Talkhouse contributing writer Dr. Drew Daniel is a member of Matmos and a professor of English at Johns Hopkins University. Matmos’ new album, Ultimate Care II, is out on February 19, 2016 via Thrill Jockey Records.
(photo credit: Josh Sisk)
I will confess that it was in the spirit of a perverse gamble that I agreed to review this album; Talkhouse editor-in-chief Michael Azerrad asked if the prospect of assessing the new Cher album appealed to me, and I agreed to this jeu d’esprit without worrying too much about what it would actually entail. Having listened to the album multiple times and passed through moods of enervation, disdain, mild amusement, and snorts of hostility hushed by the dawning of a newfound respect, I’m confronted by the emotional reality that assessing Cher critically in 2013 is as much an ethical as an aesthetic quandary.
For a good reason: it’s not cool to beat up on old ladies, especially a cool old lady whose politics seem basically admirable and whose persistence has become something of a cultural given. Quite simply, it feels mean, ageist, and sexist to critique someone in Cher’s category; euphemisms like “trouper,” “survivor,” “stalwart” and “unsinkable battleship” seem to avoid the rudeness implicit in assessing the longevity of a diva of a certain age. Carping at the occasionally questionable production choices and ill-fitting arrangement ideas and just plain aw-shucks Vegas hucksterism of this album at its worst moments still feels wrong to me, because it feels cheap, a little too pat. But suspending one’s standards and condescending to Cher as if she needed excuses, handicaps or low bars also feels unacceptable, given the quality of this album’s best moments. Someone with this extensive of a back catalogue does not merit some critical variant of the “that dress looks great… on you” put-down logic in which compassion and contempt huddle up in bad faith with each other.
Besides, in what world is Cher an underdog? Let’s consider the economic backstory here: as a performer who has had a top ten hit in every single decade since the 1960s, Cher is doing just fine, and is going to continue to do just fine, regardless of what some punk-ass like myself says about her new album on a website. Qua Cher, she looks great, her voice sounds full and muscular, and nobody’s going to stop her from doing her thing, least of all me. I am reasonably certain that her team will keep whatever critical remarks I venture forth here far from her prying eyes, so I think I’m safe in just carrying on, and as she herself puts it, “I don’t give a damn if you ever love me.” Fair enough. Though if that’s you, Cher, ego-surfing at 3:00 AM, and you’re reading these rantings, my apologies.
Except that I have a bit more throat-clearing to do, because I’m going to take a wild guess that I just might have been asked to review Cher because I’m gay. It’s a tacit linkage worth unpacking. A great deal has been written about the tradeoffs of cross-identification and misogyny implicit in gay male fandom of female singers, and Cher’s membership in the promiscuous pantheon that includes Maria Callas and Judy Garland and Britney Spears and Lady Gaga constitutes something of a stumbling block for me. Abler critics than I have assessed this complex braiding of love and theft at length (see Jack Halberstam’s Gaga Feminism: Sex, Gender, and the End of Normal and Wayne Koestenbaum’s The Queen’s Throat: Opera, Homosexuality, and the Mystery of Desire, David Halperin’s How to Be Gay and Hilton Als’ The Women and many more). Go read them if you’re curious about how to locate this emotional weather system against the bigger backdrop of affiliations and tensions between straight women and gay men.
I’ve never felt completely at peace with this dynamic, personally, and (coughs nervously) I blame Cher! Looking at gay porn magazines in high school when I was a teenage closet case in Kentucky, I would encounter cartoons from the exotic world of actually out gay people in major cities like New York and Los Angeles, and I can recall a memorable cartoon from a dog-eared copy of In Touch magazine in which two queens are sitting in their apartment, one of them dressed exactly like Cher on the cover of her Take Me Home LP, bare flesh girded in spiky brass Frank-Frazetta-esque fantasy gear like some kind of Exotic Dragon Princess. With a swish, the queenier gay guy turns to his butch boyfriend and asks “Do you think it’s too much?” At that moment of dis-identification, Cher arrived into my consciousness already heavily over-determined by the idea that this was Music That Gays Like, and that part of becoming gay myself would have to involve somehow appreciating or enjoying Cher or, horrors, Dressing Up As Cher. Insofar as my icons included Diamanda Galas, Poison Ivy, Cosey Fanny Tutti, Lydia Lunch and Kim Gordon, the problem wasn’t femininity per se but aesthetics. Cher was tacky, and tacky in a way that seemed really, really “gay” at a time when that was something I could only accept when co-ordinated along “queer” countercultural lines: in my reductive teen understanding, Genet, Burroughs and Sleazy from Throbbing Gristle were the Real Deal, and Cher was for sheep, and that was that. To be honest, I’m not so sure I’ve budged much since, which meant that this assignment was a challenge to my pleasure centers and sensibilities, perhaps akin in spirit (if not in brilliance of execution, obviously) with Carl Wilson’s courageous journey into Celine Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love. But enough handwringing. How about this album?
I first listened to the album on a night drive home from Princeton, New Jersey, to Baltimore after giving a Shakespeare lecture. We were two songs deep and my boyfriend Martin confessed to me in the car that “This music makes me feel like I’m in a terrible gay bar in the 1990s and some queen is yelling at me about something with a drink in their hand,” or words to that effect. I couldn’t quite tell because Cher was yelling at us both. The album roars out of the gate with “Woman’s World,” a Great Big Anthem about recovering from pain and mistreatment, holding your head up, feeling solidarity with other women, feeling solidarity with everyone “in the club,” and turning hurt into courage through collective empowerment. If my précis sounds glib, it’s because the slogans really are that simple and clear and basic; but as slogans go, “Rise Above” worked for Black Flag and it works for Cher too. She sounds, I must admit, completely ferocious and entirely sincere, and lest you doubt her clubbing bona fides, let’s recall that Cher was making jams with Giorgio Moroder in 1980 when the members of Daft Punk were six years old. The song’s sentiments are entirely admirable, and I tried to like it. I tried, that is, to bracket my dislike of its cookie-cutter Rihanna wannabe production values, in favor of an urge to co-sign its completely right-on message of empowerment and self-respect, and if this sounds like squirming and special pleading on behalf of an iconic ally to the queer community, that’s because that’s what it is. Against the backdrop of a patriarchal culture, feminist demagoguery ought to be, and sometimes still is, jarring and liberatory in its effects. But sometimes we have to admit that bad music is bad and stop making excuses.
But that’s the problem: bad for what? Bad for whom? And do bad synth sounds even matter when the subject is Cher and she’s singing this powerfully at age 67? Cher’s refusal to perform at the Russian Olympics is admirable, and far more important than my grousing about the derivative quality of the keyboard stabs that undergird her pronouncements. Confronting my own inability to not be irritated by those keyboard stabs, I began to wonder if the prison of taste isn’t an immune disorder of its own, a kind of psychic allergy by which we limit our capacity to imaginatively inhabit other locations in social space. Watching the racially diverse cascade of different kinds of women in the video for “Woman’s World,” with butch lesbians and elderly white ladies and a person with Down syndrome all united in the task of shimmying and posing and grooving to Cher, my malingering dislike of those shitty keyboard sounds made me feel like an Audio-Scrooge or worse. Maybe I should just listen some more to what other people have to say about Cher and chill out.
Dutifully test-driving the album in the car a few days later on the way to dinner with a younger trial demographic, two twentysomething noise bro friends of mine sitting in the back seat weighed in:
“My dad likes Cher. I guess that’s kinda gay. I mean, he’s been married to my mom forever, they had three kids, but he might be gay. I haven’t asked him.”
“It sounds like music that would play in a department store.”
“Yeah, I’m getting CVS vibes here.”
(“My Love” comes on)
“This is a better song, but it’s not mixed right. I feel like it needs a dubstep drop right here.”
Say what you will about their dudely anxieties and prescriptions, but I have to admit these noise bros have a point. “My Love” is a better song than those that precede it, and yet it seems to fail to live up to its potential insofar as the song is anemically produced, with stomping drums mixed too low for dancefloor functionality, but too loud to let it be the lighters-in-the-air ballad which it secretly wants to be. And there are those crappy sounds again. Throughout the pallid suite of dance numbers that kick off the album, the lead synth sounds feel like wearily under adjusted presets from an identikit plug-in package (probably called Euro Big Room Techno House Destruction Package Number 33, all spelled out in big extruded 3-D lettering with too many Photoshop filters in the box on the shelf at Guitar Center where it sits gathering dust beside Orchestral Stab Factory 7). The drum tracks seem to have been composed from the discarded tribal house sample packs that are given away for free in those bonus CD-Rs that come glued to copies of FutureMusic magazine. It is, frankly, disappointing.
At a time when dance music is writhing and slithering with vibrant if noisome life as harsh, diamond-hard timbres and tricksy programming infiltrates the pop charts thanks to the intersection of vogue beats and juke and trap and footwork and dubstep, with the more familiar rhythmic chassis of house and electro, it’s a shame that Cher hasn’t aligned herself with programmers who could deliver the technological equivalent of her still omnipresent 1998 pop smash “Believe” for 2013. As someone whose most recent high point arguably predicted a vast slew of popular music that followed in its wake (looking at you, T-Pain, Lil Wayne, Kanye… one could go on) it feels like a lost opportunity that this album largely ignores the current chessboard of electronic dance music production. Then again, it’s arguable that an arms race mentality about chic audio signifiers might be rather beneath Cher’s dignity at this point anyway; a certain serene indifference to trends is surely her prerogative. The closest we get to the technological uncanny of “Believe” is “Dressed to Kill,” in which the shivery warble of a vocodered Cher takes on the weirdly silvery trembling tone of a badly bit-converted and highly lossy MP3 file; once the cascade of pitch-shifted robo-Chers begins to drop down a few octaves, the song perks up with the same kind of cyber-electro-sleaze vibes that made Britney’s Blackout era so pleasurable, and so car-crash compulsive. It’s a pointer towards what this album might have been, but also a reminder of what it’s not.
I take no joy in announcing that this park-it-or-drive-it problem afflicts the album as a whole. The dance numbers, “Woman’s World” aside, lack conviction and the kind of heft that would actually work in a club, yet they crowd out the ballads, which are individually stronger, more suited to her voice, and more compelling as performances. When they arrive, the full-on technical displays of lungpower and sheer Cher-itude in treacly numbers like “Lie to Me” and “I Hope You Find It” come as a welcome relief from the more tepid exertions on the dancefloor, and they’re spiked with moments of lyrical darkness and self-reflection that add ballast, and mature emotional anchor points. That said, I don’t particularly want to hear them ever again. Which is not Cher’s problem; these songs no doubt hit the personal targets they set for themselves, and if they’re not targets that I wish or need to see hit, I can now see that that’s not a judgment upon Cher or her avid consumers.
It’s hardly a surprise that for my money, she’s at her most interesting when this album gets weird. Which, happily, it does. Despite its cut-the-bullshit title and the gestures towards breathy immediacy in these songs’ frequent “dramatic” breakdowns to Cher’s voice alone, there’s something deeply non-human about the sound of this album which constitutes, for me, its secret appeal. When others reach for, say, James Ferraro’s Far Side Virtual in search of a kind of queasily insincere encounter with abject synth sounds and implausible virtual instruments, you should smile knowingly and reach for your copy of Cher’s Closer to the Truth, for the veins of canny artifice run just as shallow here. This has a lot to do with the battery of devices used to track, edit, assemble and master pop vocal performances nowadays. Sometimes her phrasing plus whatever plug-ins and compressors and filters are in the signal chain combine to make Cher’s butch contralto sound truly inhuman and odd, swallowing vowels and lurching across her range as she produces Big Soaring Vocals shot through with interstitial tics and guttural sounds that uncomfortably recall a golden retriever eating peanut butter.
Which brings me to a seeming contradiction: when mainstream music tries to be “edgy” or “raw” it fails in ways which, in their very failure to secure those all-too-human qualities, often produces results that actually are weirder than the supposedly “weird” music that fills the “Out” section of hipster record stores. This winner’s circle of abject deep cuts from platinum artists — think Guns N’ Roses’ “My World” from Use Your Illusion II, or Michael Jackson’s “2000 Watts” from Invincible — is now joined by Cher’s vampire ballad “Lovers Forever.” It’s my favorite song on this album, and it sounds like Anne Rice sinking lysergic fangs into Patrick Cowley’s neck during a gothic rave inside the Cirque de Soleil. Well, maybe not, but its lyrical marriage of utopian politics to vampy theatricality hits a kind of nadir-as-high-point in which Cher’s do-gooder urges finally succumb to a darker agenda. Taken as a whole, the guitar solos, spiraling synth arpeggios, and raunchy orchestral stabs of “Lovers Forever” go so far beyond normative taste categories as to achieve a kind of deliriously tacky sublimity that perhaps only weapons-grade mainstream music can deliver. I guess sometimes it really is better to be further from the truth.