Lady Cher: My Favorite Tramp and Po-Mo Thief

On a recent morning at Logan Airport, I saw Cher, in a black leotard and fishnet stockings, gracing the cover of Vanity Fair.

Of course I bought the issue. Of course I inhaled the profile by Krista Smith, although it wasn’t transcendent journalism, just the usual celebrity applause. It was Vanity Fair, after all, its “December 2010” issue on the newsstands in early November, one of many time-defying acts of postmodernism.

Cher is the time thief of them all, and I love her for it.

These cross-country trips to see my ailing parents bring out the ’70s girl in me. There’s a whiff of the elegiac now, the echoing soundtrack of my youth, my parents still young and wearing the most awful fashions (Mom in a halter sundress with big orange flowers; Dad with hideous sideburns and napkin-wide ties). Maybe our parents’ young lives can never seem anything but ridiculous, while our own have the aura of earnest sweetness.

Yet at 64, Cher is still here, in all her un-earnest glory, and she crosses the generations. I watched The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour with my parents. My mother and I both got a vicarious kick out of Cher’s slinky outfits, her exposed navel, that waterfall of black hair she was always flicking aside. I went on to more outré icons—David Bowie, Patti Smith—but Cher came first.

I’m a creature of my cultural moment. For me the subversive gender bending of Bowie mattered far more as I entered high school, the kitsch of “Half-Breed” forgotten like a childhood love of Neccos.

The funny thing is, Cher seems to have seized the current moment far more than Bowie or David Bryne or other hipsters of my youth. She was the one introducing Lady Gaga at the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards. According to the VF profile, she was the one who held Lady G’s “meat purse”—“this is a steak!”, Cher later joked during her own Vegas show. “I thought, I’ve seen weirder things than that in my life.”

Would Lady Gaga be here without Cher? We literary and academic types like to think we have a grip on “culture,” but sometimes the oddest stories—16-year-old lover of Warren Beatty from bohemian So Cal household marries a future Republican congressman who looks like a goofball so they sing “I Got You Babe” and he rips her off but she rises from the ashes and here she is in yet another incarnation—or maybe the same incarnation—and if that’s not up-to-the-second po-mo time thievery, I don’t know what is.

“Gypsies, Tramps & Thieves” imprinted me, so much so that I riffed on it in a recent paean to blogging and the current dilemma online writers face: how we dance for “the money they throw,” or just dance for no money at all, but we’re still dancing with our words, still creating Gothic cathedrals or rococo Vegas shows—of words, of Bob Mackie sequins, of whatever trash life hurls.

It was risky, that song, but already as old-fashioned as Rosamond Du Jardin’s Class Ring in 1971. It allowed middle-school me to dump my fears about sex and teen pregnancy into goofy orchestration, to laugh and worry and fantasize. The fake burning log in the music video says it all. Or at least it evokes my personal “Golden Years” mix of family Christmases and suburban strip malls and “uppers” and “downers” and rides to Berkeley on BART all by myself.

The key to my love of Cher is not her talent; it’s that she has always managed to conjure something out of nothing. The flip side of American postmodernism, of course, is the Horatio Alger story, and Cher is like the Horatia Alger of identity bootstrapping.

There’s at least one unintentionally laughable line in the VF profile. Smith writes: “Cher has never exercised the benefit of spin; she prefers to be honest and direct.”

Maybe if your comparison group is Gaga, Madonna, and Angelina Jolie. Or maybe this is just Vanity Fair’s credo—in order to rivet readers with our reporting prowess, celebrities must claim they’re being honest —especially without the benefit of cosmetics—and under the eagle eyes of publicists.

Snide aside: It might be fun to run a list of celebrity descriptions in VF profiles, all those who are said to look like “anybody else” at home when they wear no socks or sandals or lipstick. Here’s Smith’s take on Cher: “Seeing her in daylight with very little makeup on, I’m amazed at how normal she looks.”

But anyone who still dons a full-feathered Indian headdress and a halter top while performing “Half-Breed” is spinning—at the very least, she’s spinning away the decades. Revealing the normal person under the mask is a hallowed trope in celebrity profiles, but for me, it misses the point. Authenticity was never what I looked for in Cher or Bowie or (talk about guilty pleasures) Boy George and the Thompson Twins.

What I like is a bit of inferred internal monologue for Cher about Lady Gaga’s “steak” purse: “Remember, bitches, I was the original diva.” I like the “bubble-gum-pink” nail polish Smith describes her as wearing on her toes, the fact that Cher responds by saying her “mean bitch” of a grandmother had “the most beautiful feet. At 96, on her deathbed, Cher says, those pedicured toes still looked good. (And so what if they really didn’t?)

What I care about is changing the terms of the identity equation, of making it up as I go along, not maintaining everybody else’s version of the authentic me. I don’t want my past to define me, anymore than Cher allows hers to.

I’ve never liked her more—or needed Cher more—than when I read this quote: “But I’m not stopping. I think maybe that’s my best quality. I just don’t stop.”

I got you, babe.

4 thoughts on “Lady Cher: My Favorite Tramp and Po-Mo Thief

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Lady Cher: My Favorite Tramp and Po-Mo Thief « Athena's Head --

  2. I think it’s not so much that Cher was the original diva as that she upheld and represented divahood at a time when it had fallen out of mainstream pop favor, when white female vocalists were expected to be folky or bluesy or both, Joni and Janis and their flat-heeled like. Because of our culture’s bizarre rules about race, Cher could have stood with them, but instead she sided with Aretha and Diana Ross and the other divas of color who understood that there’s a basic truth that must be expressed through exaggeration and peacock posturing rather than earnest humility. As I remember it, the longer she stood alone in the era dominated by Carole King’s Tapestry, the more she embraced the diva esthetic. Then she was joined by Bette Midler, Maria Muldauer, maybe one or two others, and then suddenly disco arrived and and the diva, as a pop archetype, was back.

    I could do a longer piece about how this change expressed something about the changes in our collective life, about Stonewall and feminism and Wounded Knee and the fall of Richard Nixon, but that would require a comment as long as the original post.

  3. Thanks, Judith and Joan — and Joan, what a great analysis of divahood and its connection to race. Please do that post for your own blog or for Talking Writing. Let’s talk…

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