Cher heckled her own tribute.
It was kind of perfect, really.
At the emotional and dramatic climax of one of the most hallowed evenings in American culture and entertainment each year, Cyndi Lauper walked on stage to begin performing “If I Could Turn Back Time” in honor of Cher during the Kennedy Center Honors telecast, which aired Dec. 26. Cher was one of the night’s honorees, one of the highest distinctions in American arts given to a select group of entertainers, performers, and creators in acknowledgement of a lifetime's contribution.
A survey of those contributions had just been displayed—a medley of songs including “Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves” and “Believe,” a montage of film performances including Silkwood and Moonstruck, an explainer on the boundaries she broke for women—when Lauper appeared. “You were supposed to be in Los Angeles!” Cher shouted from her balcony perch. Lauper shrugged. “I lied.”
In one of the most venerable halls in the country while receiving one of the most esteemed honors, Cher bucked tradition—screaming from the Kennedy Center balcony!? During the Kennedy Center Honors?!—and landed yet another memorable comedy bit, making the night better by breaking the rules. On a night celebrating Cher, Cher couldn’t stop herself from being Cher.
It’s been a full year of that, really, and when we needed Cher to be herself the most. That’s why, in 2018, we couldn’t think of a better or more valuable celebrity and entertainer than Cher.
In the last few decades, especially, Cher has made a career out of celebrating her own career.
The constant threat of a retirement tour finally dissipated with the admission of reality—c’mon, Cher is never retiring—and the Classic Cher Las Vegas residency and tour that, in 2018, grossed $18 million on just over 40 dates. But this year, Cher did us one better than merely a retrospective concert featuring the hits of her career. She produced a Broadway show about her entire life.
Starring three actresses as Cher at different points in the singer’s life, the show is an ode to the adversity she overcame, the battles she waged for respect and control in the industry, the meaningful relationships she had and how they shaped her, and her unrivaled longevity. It is also extremely fun and extremely Cher: hammy, bright, and unapologetically ostentatious. By the time the audience is on its feet clapping and dancing to the encore, more than 30 songs have been performed and 683 costumes—including the iconic Bob Mackie numbers—have graced the stage.
The show, in some ways, could be considered Broadway’s most quality-guaranteed transaction. Here is the cost of the ticket, now give me my joy in return. That’s precisely what The Cher Show is, and at a time when the concept seemed to have been going out of style.
That’s exactly what Cher did better than anyone else in 2018. She knows how to use the very idea of being Cher—what that means and how we feel about it—to entertain us just as skillfully as she uses her talent.
Take, for example, the staircase, the fireworks, and “Fernando.”
Few film performances from 2018 were more talked about than Cher’s in Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again. Everything, from her very casting as Amanda Seyfried’s grandmother to the dramatic staging of her scenes, was a lesson in how to shrewdly exploit but also calibrate camp, excess, and fun in a way that delights audiences without pandering to them or sacrificing story.
Everything is dialed up to extreme in Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again: the emotion, the plot, the costumes, the music, the production, the blue skies. It’s all dealt with such explosive intensity that by Act Three there is no other recourse than to have Cher in a platinum blonde wig and culottes belting out “Fernando” with Andy Garcia while a seizure-inducing fireworks show lights up the Greek sky behind them.
But the joy blaring from that moment was more than just a sight gag. Cher didn’t just stop the show with “Fernando,” she stole it with a performance notable for its warmth and compassion, tying the movie’s web of time-jumping narratives together and punctuating it with some of the most uproarious line readings of the year. You didn’t realize how much you missed having her on the big screen.
The whole experience presented a new career opportunity for Cher, who followed up the film with an entire album of ABBA covers. It’s possibly the gayest music project ever embarked on, but also one that underlines Cher’s uncanny ability to revive past tastes and pop culture trends, revitalize them with a fresh sound and energy, and renew them again. You saw her do it with the variety show. You saw her do it with “Believe.” And you’re seeing her do it again with “Dancing Queen.”
It’s impossible to talk about Cher without talking about her Twitter account. It’s been a fount of unintentionally dadaist humor and stream-of-conscious musings, alight with random capitalizations and emojis. There are odes all over the internet to her Twitter feed’s hilarity, from self-deprecating jokes and random observations (“me as Mona Lisa” she once captioned a photo of herself) to her sizzling knack for clapping back at rude critics and trolls.
That humor has been colored with rage in recent years as she’s also taken to her Twitter account to blast Donald Trump and his administration, lobbing the kinds of insults that notoriously make his skin crawl, but also urging that they be held accountable for harmful policies and statements.
Few things in 2018 were as must-read as Cher’s Twitter account.
What’s the use of achieving legendary status if you don’t use its protections to really say something? Who knows if Cher is worried about alienating any fans, but she’s not tweeting like it. That outspokenness from a platform as big as hers is what actually matters in the conversation about whether “singers should stick to singing.”
Everything Cher contributes and represents flies in the face of the idea that glamour, or pop, or things that make you happy are all artifice, that there is no depth or meaning to them. We’ve spent the year desperate for bright antidotes to darkness but also for a return to culture that matters. Cher is the bedazzled epitome of both.
At a time in her career—the end of the year was highlighted by the kinds of lifetime achievement honors that typically send others off to pasture—and at an age when women in entertainment are expected to rest on their laurels, she’s continuing to reinvent herself without losing, as we saw with her Kennedy Center Honors appearance, the Cher-ness of it all.
Six decades into her career, and the best part of a major entertainment telecast is still the one that celebrates Cher and her music. Despite her joking with Lauper, she’s not irreverent about that. As the tears streamed down her face during Adam Lambert’s rendition of “Believe,” you could see how much this acknowledgment means to her. It means something to us, too.
It’s been a time when, reacting to the chaos and uneasy feelings about the world around us and fears over what the future might hold, we’ve seized on nostalgia more than ever, reaching back into tenets of pop culture past and our memories with them for comfort. It’s no surprise that Cher is someone we sought out. What’s remarkable is how immediate, relevant, and still brilliant she manages to be.
All these years later, and Cher is still inviting us to her party. To quote her character in Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, “That’s the best kind of party, little girl.”