The Guide to Getting Into Cher, Pop Shapeshifter

Cher has reinvented herself about a dozen times in the 55 years since "I Got U Babe." Here's where to start with her treasure trove of hits.

by Nick Levine; illustrated by Tara Jacoby
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25 April 2019, 9:31am

"I'm just not a Cher fan," Cher likes to say, which is probably the only slightly disappointing thing about her. With her majestic voice and ever-daring outfits, she’s an enduring pop goddess and gay icon who’s managed to reinvent herself repeatedly over the decades without ever losing her quintessential Cher-ness. She’s also uncommonly funny and unfiltered for someone who’s been one-name-only famous for half a century, quipping a couple of years ago, “My mom once said, ‘You should marry yourself a rich man.’ I went, ‘Mom, I am a rich man!’”

Nearly 55 years after her first hit—“I Got U Babe,” with then-husband Sonny Bono—Cher has lived the kind of life that no one could ever make up. Back in the 60s, she got her start working as a backing singer for legendary producer Phil Spector, contributing vocals to hits like The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby.” (Because her voice was so powerful, she was sometimes asked to stand back from the mike to avoid drowning out the other singers.) In the 60s, she and Bono became the family-friendly faces of the hippie movement, racking up hit singles and presenting TV variety shows that introduced the world to Cher’s flawless comic timing. In the 70s, she bounced back from their divorce—which Sonny warned would end her career—to become a solo star. Her TV show, Cher, produced unforgettable moments like this firecracker duet with Tina Turner.

Then, after brief dalliances with disco, Las Vegas, and Broadway, she reinvented herself in the 80s as a serious actress. She delivered an impressive performance opposite Meryl Streep in 1983’s Silkwood, earning an Oscar nomination, then won one for her performance in the charming 1987 romantic drama Moonstruck. The following year, she straddled a cannon in the “If I Could Turn Back Time” video, creating one of the decade’s most brazenly iconic images. Has any other Oscar-winning actor ever straddled a canon? Then again, what other Oscar-winning actor is remotely like Cher?

Cher continued cementing her gay icon status throughout the 90s, even dressing up as a kind of drag king Elvis for a 1995 British TV performance of “Walking in Memphis,” before scoring an unexpected enormo-hit with 1998’s “Believe.” Its innovative use of Auto-Tune would go on to inspire the likes of Kanye West and T-Pain. Since then, she’s never really stopped surprising us. She’s embarked on two tours since her supposed farewell tour of 2002 through 2005. She’s consistently one of the most gloriously unfiltered and emoji-loving people on Twitter, though she wasn’t too happy when President Trump unexpectedly endorsed one of her recent tweets. And her scene-stealing cameo in last year’s Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again led to a tremendously entertaining album of ABBA covers, Dancing Queen.

Because Cher’s life is so extraordinary that it’s been turned into a Broadway musical, it’s easy to forget what a dazzlingly distinctive vocalist she actually is. So while Cher may not be a Cher fan, most people who love pop culture really, really are, and her back catalogue is a treasure trove of hits. It’s never the wrong time to Cher the love, so here’s where to start.

So you want to get into: Kitschy Folk-Pop Cher?

Whether or not you enjoyed the tongue-in-cheek 90s cover she recorded with Beavis & Butt-Head, Sonny & Cher’s “I Got U Babe” remains one of the 60s’ best-loved songs. Their other big hit, “The Beat Goes On,” is nearly as iconic, but Cher’s solo career soon outshone her recordings with Sonny. She covered Bob Dylan’s “All I Really Want to Do” as her debut solo single in 1965, then scored a hat-trick of number-ones in the early 70s with songs that it’s impossible to imagine anyone else pulling off. “Gypsies, Tramps & Thieves” is an irresistible slab of pop melodrama, and “Dark Lady” gave Cher the first (but far from last) tasteless key change of her career.

It’s also worth checking out lesser-known 70s hits like “Train of Thought,” which begins with a train sound effect because of course it does, and “The Way of Love,” a gloriously maudlin cover of a French chanson. It’s been called “sexually ambiguous,” with one critic reading it as either a depiction of a woman expressing her love for another woman, or that of a woman saying goodbye to a gay man she has loved. That’s Cher for you: setting the gay agenda from the start.

Playlist: “I Got U Babe” / “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)” / “All I Really Want to Do” / “The Beat Goes On” / “Alfie” / “You Better Sit Down Kids” / “The Way of Love” / “Gypsies, Tramps & Thieves” / “The Way of Love” / “Dark Lady” / “Train of Thought”

So you want to get into: Disco Diva Cher?

Of course Cher went disco in the late 70s —she already had so many fabulous Bob Mackie outfits! Her only huge hit during this period was “Take Me Home,” a dance-floor glitterball that still sparkles hard four decades later, though “Wasn’t It Good” and “Hell on Wheels” —also produced by “Take Me Home”’s Bob Esty—shimmer infectiously, too. Though it’s not on Spotify, it’s also worth checking out Cher’s largely forgotten Giorgio Moroder collaboration “Bad Love,” which sounds pretty similar to Donna Summer’s “Hot Stuff,” another Moroder production. And though it doesn’t fit chronologically, Cher’s post-“Believe” hit “Strong Enough,” a total disco throwback, rounds off this playlist perfectly.

Playlist: “Take Me Home” / “Hell on Wheels” / “Wasn’t It Good” / “Bad Love” / “Strong Enough”

So you want to get into: Soft Rock Cher?

In the late 80s, just as Cher was establishing herself as a genuinely credible actress, she also revived her music career—this time, by throwing herself into ultra-glossy soft rock. By this point, she was already a solid-gold gay icon who could have continued along the dance-pop route for another decade before becoming an actual club queen with "Believe." Still, Rock-Chick Cher actually made a strange kind of sense at the time: She looked great in a black leather jacket; her mighty voice wasn’t overshadowed by the cheesy metal riffs of 1989 deep cut "Emotional Fire"; and the sound that collaborators like Diane Warren concocted for her—camped-up Bon Jovi, essentially—appealed to your dad and queer uncle alike.

Cher’s defining moment in this era was obviously the enduring karaoke classic "If I Could Turn Back Time." It was a song that taught us that no key change is too shameless, cannons are kind of phallic, and that "Words are like weapons—they wound sometimes." But you also need to hear Cher’s gloriously overwrought cover of Michael Bolton’s "I Found Someone," country-flecked kitsch-fest "Just Like Jesse James," resilient break-up banger "Save Up Your Tears," and the socially conscious "Love and Understanding," a song so stirring it's rumored to have blown the speakers at iconic London LGBTQ venue the Royal Vauxhall Tavern. Oh, and though it came six years before Cher's soft rock phase officially began with 1987’s eponymous album, her barnstorming Meat Loaf duet "Dead Ringer for Love" definitely fits here. Just look at its amazing dive bar video: Cher must know Meat Loaf is stepping out of his league by coming on to her, but she's too much of a pro to let it show.

Playlist: “If I Could Turn Back Time” / “I Found Someone” / “Just Like Jesse James” / “Heart of Stone” / “Emotional Fire” / “Perfection” / “Love and Understanding” / “Save Up All Your Tears” / “Dead Ringer for Love”

So you want to get into: Middle-of-the-Road Pop Cher?

Before 1998’s “Believe” catapulted Cher back to her rightful place—at the glittering summit of pop culture—she spent some of the 90s fumbling for a sound. By the middle of the decade, when her soft rock phase seemed to be running out of steam (and perhaps hairspray), Cher pivoted and went a little more soulful with the underrated 1995 album It’s a Man’s World. Interestingly, she scored some of her biggest hits in the U.K. and Europe during this period. A sweetly retro cover of 60s chestnut “The Shoop Shoop Song (It’s in His Kiss),” which she recorded for her underrated 1990 movie Mermaids, even reached number-one on the British charts.

Cher tried the same 60s cover trick two years later with Carole King’s “Oh No Not My Baby,” though it wasn’t as much of a success, then went on to score two mid-90s U.K. hits with her cover of Marc Cohn’s “Walking in Memphis” and the brilliant mid-tempo bop “One By One.” Rounding off this playlist are some softer Cher songs from across the decades: 1989’s earnest Peter Cetera duet “After All”; 2012’s “I Hope You Find It,” which had been recorded first by Miley Cyrus; and the strident ballad “You Haven’t Seen the Last of Me,” from Cher’s 2010 movie Burlesque. Oh, and let’s not overlook her instantly iconic version of “Fernando” from last year’s Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again. If you don’t want to hear Andy Garcia’s backing vocals, simply play the version from Cher’s Dancing Queen album.

Playlist: “The Shoop Shoop Song (It’s in His Kiss)” / “After All” / “Walking in Memphis” / “One By One” / “Oh No, Not My Baby” / “You Haven’t Seen the Last of Me” / “I Hope You Find It” / “Fernando”

So you want to get into: Wig-Wearing, Vocoder-Loving Dance-Pop Cher?

In a way, it’s weird that it took Cher so long to fully embrace dance-pop. Maybe, because they already loved her so much, she knew she didn’t need to give the gays everything they wanted. Anyway, after 1998’s “Believe” became the biggest hit of her career, selling more than 11 million copies worldwide, she followed the album of the same name with 2001’s equally club-ready Living Proof, home to her booming self-empowerment anthem “Song for the Lonely” and the moody “You Take It All,” which works a sound I’ll playfully call “Cher of Light.”

After Living Proof, it would take Cher another 12 years to give us the 2012 album Closer to the Truth; during the interim, she embarked on a two-and-a-half year farewell tour which turned out not to be a farewell tour, launched a Vegas residency, and made the 2010 movie Burlesque, a camp classic which she claims never to have watched. But with its well-judged blend of dance-pop bangers and more reflective Cher moments, this album would become her highest-charting ever in the U.S., debuting at number three and yielding the fist-pumping anthem “Woman’s World,” which spawned a hilarious parody from future RuPaul’s Drag Race contestant Charlie Hides. Cher’s take on “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)” from Dancing Queen would feel like the gayest piece of music ever recorded if it weren’t for the fact that Closer to the Truth features a Cher song called, um, “Take It Like a Man.” Which has this video.

Oh Cher, truly we are not worthy.

Playlist: “Believe” / “Dov'è l'amore” / “All or Nothing” / “When the Money’s Gone” / “Song for the Lonely” / “You Take It All” / “The Music’s No Good Without You” / “Woman’s World” / “Dressed to Kill” / “Take It Like a Man” / “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!! (A Man After Midnight)”

This article originally appeared on Noisey US.