Camp - as Susan Sontag put it, in the 1964 essay, On Camp, that’s practically synonymous with her name - is “something of private code, a badge of identity, even”. It is a potent language of cues and signifiers, of sly references and elaborate slight of hand. If you know, you know.
And in the vocabulary of modern camp, ABBA and Cher are the first three letters of the alphabet. ‘Dancing Queen’, Cher’s album of ABBA covers, released to coincide with her appearance in the Mamma Mia franchise, represents a collision of two equal, elemental, forces. The like of which we may never see again, until Ethel Merman rises from the dead and begins covering Liberace. The dial has been turned up so far that the knob has twiddled off. A fold created in the fabric of the universe. We operate now in uncharted waters. We need to find a new lexicon.
From the second ‘Dancing Queen’ waltzes into earshot, we know we’re in the presence of royalty. It’s a surprise, sure, to hear Cher grabbing the mic from Agnetha, replacing her reedy naiveté with the voice of an older, throatier, and more self-assured woman. But by god, it’s glorious.
The party standards are present and correct. ‘Mamma Mia’ is as dizzying good and gay as you’ll get, the aural equivalent of downing three bottles of pink fizz in an Uber with Magic FM, getting pissed with your pals, on the way to the best night of your life. ‘Waterloo’ crashes in on glam-rock drums, a pantomime dame in silver thigh-highs, as she battles and bosses that irresistible chorus. ‘SOS’? Not even going to talk about it. It’s a double-dunt of serotonin; a sure-fire cure for sadness.
‘Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!’ keeps up the mischief, stalking in like a big, dangerous panther, all fur coat and no knickers. It’s a clarion call for bad girls on the prowl, Cher singing like a woman possessed by desire as those sharp, sharp strings soar overhead, snatching wigs and hearts alike. But it isn’t all smiles and parties. She’s an intuitive, intelligent interpreter of ballads too – and lord knows, ABBA loved a sad song.
‘Chiquita’ captures the bitter-sweet quality so central to their lyrics, the keening chorus reassuring “you will have no time for grieving’. And her treatment of ‘The Name Of The Game’ is knowing in a way the original could never be. Whilst the words are pleading “bashful child”, we’ve no doubts that this woman knows the score. ‘Fernando’ is an adorable cheese puff, the little flute motif an extra slice to top the board.
Not all of it’s listenable, of course. But that’s another note that Sontag makes on camp: “it relishes, rather than judges.” The turgid ‘One of Us’ is a struggle to get through, although she delivers it beautifully. I’m sick of sad songs, full of heartbroken women, wishing to be somewhere else instead. They’re the opposite of Cher to me, though she’s easy to forgive.
I don’t believe that she’d lie in bed and mourn for a man like that. I think what she’d actually do is get her glad rags on, and drink her pink fizz, and go out dancing, like tomorrow might never come.
Why? Because she’s Cher, bitch.
Words: Marianne Gallagher
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