste. Sadly, I think for fans such as yourself that Cher is part of history now. She is part of music culture and she can rarely be glimpsed nowadays. I think some of her still powers through but comes out more during interviews and more candid events. Ideally, it would be incredible for Cher to have an intimate, unplugged concert with her most obscure songs, old forgotten gems, and acoustic experiments with some of her pop songs. Anyways, we can only dream.


Thanks for this review, as a Cher fan I deeply appreciated it.

 
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