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The Cher Revival
at Madison Square Garden

and my theory of the modern liberated
blue-collar woman
July 13, 1999
Madison Square Garden
New York, NY

By Mary E. Ladd

When I last left you, we were reviewing the John Waite show at Six Flags Great Adventure. We were contemplating my life and personal philosophy as it corresponds to amusement parks and amusement park concerts. When we last left John Waite, I was on my way to Lancaster, PA having decided to move back home for a little writing sabbatical. On July 13, I returned to the New York City area to catch the Cher Revival at Madison Square Garden and to return to my ex-employer, a construction company, to complete two more weeks of multi-tasking.

However, the next day, instead of sketching a Cher review, I was fuming over trouble I was having with my boss over previously arranged hotel room reservations. After two days of having no hotel room and scrambling around Westchester for a place to stay, I quit and was all like "men!" As I was driving around homeless and pathetic, I found myself militantly comforted by an array of female empowerment songs on the radio starting with Berlin's retro "No More Lies", Whitney Houston's "It's Not Right, But It's OK", and TLC's, "No, I don't want no Scrub!" because I am Cher-Strong Enough to live without this job. I am Strong Enough and I quit cryin' long enough to re-evaluate for a moment my childhood impressions of strong, independent, happy women. On 70s television, I remember three: Mary Tyler Moore, Carol Burnett and Cher. These women carried their shows and in the 70s, stood for the modern liberated woman.

Mary Tyler Moore was namesake of a show about an independent, hard-working, single woman. She even had a company named after her, (err.... Cher did too. Sonny just never told her about it. Secretly, he called it Cher Enterprises). Anyway, Carol Burnett was at the helm of her very successful variety show. And Cher... well, she held her own with Sonny.

The truth of the matter is these three women, for all their bold, chin-up confidence and female-power posings, were actually infinitely less secure and all seriously dependent upon their man-behind-the-scenes. Carol Burnett had Joe Hamilton pulling the strings. MTM productions was run by Grant Tinker and Cher was run by Sonny. So these women were not the ball-busters I thought they were. What a tough lesson: images aren't everything.

My first aesthetic decision, age 5, circa 1975, was that I liked Cher stuff. Cher records. Cher shows. Cher stuff. Every Cher revival since 1975, I have re-evaluated my interest in Cher. Is she worthy? The lip-synching Diva on Divas Live last spring... that was a trial. Once, after I graduated from grade school and started junior high, I dropped Cher for a whole year. Isn't cool, I thought. One must leave things like Barbie and Cher behind. Just not cool. Then in 1982, Cher started acting in movies and I was drawn back in. The reason Cher appealed to me in the first place was that on TV in 1975 nobody else was cool enough. Cher was colorful, full of joie de vivre. Everyone else was flat and stale, so damn boring. Pronounced Johnny-Lydon BOR-ing. She was mesmerizing like a 4th of July sparkler. And she has never burnt out. More sparkle for your buck, if you ask me.

Lately, almost everyone has been busting-out with a deluge of reverence for Cher and her umpteenth revival in 30 years. Chalk it up to a respect for her perseverance and maturity, the truce she called for with Sonny before he died, the infomercial apologies (unnecessary in my view... those were cool, post-modern shows, almost unintentionally self-spoofing art by accident) or her refusal lately to jump into the sparring ring with the press and/or Mary Bono. Over all these I could easily throw my talking-head into the Cher reverence pit. After 24 years of hanging-in-there, for cool or for worse, right now my geysers are busting with glee.

But not everyone agrees with us Cher-lovers. Some disagree quite violently, as a matter of fact. For every bloke soothed by her "sexy contralto bellow" (Variety), there is another irritated by a monotone vibrating drawl and "tongue-wagging alto" (Dan Aquilante, New York Post).

Cher-sing is an interesting concoction, the foundation of which is actually soul, believe it or not. Sonny's keen interest in R&B informed his days at Specialty Records, his involvement with Harold Battiste and the Soul Station studio and the musical direction of the Sonny and Cher Shows which consistently showcased R&B acts like the Jackson 5, Honeycomb and the Ike and Tina Turner Review. 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.

Ann Powers of The New York Times champions her voice as "a quintessential rock voice: impure, quirky, a fine vehicle for projecting personality." Whatever one thinks, The New York Daily News maintains that "when it comes to Cher, no normal rules apply." It is my thesis that this is what pisses those people off. People who like rules.

I have a quick gauge to judge people by. Nothing serious. Just a quick, casual, sub-conscious poll I take. It's like Beatle-Typing but with Cher: those who are offended by her and those who think she kicks-ass. Women who don't like Cher tend to be much more uptight than women who do. Woman who like Cher tend to be less afraid to challenge male authority figures and are more relaxed around other rule-benders.

Men also fall into pro-Cher/anti-Cher, tight/uptight phylums. Men who feel threatened by women who challenge male authority, they typically hate Cher, actually see her as some embodiment of a larger threat. Oh, they always maintain it has something to do with a cultural or artistic standard and not, although their passionate emotions often betray them, some nebulous fear of a conspiratorial sexual revolution.

After all, music is subjective. There are tons of questionable artistic acts out there who work well below the bar. Most of them are big-haired, loud-mouthed, over-tattooed men... hmm, looking a lot like Cher. Music is subjective, a matter of taste. Female-gender image-making is not.

And the little girls know it's true. I went to see The Cher Revival with my friend Kim, my role-model for rebellious rule-challenging. She sent me the following e-mail days after the show:

"Cher was great. She looks great and is dancing better than ever. I noticed a few new moves here and there. You got to love that New York City strut thing she has going. Scared of her! I wore my 'bootleg' Cher shirt today. All the little girls were saying, 'Oh, she has the Cher shirt!' They asked me where I got it and then seemed so amazed when I said I had gone to her concert. Then this woman stopped me in the street and said, 'I love that shirt...baby.' I did not expect that reaction from people at all. I guess we are not in a minority."

Yet what kind of majority are we? In 1975, a magazine called In The Know dubbed Cher Star of the Year. Author Deanna Richards pondered why. "Cher's [TV] show is implausibly successful. Her comic range is narrow. The monologues are often banal." So what accounts for her popularity? "She inspires erotic fantasy for men, liberation for older women."

Twenty years later, Cindy Crawford inspires erotic fantasy in men, as well. But what would a women say while looking over the shoulder of some guy ogling Cindy Crawford? "Bitch!" Same guy ogles Cher and you will more likely hear, "Yeah, she's cool." According to In The Know, Dr. Joyce Brothers agrees: "She has a very special quality that Marilyn Monroe had... they are sexy and don't take their sexiness seriously. She appeals to the men and brings the women in. She's not an affront to women."

But maybe it's not just a feminist thing. Maybe it's a classist thing, too. Haven't the upper-class always had a thing against tastelessness and gaudy displays of pop culture despite the fact that there is no real institutionalized class system in America. You are either rich or poor. What you have, according to Neal Gabler who explains the "class" breakdown of entertainments in his wonderful book (read my review) Life The Movie, How Entertainment Conquered Reality, is actually a European upper-class affectation and an underclass trying to separate itself from this pseudo-class by indulging in accelerating amounts of "tastelessness." There are many flags to this phenomenon. Bette Midler, for one, is often embraced for her brassy trashy kitsch act by the upper-class for her simple addition of a smirk to the whole business. This is mocking I can do myself, thank you very much. Cher does without upper-class courting. Her's is blue-collar defiant, in-your-face kitsch, the difference between a vamp who rolls her eyes and one who draws a line in the sand.

As well, Bette Midler is not known for her portrayals of blue-collar woman on screen? Cher has played quite a few notably gritty characters beginning with Dolly Pelliker in Silkwood, Rusty Dennis in Mask, Sissy in Come Back To The Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean and both Rosa and Laverne from The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour.

Again from In The Know, Dr. Irving Roth, whoever he is, appears to support my theory: "It is my opinion that [Cher] is most popular among the upwardly mobile blue-collar worker in America. Cher, with her myriad imperfections in performance and style doesn't threaten either women or men." (Oh! You should stand in front of her intimidating stare for a minute as I did last winter. Read all about it in Ape Culture's Most Excellent Advencher). "One can fantasize that anyone can become a 'Cher.' Not everyone could become a Barbra Steisand or a Katharine Hepburn."

The purists of "legitimate music" will never forgive Cher for "Half Breed," or her power-ballad swagger. Neither will either the rock n' roll establishment or the Gershwin traditionalists forgive her for television torch renditions of the standards . She's got no substance, they say.

What's a girl gotta do to have substance? As it turns out, the Image is quite substantial.

According to Dr. Irving Roth, anyone can become a 'Cher' but not everyone can become a Katharine Hepburn? In terms of the power of their image, Cher is not so different from Katharine Hepburn. Hepburn, as well, was the master of her own liberated image. To prove my point, look at Katharine Hepburn's mother. This remarkable woman worked tirelessly for women's right to vote. That won, she worked harder, often against public opinion, to help women win the right to use contraception. She lobbied congressmen, headed committees, spoke the pulpit from Connecticut's end to end. Meanwhile, her daughter, movie-star Katharine Hepburn, walks into a room wearing pants and women are liberated. That easy. Wearing pants.

Let's wear pants, girls. Let's tattoo our butts! Image: love it or hate it, you're a fool to it and your beliefs hang on images like charms on the moon.

On July 13, my first image of Cher was in her self-proclaimed Braveheart outfit, warrior of women, Xena at the ball. She opened with U2's "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" and told us she had 30 years to cram into one show so we'd best get busy. True to this edict, she didn't talk much in-between numbers. She changed outfits alot, but her act would be no episode of Storytellers. In fact, she changed outfits just about every other song... some claim seven times in all. Highlight costumes included a pirate outfit, a Spanish-style dress with a headpiece and one getup that looked like a rain of disco sparkles with a matching shimmery wig.

From her new album, Cher sang "All or Nothing," "The Power," "Dove L'Amore," "Strong Enough" and "Believe". From her 80s Bon Jovi schlock-rock period, she sang "We All Sleep Alone," "I Found Someone," "After All," "Just Like Jesse James" (a song she claimed she never really liked that much), "The Shoop Shoop Song," (a song I claim I never really liked that much) and "Turn Back Time." Jumping back to the early 70s, the Snuff Garrett Dramatic Narrative period, Cher appeared in a mature Bob Mackie re-invention, her hair long and straight.

Deja Vú, anyone?

photo courtesy of Barbara Lorenz

I could easily fool myself into thinking, for a moment, that I was five again, released from a thwarted dream I once had to grow-up, snare a drivers license and drive myself straight from our house to California so I could see the Cher Show live circa 1975.

Cher sang "The Way of Love," and a frustratingly short medley of "Half Breed," "Gypsies, Tramps & Thieves" and "Dark Lady" (the latter which is my second favorite of all the dramatic narratives, next to "A Cowboys Work Is Never Done," because it is full with murder, revenge and a woman with a gun. Hey Joe, eat lead.) From her 1979 Casablanca-disco period, she sang "Take Me Hom"e and from the overlooked It's a Man's World album, she sang, defiantly, even a big bomb, "Walking In Memphis." It was a show no more cohesive than its disparate, post-Sonny singles.

Despite the latest Cher revival, Cher herself has little to do with singles or even her 32 full-length recordings since 1965, little to do with her ten movies. There are better songs and there are better movies. She is more than her tabloid life. There are better tabloid lives. She is more than her men, more than herself in Sonny & Cher. She is not what she wears, what she says, her contralto. She is not a manifesto. She is not 100%. That is not important, what is necessary.

Sometimes what is necessary is to project an image out there for yourself, one that you can step into from time to time, despite your insecurities, your codependence on booze or drugs, your man or your own image-making machine. Images feed your imagination. What you imagine may not always be true, but it is at least possible, a point to set like a plot in the sky from who you are to who you can be.

Feel free to face your own feminism, classicism and codependence when the Cher Revival hits HBO August 29, 1999.

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