CHER: BELIEVE (1998)
1) Believe; 2) The Power; 3) Runaway; 4) All Or Nothing; 5) Strong Enough; 6) Dov'e L'Amore; 7) Takin' Back My Heart; 8) Taxi Taxi; 9) Love Is The Groove; 10) We All Sleep Alone.
Undoubtedly, the main question of 1998 was not "how do we stop the Congo War?" or "do we impeach President Clinton or not?" — the main question of 1998, which each of us who was old enough to have ears must have heard a million times, was: "Do you believe in life after love?". I'm pretty sure that more people on this planet of ours have pondered over this question than there are people for whom the name "Cher" means anything — I do believe myself that I lived through at least three solemn promises to find and strangle the singer before even learning who that was (I knew about the existence of Cher, of course, but it never occurred to me to equate this Vegas relic with the autotuned monstrosity that Genghis-Khanned its way all over the radiowaves).
Since the record-buying public would not want to pay serious attention to the slowly unfolding and ultimately not very rewarding soulful intricacies of It's A Man's World, it seemed inevitable that we'd soon begin the next loop — after a commercially failing «artistic» album, the world should brace itself for an artistically failing «commercial» album, what with retirement not being an option in an age where the triumphant march of female empowerment can always be bolstered with a little plastic surgery. And it's no big secret that the direction in which she went with Believe had everything to do with the success of Madonna's Ray Of Light — the advent of electronic techno-pop suddenly gave «Divas» all over the world a new style where they could succeed without breaking too much sweat and stay unquestionably modern and trendy. Of course, she'd never really worked in the electronic field before, but it's not about electronica, really: it's about a dance-pop groove, and how could somebody with ʽTake Me Homeʼ behind her belt fail at that, if she really put her mind to it?
Well, technically speaking, she does not fail. The record, masterminded by British producers Mark Taylor and Brian Rawling (whose clientele before and after has also included Enrique Iglesias, Britney Spears, Jennifer Lopez, and One Direction, if you really want to know more) and with significant songwriting input from Paul Barry (also a wholesale supplier for Enrique Iglesias), became her largest success ever, and ʽBelieveʼ became her signature song — probably the only such case in pop history, when it took the artist more than thirty years in the business to produce a signature song (and I'm fairly sure that youngsters all over the world went into a state of shock upon discovering that the very same person who really didn't think we were strong enough now in 1998 had said that all she really wanted to do was to be friends with us back in 1965 — I mean, at least the ones who could actually be prompted to discover anything).
Grinding my teeth and cursing God's name, I have to admit that ʽBelieveʼ does display genius craftmanship — nothing else could explain its mystical hold over the world. Its main hookline is one of those anthemic-rhetoric questions that can hook up to your brain like a well-polished political slogan, and when combined with the techno beat, it probably does constitute the ultimate in clublife experience (not that I'd know much of that). Then, of course, there's the vocoding bit: as everybody knows, this is the first well-popularized use of autotuning on the vocals, and as heavily as the practice became abused immediately after that, this particular first time actually works — the vocal effect was not there because Cher needed autotuning (her vocal powers are still fairly intact at this point), but because the producers thought it would be fun to have her sing like a robot for a bit (alternately, it may have been hard for her to hit that little melismatic bit on "so sa-a-ad that you're leaving", except we never ever get evidence for that because there does not seem to be even one version of the song in existence, studio or live, without the effect). Just a little creative fun, and look at all the damage it did to the music industry.
The problem is, of course, that it will take at least ten thousand years for the song to return to a reasonable reputational level — the one of a fluffy fun dance-pop throwaway, rather than a «pop epic» of catastrophic proportions — and that the process of leveling has not even begun yet, as I still get shudders and shivers every time I hear the damn thing. And then there's another problem: most of the rest of the album, though consistently delivered in the same vein, is just crap. Techno crap, disco crap, adult contemporary crap — song after song of tasteless, meaningless, corporate-formulaic drivel that makes even the late-Eighties «glam trilogy» seem like a strong musical offering in comparison. Oh, it's catchy all right — the choruses are repetitive enough, so if you hold out for two or three listens, musical viruses such as "baby, it's all or nothing!...", "now I'm strong enough to live without you!", "love is the groove in which we move", and even the accursed "taxi, taxi, give me a ride" will infiltrate your DNA and begin a corrosive process of mutation that can only be stopped with a good cleansing (I recommend Metal Machine Music, if you're man enough to take some rough treatment). But taken as a whole, the album is perfect proof that you don't really need Autotune in order to sound like a crudely assembled robot.
The few non-techno songs on the album are even worse than the techno ones: ʽDov'E L'Amoreʼ, for instance, is the most clichéd take on the "Latin love song" that could be thought of, with restaurant-level flamenco guitar and horrid Italian-English lyrical hybridizations ("dov'e l'amore, dov'e l'amore, I cannot tell you of my love, here is my story" — bathroom, please), and ʽTakin' Back My Heartʼ almost mockingly starts out with a guitar lick copped from ʽStayin' Aliveʼ, as they try a generic old disco revival for a change, only to actually make us feel nostalgic for the real thing, when disco music could actually be creative and even feature excellent musicianship. Some are hideous hybrids — ʽTaxi Taxiʼ tries fusing an old disco bass line with a modern techno beat, but since the main melody consists of something like one synth note, the «experiment» goes very wrong from the beginning. And then there's the idea of fighting fire with fire — take an old glam-pop turd (ʽWe All Sleep Aloneʼ) and reinvent it as a new techno-pop turd, just, you know, to prove that the old flame can still burn bright in a new vessel. Which doth remind me of a great answer found on the Web to the important question "How well does poop burn?" — "If you find some month old elephant dung, it can be a great firestarter since they exclusively eat plant matter. However, if your dog's asshole is leaking diarrhea from that left over taco bell you gave him, it will most likely not ignite." Kind of reminds me of the current situation.
Again, it is, of course, all a matter of (good vs. bad) taste, and since the choruses are catchy and all, brings us back to the eternal question of whether there is such a thing as a «bad hook», or if a hook is a hook, and if you can get hooked up, that's a good thing in itself... but instead of having this discussion, let's all just be good boys and girls, agree that Believe is a thumbs down turd that has no place in the musical garden of Eden, and move on to a safe and happy future in which there is no life after love, and Cher is remembered more for Gypsys, Tramps And Thieves and even I Paralyze than for the amazing feat of trivializing the already not-too-complex musical values of Madonna.