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Jul 14

CHER – “Believe”

Popular38 comments • 3,044 views

#806, 31st October 1998

cher believe In an age of one-week wonders, “Believe” was a phenomenon – a massive global hit, bossing the charts for close to two months. It has a formidable legacy: as well as a triumphant capstone for Cher’s career, it sets the tone for a surge of dance-pop successes over the next couple of years, and opens the pop career of writer/producer Brian Higgins and his Xenomania team, whose idiosyncratic approach to pop will illuminate the early 00s.

Except none of that matters. “Believe”’s place in history and conversation has been all filled up by that unnatural bend in Cher’s voice in the verses, the moment the public discovered Autotune. So “Believe” stops being a rather good pop song about rubbing your ex’s face in their folly, and instead is treated as Patient Zero in an epidemic that defines or ruins modern pop. All the debate and the disdain over Autotune starts here, and all of it since lands back here. Cher, what have you done?

Before I talk about what “Believe” does specifically it’s worth recapping a couple of very obvious points. First, Autotune is not a standardised technique or a magic wand: it’s a brand – a software package designed for pitch correction. It’s something like Hoover or Google – not the first of its kind, not the last, but the one whose fame struck at the right time to define an unfamiliar category.

And second, “Believe” is not the first number one record to use it. I don’t know what is, either. The point about Autotune (and its ilk) is that when you hear it used like “Believe” uses it, you’re meant to hear it. Ordinarily, it should be invisible to the average ear. “Believe” is the sound of technology being abused, pushed to places it wasn’t designed to go. The standard debate around pitch correction – are singers deceiving the public by disguising their mistakes? – is completely irrelevant to “Believe”. It’s like criticising the bullet time sequences in The Matrix on the grounds that the actors didn’t do their own stunts.

Technology taken beyond its limits just to see what happens – that’s a pretty big part of pop history. From amplification came distortion. From drum machines came the distressed squelch of acid house. And from the discreet touch ups of pitch correction comes Cher’s wonderful cyborg bravura. Once those limits were breached – to the delight of Cher herself and the reported distress of her label, at least until the money came in – anyone could and did jump beyond them.

Let’s go back to 1998 though, and remember what “Believe” sounded like at the time. Not a revolution. For a start, I’d guess most people imagined the pitch-bending effects were Cher using a vocoder, and vocoders were a known quantity. Vocal distortion wasn’t exactly uncommon in 90s dance music, either – The Tamperer’s “Feel It” has plenty of slowing down and snapping back. At the same time, the way Cher was using vocal tricks – suddenly dropping them in to mutate words – was startling and effective. But if you’ve somehow found yourself unfamiliar with “Believe” over the last fifteen years, you might be surprised at how little there is of the Autotune extremity effect – occasional verse words, but its presence on the chorus is far more discreet: the belt-it-out defiance there is barely adulterated Cher, and just what even a technophobe fan of hers might want. Would the song have been a smash without Autotune? Maybe not, but separating the two is foolish: if the technical trickery helped make “Believe” a success, the strength of the song and sentiment is what sustained it.

Even so, it’s worth a final thought about what the pitchbending does for this singer, and this song, specifically. The distorting effect really suits Cher, whose strength as a performer is those deep, showy vowels – she’s already the kind of singer who puts thick comic-book emphasis on words, so going over the top on that is perfect for her. But it also really fits the song. “Believe” is a record in the “I Will Survive” mode of embattled romantic defiance – a song to make people who’ve lost out in love feel like they’re the winners. It’s remarkable that it took someone until 1998 to come up with “do you believe in life after love?”, and perhaps even more remarkable that it wasn’t Jim Steinman, but the genius of the song is how aggressive and righteous Cher makes it sound. There are records sung by divas, and there are records that need divas to sing them: this is the latter – without Cher’s weight of performance and life experience behind it, the dread admonition of “I really don’t think you’re strong enough” might fall flat.

So in this context – using your strength to turn a position of weakness into one of complete victory – what does the Autotune actually do? In a 90s context, without its familiar name and use cases, the vocal effect on “Believe” seems more like a kind of CGI for the voice – something obviously artificial but exciting, a kind of liquefying and reforming of Cher’s singing in the space of a single word. It feels like morphing – that classic 90s CGI trick, used on all manner of distorting alien beasts, failed clones, supernatural possessions and most germanely the gorgeous liquid silver of the T2 robot in Terminator. And that’s how it works here: Cher isn’t only bouncing back from a romantic disappointment, she’s becoming something more than human to do it. No wonder everyone else wanted an upgrade.

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Comments

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  1. 26
    anto on 26 Jul 2014 #

    The UK premiere of this track was on the BBC lottery programme – that was in August/September and I remember a few glances being exchanged around the room at what appeared to a fiftysomething superstar cluelessly attempting to get hip. On first listen it didn’t sound futuristic, if anything it sounded rather dated and 1978-ish – part ‘I Lost My Heart to a Starship Trooper’ and part ‘Sparky and his Magic Piano’ – It seemed to be bad camp with a pathetic gimmick.
    Admittedly by Christmas ‘Believe’ sounded pretty majestic, it’s not quite a classic but it was an uplifting pop moment. I think it’s real virtues are the production overall and Cher’s commanding alto really grabbing hold of the song – I’m firmly in the anti camp over autotune abuse and it’s probably my least favourite feature of this track (even though it wouldn’t be the same song without it).

  2. 27
    chelovek na lune on 26 Jul 2014 #

    This is capable, confident, convincing, and reasonably strong. What it isn’t (and, to be fair, few record are) is magical, outstanding or breathtaking. The beat propels the song forward aggressively, the production, and of course Cher’s charismatic performance all give it substance and appeal. And yes, the robotic autotune does add a certain something. But….it gets tiring on repeated listening. It doesn’t touch deeply like “I Found Someone” did – to single out another of her big hits from an earlier welcome return to public presence. This is agreeable enough, but not incredibly special. 7

  3. 28
    PurpleKylie on 26 Jul 2014 #

    I remember this song dominating the charts at the time , this and “My Heart Will Go On” were one of the first “megahits” I have memory of where I was like “wow, this song has gotten huge!”. Bear in mind I only started paying attention to what was #1 around 97/98.

    I think this was my first exposure to autotune as well, I can’t recall hearing voice effects like it before then. I think even with the vocoder effects the song has stood the test of time very well, which a real solid pop song should do no matter what current trends or innovations it tries to hop on.

    In regards to the autotune debate I’m quite conflicted about my stance towards it. On one hand I recognise that it’s just another development in music production, I mean the “double tracking” method used by The Beatles was essentially the early form of autotune. But on the other hand it annoys the musical purist in me as I believe it allows certain Bunnies who sound like strangled cats live have a viable music career when they don’t deserve it.

  4. 29
    Mark M on 27 Jul 2014 #

    Re: 28 etc Yes, there’s an odd play between the ‘it does something new!’ and the ‘it does something better!’ lines when we’re talking about new technology, and often people lean towards the former when the latter is the case. The ‘you can communicate with anyone anywhere in the world instantly’ thing about the internet. Yes, but we could before, too. Or it always puzzled me that Sky marketed Sky Plus with the idea that you could now watch your favourite TV anytime you wanted to, which had clearly been the case since the arrival of VHS, rather than it was recording TV programmes with all the hassle taken out.

    So, Autotune was absolutely not the start of making (possibly) ropey singers sound better on recordings, which had been done for years in various ways, including splicing together very short segments of different takes, strategic use of backing vocalists, and from the 1980s on (as my shakey grasp of these things understands it) using equipment that could basically doing what Autotune does (adjusting the pitch), but in a very slow and painful way. Autotune was better, faster and much more powerful in its possibilities, creating at least three types of Autotuned recording: the supposedly invisible type, the fully distorted type on believe, and the in-between one used by various rappers, who know that you know that they can’t sing and it sounds admittedly fake but not fully robotic.

  5. 30
    Rory on 31 Jul 2014 #

    Cher’s late-career high isn’t my favourite example of this use of Auto-Tune (that would be Bon Iver’s “The Wolves”), but deserves credit for bringing it to everyone’s attention. One person’s gimmick is another’s hook. A 7 for me.

    I wonder if she was modelling herself in the video on Edvard Munch’s Madonna.

  6. 31
    davidsim on 31 Jul 2014 #

    Matrix bullet time and Jim Steinman? Perfect references.

  7. 32
    Tommy Mack on 1 Aug 2014 #

    Mark M @ 29: the music industry is built on that though, isn’t it: “THIS IS A NEW AND RADICAL THING!” standing for “this is the next step in a thing that we know you already like”. Or rather, that’s what the music industry was built on until about 10 years ago. There seems to be much less BRAND NEW THING-ism and more ‘if you like X, try Y’, even in the way performers present themselves. Even those who are innovative enough to get away with it don’t seem to present themselves as being at the vanguard of something new and unique. (Unless – sobering though – this is because I am 33 and simply don’t get to hear the music that’s sold on newness because I am no longer new myself hence not in the marketing demographic for NEW any more. Although I don’t think this is entirely the case – I am talking about stuff I’ve heard on 1xtra, Noisey etc, not just indie bands)

  8. 33
    Kinitawowi on 6 Aug 2014 #

    The roll call of runners up:

    George Michael – Outside
    E17 – Each Time
    5ive – Until The Time Is Through
    Boyzone – I Love The Way You Love Me
    Jay-Z – Hard Knock Life

    Three pretty good, two utterly forgettable, five better than Cher. Believe offended me as soon as I heard it; Autotune, vocoder, call it what you will, it’s ghastly and it kicks you in the face to make sure you notice it – I distinctly remember the video where it sort of fuzzes out her face in the Autotuned parts to emphasise it. Ugh. It pains me that I live in a world where utter arse like this can spend two fucking months at the top while Saint Etienne need Paul Van Dyk’s help to barely scrape a week in the top ten.

    1. Usually songs that I consider actively detrimental to the state of humanity score a zero (there’s only been one number one fitting the bill so far – the Teletubbies – although there’s a runner up much later that would have been a total nailed on zero); but while this song may have sparked the Autotune craze, I can’t hate it for that; Autotune eventually resulted in T-Pain, and Thug Story makes me laugh like a loon every time I hear it.

  9. 34
    Andrew Farrell on 6 Aug 2014 #

    #3 watch includes When You’re Gone, the best solo* Spice single.

    *in the sense that ‘I want you back’ is, anyway.

  10. 35
    Weej on 6 Aug 2014 #

    The autotune annoyed me at the time, of course, but while it sounds perfectly fine now I’m afraid I still can’t appreciate the song behind it – probably because I find it impossible to connect with “records that need divas to sing them”, especially with such an anodyne backing track. There’s just nothing for me here at all. Bit selfish, but that’s about as far as it gets.

  11. 36
    Billy Hicks on 11 Aug 2014 #

    I didn’t notice Cher’s voice *at all* at the time – for years I just saw this as a fairly standard pop track, it was only by the mid-2000s and reading internet articles mentioning it I had a re-listen and thought, oh yeah, bit weird innit. I noticed it much more on the stupidly unbunnied One More Time a couple years later.

  12. 37
    ciaran on 17 Aug 2014 #

    I think I despised this at the time.Something that just wouldnt go away. In the year of everything being modern and up to the minute popular wise to see this ancient mutton dressed as lamb diva taking over was maybe too much! There was even a stage when it got to Number 1 in Ireland for as long as the UK and just as it was announced on Irish Radio one week it had stayed at the top and was due to be played after a DJ just said no enough already and refused to play it.

    16 years on I can now fully acknowledge what a total berk I was here. I would even argue it’s brilliance now to doubters.Still wouldnt be a spotify/ipod staple by any means but I really have little objections to it.Aged much better than almost every chart topper from the time.

    At least a 9.A 10 wouldnt have been out of place.

  13. 38
    Peter on 11 Oct 2014 #

    I recall seeing Cher in concert in Sydney in the late 90s (?), and Believe me, the song works on stage, (with or without the autotune) which is ultimately the only thing that matters. The throngs of flamboyant young gentlemen at the front went apeshit. (Mind you, they had only just recovered their composure from the unbilled Village People who opened the show).

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