At this point, Cher is more than just a pop star; she’s the one-woman embodiment of the whole gaudy story of pop music. She’s a myth so huge that the new Broadway musical The Cher Show takes three different Chers to encompass her — Babe Cher, Lady Cher and Star Cher. She was just 16 when she got discovered by Sonny Bono, already a seasoned music-biz shark, and soon became his hippie bride in a blur of miniskirts and fringed vests. Everybody thought she was washed up by the time she turned 20, but she refused to go. “If I Could Turn Back Time” became her theme song because the battle of Cher versus Time turned out to be a mismatch. It’s Time that has trouble turning back Cher.
In the past year, she’s enjoyed a high-profile twirl in the blockbuster Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, stepping out of a helicopter to belt “Fernando” to Andy Garcia. She topped that with a smash album of ABBA covers, Dancing Queen, saluting one of the only pop franchises that can match her for indestructible cool. She just got her lifetime-achievement coronation at the Kennedy Center, complete with Cyndi Lauper and Adam Lambert serenading her with “I Got You Babe.”
There are no other careers remotely like hers. She spent the Seventies cracking cornball jokes on The Sonny and Cher Show while notching creepy Number One hits about sordid sex and bloodshed. (“Dark Lady”? That song is…a lot.) But “Believe,” her most iconic hit, is the Nineties disco anthem she sang when she was 52. She’s been on her farewell tour so long, it’s old enough to vote. When she showed up at the MTV Video Music Awards in 2010, she took pride in announcing, “I’m the oldest chick with the biggest hair and the littlest costume.”
Over the years, she has hopped on almost every music trend — Studio 54 disco in “Take Me Home,” Sunset Strip hair metal in “I Found Someone,” rage-queen glitz punk in “Save Up All Your Tears” — and made it her own. She invented red carpets and infomercials and humping cannons on battleships full of sailors. People said she couldn’t sing, yet she always sounds like herself, with that consonants-only vocal style that batters every note into her signature mega-nasal power honk.
The Cher Show turned into a cause célèbre when Kanye West attended opening night and the guy playing Sonny Bono had to tweet at him to ask him to turn off his phone. The truly shocking twist? Kanye’s response: “The dynamics of Cher and Sonny’s relationship made Kim and I grab each other’s hand and sing ‘I got you babe.’ Please pardon my lack of etiquette.” Inspiring Kanye into a spasm of non-douchitude is hardly the least of Cher’s accomplishments.
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By now, she’s part of every pop story — every legend has a Cher moment in it, from Britney (she got her start belting “If I Could Turn Back Time” on the local-fair circuit) to Nicki. (Remember when Cher and Miss Minaj had Twitter beef for a minute?) She gets one of the funniest moments in the new Beastie Boys Book, when Mike D’s wife, Tamra Davis, is directing a Cher video. On the first day of the shoot, the star walks up to the director, introduces herself and announces, “I’m gonna be wearing leather. A lot of leather. Get used to it.” She was rock & roll enough to marry into the Allman Brothers for nine whole days of wedded bliss. She and Gregg Allman didn’t have much to say but hit it off enough to make their duet album as Allman and Woman. In the musical, they commemorate their passion with a duet on “Just Like Jesse James” that brings down the house.
In a way, the moment that sums up her genius is her awesomely ridiculous 1975 TV duet with David Bowie. They start out bumping and grinding to “Young Americans,” then swerve into a bizarro oldies medley, with Bowie down on his knees crooning doo-wop to her. It was a mission statement for both of them, in their quest to encapsulate the whole pop past and warp it for the future. She’s really picked up the torch from Bowie — and like him, she does it by constantly changing. As she used to sing, the beat goes on. For Cher, it always does and always will.
This story appears in the March issue of Rolling Stone, on newsstands next week.