Shocking Omissions: The Resilient Reinvention Of Cher's 'Gypsys, Tramps & Thieves'
This essay is one in a series celebrating deserving artists or albums not included on NPR Music's list of 150 Greatest Albums By Women.
There are figures in pop culture whose influence is so ubiquitous, they require almost no introduction. We refer to them with a familiarity reserved for our closest friends and colleagues: by their first names. And before — and after — the rise of stars like Madonna, Beyoncé and Adele, there's Cher.
Cher got her start singing backup on Phil Spector-produced songs like The Righteous Brothers' "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'" and The Ronettes' "Be My Baby," but it was "I Got You Babe" — her hit with husband and musical partner Sonny Bono — that put Cher on the map in 1965. With her long, dark hair, trademark wit and androgynous vocals, Cher challenged notions of how a woman could look, act and sound, and helped redefine what it meant to be a woman in the spotlight. From donning that infamous black leotard in the video for "If I Could Turn Back Time" to introducing the world to AutoTune on the smash hit "Believe," Cher has presided as the mother of reinvention for more than 50 years.
But it's the release of Cher's seventh studio album in 1971 that marked the first of her comeback iterations, setting the stage for her path to entertainment royalty paved with Grammy, Emmy and Academy Awards. By the late '60s, Sonny & Cher — the folk-rock husband-wife duo of Cher and Sonny Bono — had been displaced within the cultural vanguard. Bohemian culture was rampant, making Sonny's fur vests and Cher's bellbottoms no longer the exception, but the rule. Meanwhile, Sonny's straightforward, cheerful music wasn't selling. Audiences found his songs banal and out of touch in the wake of psychedelia and acid rock. Gypsys, Tramps & Thieves put Cher back on the charts, and was a significant turning point in her trajectory as a solo artist, thus rendering it one of the most profound works of her career.
With the exception of the one-off album 3614 Jackson Highway, produced at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, Gypsys, Tramps & Thieves serves as Cher's first real break from Bono's production. It was written to showcase and cultivate her signature contralto, and the title track became her first No. 1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100. It even scored her a Grammy nomination for Best Pop Vocal Performance (albeit losing out to Carole King's Tapestry).
Written specifically for Cher by Bob Stone, the album's title track is a story of classism, sexism and racism ("gypsies" being a derogatory term for the Roma population) told from the point of view of a 16-year-old girl. Although Cher had tackled complex subject matter on past solo records, including the Sonny-penned divorce ode "You Better Sit Down Kids" on With Love, Chér (1967), "Gypsys, Tramps & Thieves" presented a darker, more powerful Cher, whose strength lies in her embodiment of the character. Its opening lyric, "I was born in the wagon of a traveling show / My mama had to dance for the money they'd throw," is mirrored in the song's fourth verse ("She was born in the wagon of the traveling show / Her mama had to dance for the money they'd throw"), as the young narrator has her own child and is shafted into the same life as the generations of women who came before her. Cher's emboldened drawls transformed the song into an urgent, beguiling pop smash. The song's success established a pattern of storytelling reliant on exoticism that would continue throughout Cher's '70s output with Half-Breed and Dark Lady.
The album's release also coincided with the television premiere of The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour, and helped usher in Cher's reign as a red carpet trailblazer. She ditched the hippie garb and began her fashion relationship with Bob Mackie, solidifying her status as the poster child of '70s glam. Her sequined, feathered, skin-bearing numbers proved her ability to exude pop-rock attitude not just through her music, but through dress, too.
In 2017, Cher is still more relevant than ever. She's the only artist to have a No. 1 single on the Billboard charts each of the last six decades and, as such, she received the Icon Award at this year's Billboard Music Awards. The touchstone of her career has always been her ability to not only adapt to the times, but to be one step ahead of them. Cher's undeniable perseverance manifested on her 1971 album, and it has enabled her to dominate virtually every entertainment platform throughout the years. From late-night television to the big screen, pop radio to dance halls, from the Las Vegas strip to — come 2018 -- Broadway, Cher has done it all.
It's not uncommon to hear Cher denounce her past work in interviews, claiming certain albums — Gypsys, Tramps & Thieves included — aren't representative of her true aesthetic as an artist. But that's exactly the sentiment that makes Cher, well, Cher. Never one to be pigeonholed, never settling into a style or sound for too long, she's always seeking to embrace the next phase as the best innovators do. For her, the moment is fleeting — and she's already living in the one that's just around the bend. But for legions of fans, each milestone Cher hits is proof that women can do anything.
Last fall, an interview with Cher from a decade ago went viral. In it, she recounts a time when her mother told her to settle down and marry a rich man. Cher's response? "I am a rich man." It's this independent, play-by-your-own-rules persona that makes Cher worthy of a spot in our canon.
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