As far as burning existential queries go, “Gee, I wonder if Cher can still fit into that outfit she wore in the ‘If I Could Turn Back Time’ video now that she’s 67?” probably doesn’t rate too highly.
But admit it. You want to know, don’t you? And Cher knows you want to know. Which is why she will break her promise to retire from touring, made to Buffalo audiences at then- HSBC Arena in May 2003, when she takes the stage in the same building, now the First Niagara Center, at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday.
Why, at 67, with what one supposes is a healthy bank account and well-appointed stock portfolio, would anyone want to put themselves through the rigors of touring a grueling stage spectacle that a Washington Post writer recently described as “Cirque du So Gay”? I blame Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus. Perhaps Cher is taking yet another victory lap just to remind these relative upstarts who the Queen of Kitsch was, is, and will forever be.
Today, Cher is a diva, a gay icon, an actress, a businesswoman and a fully tenured Las Vegas performer. Few of these descriptives have anything to do with her music, which has no distinct personality or conceptual continuity. Yet, consider this: Cher has had a No. 1 record in each of the last five decades. She’s sold somewhere in the area of 100 million records during that time, yet if one was pressed to find a single term to describe her music, it would be tough going. Cher is a musical chameleon, but not in the same sense that, say, David Bowie has been similarly described. Not so much an artist as a performer, Cher hops between musical trends, be they hippie-esque pop, disco, hair-metal lite, or electronic dance music, all genres within which she has had hits.
The glue that holds all of this genre-jumping together is her voice, an emotion-soaked contralto that has been routinely undervalued by critics, despite its obvious merits.
From background to spotlight
Cher cut her musical teeth singing background vocals on some monumental Phil Spector-produced recordings, among them the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” and the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby.” She became songwriter, producer and Spector acolyte Sonny Bono’s teenage protégé, then Bono’s wife, television co-star (“The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour” commanded major ratings between 1971 and 1973) and finally, his ex-wife.
As an actor, Cher displayed significant talent and bountiful charisma, her performances in the likes of “Silkwood,” “Mask,” “The Witches of Eastwick” and “Moonstruck” demanding to be taken seriously, though often, they weren’t. Perseverance paid off and Cher nabbed a best actress Oscar for her role in “Moonstruck.”
Cher’s connection to rock music has always been tenuous. MTV treated her well in the 1980s, when she made music that was not dissimilar to that being mined for platinum by the likes of Bon Jovi, whose guitarist, Richie Sambora was a love interest of Cher’s for a time. She married Allman Brothers Band founder Gregg Allman in the 1970s, but later divorced him, unable to accommodate Allman’s drug habits. (“Gregory... was the nicest person,” Cher told Vanity Fair in 2010. “Even when he was doing drugs. But when you’re doing drugs, the people you’re hanging out with aren’t exactly... You’re not going to church to find these people.”) Cher would live in Buffalo with Allman for a time during the later ’70s, when he was in rehab here.) Cher and Allman made an album together as Allman and Woman, but the music was as wretched as the duo’s moniker.
Incredibly, Cher found a musical life after the 1980s, but she did so by hopping trends, most of them of the glitzy, dance music variety. In this, she was not at all unlike Madonna, on whom her influence is transparent and significant.
These days, Cher’s influence is impossible to miss. Christina Aguilera grew up worshipping her, and even adopted a version of Cher’s “If I Could Turn Back Time” outfit for her own “Dirty” video. Lady Gaga is basically Cher with an underground NYC art streak. Miley Cyrus, in both her inability to be faithful to any specific musical genre and her seemingly limitless desire to shock with schlock, is taking a page from the Cher playbook.
Cyndi Lauper – who will open for Cher in the First Niagara Center – is perhaps the most Cher-like of all the past and present pop divas, for she, too, is a great singer given to sartorial excess and on-stage showmanship.
Cher’s influence is pervasive, but her single greatest talent may be her tenacity. Driven to succeed within what was certainly a male-dominated business when she started out, Cher endured the attempted career-dominance of Bono and clawed her way back into the music business just as she appeared to be at risk of fading away, in the late ’70s. In the time since, she has weathered the arrival and passing of countless trends in fashion and music, and retained a massive audience.
“I feel like a bumper car,” she said in a 2010 Vanity Fair feature. “If I hit a wall, I’m backing up and going in another direction. And I’ve hit plenty of (expletive) walls in my career. But I’m not stopping. I think maybe that’s my best quality: I just don’t stop.”
Bearing this in mind, it’s entirely possible that Wednesday’s show may be “Farewell,” but not goodbye.
And that “If I Could Turn Back Time” outfit? I’m not telling. You’ll have to go to the show and see for yourself.