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.