Cher sends ABBA into disco bliss on Dancing Queen
“Having the time of her life” hardly begins to describe what Cher gets up to on her 26th studio album, an ebullient cache of ABBA tribute covers inspired by the singer’s stint in Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again. Between that scene-stealing cameo this summer, the stage musical about her life premiering on Broadway this winter, and the auspicious virality of her Twitter presence on any given week in between, Cher’s year has been one of reassertion and galvanization as a capital-V Voice in greater pop culture. But Dancing Queen arrives as a plum autumn reminder of what the musician, left to her own devices (and that delicious Auto-Tune), can still singularly deliver in the studio.
First, perspective: If pop culture is a cumulative pyramid, Cher is a cornerstone, one on which a score of musical ladies-in-waiting have built personas, with or without their young fans recognizing how the 72-year-old may have paved the way. But this isn’t about Cher’s trailblazing or her influence or who owes what to whom. It’s about the Cher of now, on her most significant release since 1998’s Believe, being presented to four generations of fans — two of which include the millennial and Gen-Z gatekeepers more familiar with Cher’s myth than her discography. And so Dancing Queen marks the first record for the newest evolution in Cher’s persona — Social Media Cher — yet maintains a perfectly manicured hand in the past (doubly compounded by the ABBA slice of the equation as if by delicious design). Perhaps, then, it can do what so many artists of legacy hope a sunset album can do: assert just how long a queen can reign on a pop landscape that has transformed on the surface but, sound for sound, hasn’t really changed a beat.
Of course, consider an alternative read: Cher is just having a great goddamn time.
It’s no mistake that the thumping “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)” dropped as the first single off the album, which culls from the best disco-adjacent bits of Benny and Björn’s songwriting catalogue. “Gimme!” is the anthem that most encapsulates what Cher accomplishes here: an unironic return to ‘70s disco glam-pop, more natural than nostalgic, delivered with the characteristic club coolness and lyrical earnestness that has always placed Cher in a lane of her own. (If there’s ever a time to get away with saying “je ne sais quoi,” it’s to describe what earthly realm Cher occupies.)
Not all 10 tracks on the record reinvent the wheel — “Dancing Queen” and “Mamma Mia” are straightforward covers, albeit no less delightful for it — but some songs drip in abundance with Cher’s influence: There’s a little magnetic electronica in “Waterloo,” an indulgently luscious backbeat in “The Winner Takes It All,” a line of sex-ready synth (nope, not a typo) in “The Name of the Game.” That’s what Cher can do on the dance floor. And yet, even Dancing Queen’s quieter moments find Cher fitting in exquisitely in the pocket of ABBA’s melancholy ballads; the album ender, “One of Us,” is frankly one of Cher’s best recordings in years.
Even if the arrangements don’t stray far from ABBA’s originals, Cher turns up the Saturday-night theatrics to unlock the best of the band’s genre-fluid compositions. It’s also worth noting that Dancing Queen reasserts the power of the Swedish group’s songs in 2018; certainly, Mamma Mia!’s worldwide domination more than proved that ABBA’s xylophonic hits are timelessly catchy, but Dancing Queen also inadvertently exposes the lack of an heir apparent to ABBA in modern music (the sound vanished somewhere between the imitators of the ‘80s and the rise of boy bands and girl groups in the ‘90s — alas, an argument for another day).
The ubiquity of EDM in modern pop owes a great debt to disco floorfillers like Cher (among too many others to name), but Dancing Queen is not a staid history lesson. Instead, it’s a curious experiment that ultimately reveals the endurance of two musical institutions whose artistry has always been rather inimitable. Decades after their writing, ABBA’s songs brandish a strength to spark a listener to tear up a nightclub or tear up a sobbing mess. And Cher has floated through generation after generation, scooping up new fans, thrilling old ones, reinventing her own myth and glittering splendidly through it all. A-