Party Like It’s 1999: Cher’s “Believe”

In Party Like It’s 1999, I’m marking my birthday June 25th by reviewing every Billboard Hot 100 #1 hit from my birth year 1999 along with other notable hits from the year.


Cher- “Believe”

HIT #1: March 13, 1999

STAYED AT #1: 4 weeks

1999 is a year that I’ve always heard described as a pretty exciting year for music and entertainment in general. The teen-pop boom of the late ‘90s had reached its peak. Blockbuster releases from Britney Spears, Backstreet Boys, and Christina Aguilera were selling tons and tons of copies in the last gasp of the CD boom before Napster and file-sharing took over. MTV’s Total Request Live had just launched giving the perfect vehicle for teen-pop to thrive becoming a major part of youth culture at the turn of the millennium. Despite this massive domination of teen artists, the baby boomers weren’t ready to relinquish their long-held grip of the Hot 100 just yet.

For example, Billboard’s #1 single of 1999 was from a 52-year-old woman who’d gone 25 years without a #1 hit and nearly a decade without a Top 10 hit. It’s also a song that through its use of a then-unknown and new vocal technology helped to foreshadow music productions in the oncoming 21st Century. 

When Cher last hit #1 with “Dark Lady” in March 1974: Richard Nixon was months away from resigning the Presidency, the Soviet Union still existed, and Blazing Saddles was the biggest movie in America. Even by 1974, Cher already had quite a career. A high school dropout, Cherilyn Sarkisian met songwriter Sonny Bono at age 16 at an LA coffeehouse. The two of them soon developed a relationship which led to them getting married in 1964. (Bono was 27. Not great!) Through Bono, Cher got involved with the legendary infamous producer Phil Spector singing backup on many of his biggest hits.

Soon after, Sonny attempted to turn Cher into a star often writing and producing her songs but Cher had stage freight and preferred to have Sonny on stage with her leading them to perform as a duo. Late one night, Sonny was working on a song he knew could be their big breakthrough waking Cher up in the middle of the night to hear it even though Cher didn’t think it was good. That song was “I Got You Babe,” a kitschy blend of Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound production with the folk-rock that was just taking shape at the time. 

Sonny was proven right as “I Got You Babe” rocketed to #1 on the Hot 100 in August 1965 establishing Sonny & Cher as the next big thing in music. (It’s a 6.) That success soon led to a string of hits for the next couple years and even Cher started to gain traction on her own getting as high as #2 with 1966’s “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down).” (It’s a 5.) But pretty soon, their songs stopped charting with Sonny & Cher’s square image and music-making them look uncool amid the hippie counterculture and sexual revolution of the ‘60s later half. Things didn’t get better when a movie they made, 1969’s Chastity, which they mortgaged their home to make, failed spectacularly leaving the couple in debt right as they became parents. 

Sonny & Cher were soon performing in casinos and nightclubs which by all accounts were so depressing that the crowds started heckling them. Cher would calm them down by cracking jokes about the crowd and Sonny. People soon started taking a liking to their comedic banter which led CBS’s programming head Fred Silverman to offer the duo their very own primetime variety show. 

Premiering on CBS in August 1971, The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour was an immediate ratings hit returning Sonny & Cher to the charts landing their last two Top 10 hits with 1971’s “All I Ever Need Is You” and 1972’s “A Cowboys Work Is Never Done.” (“All I Ever Need Is You” peaked at #7. It’s a 5. “A Cowboys Work Is Never Done” peaked at #8. It’s also a 5.) But the real star of the show was Cher who fully went off on her own and in the early ‘70s scored three #1 hits that followed a formula where Cher would sing tales of ethnic discrimination often portraying herself as ethnicities that she wasn’t which would be super problematic if they were released today. “Dark Lady” was a part of that streak that also included 1971’s “Gypsys, Tramps & Thieves” and 1973’s “Half-Breed.” (“Gypsys, Tramps & Thieves” is a 5. “Half-Breed” is a 4. “Dark Lady” is a 5.)

“Dark Lady” was also the end of that hit-making streak and would be Cher’s last major hit for a few years as she went through several personal upheavals. When “Dark Lady” hit #1, she and Sonny were going through a bitter divorce with their show ending in May of that year. The next year, Cher launched her own CBS variety show simply titled Cher which lasted for two seasons before reuniting with Sonny for The Sonny & Cher Show in 1976 now as a divorced couple which lasted over a year before that got canceled. During that time, Cher married rocker Gregg Allman of the Allman Brothers Band only four days after her divorce from Sonny was finalized. They had a son together but Cher quickly grew alarmed by Allman’s drug and alcohol use and they divorced in 1979. (The Allman Brothers Band’s highest-charting single, 1973’s “Ramblin’ Man,” peaked at #2. It’s an 8.)

In terms of the pop charts, Cher went into another dry spell after “Dark Lady.” That largely had to do with Cher trying to get out of Sonny’s management. Music exec David Geffen, who Cher had been in a relationship with, signed her to Warner Bros. Records helping her break away from Sonny for good but it wouldn’t work out for long. Cher released four albums for Warner Bros. between 1975 and 1977 including one with Gregg Allman. All four albums were critical and commercial flops. 

Needing another comeback, Cher signed with Casablanca Records, the label home to disco and glam based acts like KISS, Donna Summer, and the Village People. Label head Neil Bogart encouraged Cher to cut a disco record to get in with the disco craze dominating pop music in the late ‘70s. Despite her disinterest in disco and dance music in general, Cher released Take Me Home in January 1979 with its disco title track giving Cher her first Top 10 hit since “Dark Lady” peaking at #8. (It’s a 6.)

The comeback didn’t last as her next two albums for Casablanca flopped and even a move to Columbia Records didn’t help matters. Soon Cher shifted her attention to acting, a major passion of hers since she was a kid. She moved to New York acting on Broadway before going into film. Due to her background and previous failure in movies, it was hard at first for people to take Cher seriously as an actress. She’d soon prove her doubters wrong when she won a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress for her role in 1983’s Silkwood

Through the rest of the ‘80s, Cher continued to gain recognition for her acting culminating with her roles in The Witches of Eastwick and Moonstruck which were both commercial and critical success in 1987 ranking as the #10 and #5 highest-grossing films of 1987 respectively. Moonstruck netted Cher both an Oscar and a Golden Globe for Best Actress proving she could be successful as an actress just as she was as a singer and TV host. 

All the acting success helped breathe new life into Cher’s music career signing to Geffen Records in 1987 and releasing her first album in five years titled Cher. By this point, Cher had moved towards the pop-infused glam-metal power ballad that was dominating the charts by this time. The move paid off as the album’s lead single, the Michael Bolton written and produced “I Found Someone” gave Cher her first Top 10 hit since “Take Me Home” peaking at #10. (It’s a 6.) 

1989’s Heart of Stone did even better going three times platinum and launching three Top 10 singles. “After All” is a drippy ballad collaboration with Peter Cetera for the romantic comedy movie Chances Are and it peaked at #8. (It’s a 3.) “If I Could Turn Back Time” is a full-on power ballad which paired with a controversial music video is one of Cher’s well-known songs and easily one of her best peaking at #3. (It’s an 8.) The last one “Just Like Jesse James” is another power ballad referencing the titular Wild West bandit and it also peaked at #8. (It’s a 6.)

As with her previous comebacks, this one also did not last much longer. Soon after her Heart of Stone tour, Cher fell ill later being diagnosed with Epstein-Barr virus and chronic fatigue syndrome. It left her unable to do much of singing and acting. To make money while recovering, Cher began appearing in infomercials for various beauty products as a favor to a friend. The infomercials turned Cher into a punchline and a sell-out for many with parodies on Saturday Night Live and many declaring her career over. 

For much of the ‘90s, it seemed as if Cher was truly on the decline. 1995’s It’s A Man’s World, her first album signed to Warner Bros. Music’s UK division, did little in the US. Needing another boost to her career, Cher’s label head, Rob Dickins, suggested she make a dance record that would appeal to her gay fanbase. Like with Take Me Home, Cher didn’t have much interest in making dance music but she would eventually take on the project once a song that had been working its way around the music industry for years became too irresistible to ignore.

“Believe” existed for about nine years before Cher made it big. The song initially came from songwriter Brian Higgins who wrote the famous chorus but didn’t like the verses. Three more songwriters: Matthew Gray, Stuart McLennen, and Timothy Powell helped out Higgins with the song. Higgins pitched “Believe” to various artists and labels to no avail until Dickins heard it. He thought it’d be perfect for Cher and hired producers Mark Taylor and Brian Rawling of Metro Productions to work on the demo. Dickins liked the chorus but felt the rest of the song could use more work. 

The song would get new lyrics and melody from songwriters Paul Barry and Steve Torch and even then the song wasn’t sticking. As Barry explained to Fred Bronson in Billboard Book of No. 1 Hits, “Cher made me rewrite a lot of the lyrics about four or five times because she wasn’t happy about them. Initially, she thought they were too happy and she really wanted that darkness in there, a feeling of desperation.” For her part, Cher said she came up with the lyrics “It takes ti-i-ime to move on, it takes lo-o-ove to be strong/I’ve had time to think it through and maybe I’m too good for you.” Despite her contributions, Cher isn’t listed as a songwriter.

Cher was still feeling unsatisfied with the song describing the recording process as a nightmare fighting with Taylor over much of the recording. After her vocals were recorded, Taylor was playing around one day with a new vocal device later known as AutoTune. The software allows for pitch corrected vocals and the removal of the glide between two notes. There’s a recent video that explains AutoTune better than I can. Taylor began using it on Cher’s vocals at maximum level liking the effect. Taylor played the track for Cher the next day and was immediately a fan of the new vocal effect, “Cher was coming in the next day to do some other vocals and I plucked up the courage to play it to her. I was terrified she was going to destroy me. But she absolutely loved it and we just put it where we thought it was right in the song, and she wanted me to delete that original voice once we’d done that.”

The new vocal effects initially didn’t sit well with the label as Cher later recalled, “Everyone loves that song but wants to change that part of it. I said, “You can change that part of it, over my dead body!”” The effect was kept in which turned out to be a good decision as “Believe” would become the monster comeback Cher and her label hoped for upon its release in October 1998. When it hit #1 in March 1999, Cher became the oldest woman to have a #1 hit, the artist to have the longest stretch between #1 hits, and the artist to have the longest time-span of #1 hits starting with “I Got You Babe.” Believe, the album, was also a Top 5 album-hit going four times platinum in the US.

Listening to “Believe,” it’s weird to think that there were six songwriters involved in its creation. Lyrically, it’s not that complex. Cher sings about moving on from a bad relationship and being better off while asking the famous question “Do you believe in life after love?.” There’s no hidden meaning or subtext to add an added meaning or depth to this relationship ending. The lyrics are as simple as you can get for this subject matter. The production is a pretty sleek effective piece of late ‘90s dance-pop that sounds like a lot of effort was put into. It’s clearly the work of professionals who could afford to make something as sleek and expensive-sounding as this. 

Sitting down to write about “Believe,” it never dawned on me at how dour the lyrics are. The song is a full-on club banger that even if you know the lyrics and sang along to them you wouldn’t think too much about them. You can see why Dickins and many people liked that chorus. When it comes on, Cher’s echoey voice and that twangy guitar line hits you like a rush of euphoria. It’s hard to be in a bad mood when it’s on. It functions as a good dance song one that instantly lodges its way into your brain.

It also helps that Cher puts on arguably one of her best performances. She’s always been known for her contralto voice often delivering her songs in a powerfully defiant and campy diva style. But for me, it works better on dance and rock-based songs rather than the cheesy ‘60s and ‘70s studio-pop Cher initially made her name on. When she sings “So sa-a-ad that you’re leaving/Take ti-i-ime to believe it” she does not sound the least bit sad. She sounds totally grateful to be out of this relationship and stronger as a result. This is further displayed on the bridge where Cher is belting out her lines with total gusto, a total diva move. 

We see this feeling in the music video. Directed by Nigel Dick, the video takes place at a nightclub where Cher is seen as both a supernatural in a glowing headdress and as a performer in the nightclub. Around her is a storyline of a woman seeing her boyfriend without another woman at the club. Toward the end, we see the woman go up on the roof seeing her boyfriend and the new woman walking out of the club before moving on. As the song fades, she’s leaving the club with one of her friends. 

Cher may not have gotten a writing credit but it’s easy to see the lyrics applying to Cher’s life. Right before “Believe,” Sonny Bono, who had gone on to become a Republican congressman representing California, died in a skiing accident in January 1998 with Cher delivering an emotional eulogy at his funeral. Despite their bitter breakup, Cher was still on good terms with Sonny but it’s not hard to hear how Cher could relate to “Believe” and its message of post-breakup self-empowerment.

Of course, the real legacy of “Believe” is its use of AutoTune. For as much crap that AutoTune gets now for being a lazy cover for people who can’t sing, I don’t hate it all that much. AutoTune is just like any other studio technique. When used well, it can sound great. When used badly, it can sound like shit. In the case of “Believe,” it sounds great. The AutoTune is used during the verses and outro and it helps to greatly enhance Cher’s voice. It’s easy to see why the producers didn’t think the verses weren’t as strong as the chorus. Without AutoTune, “Believe” would still be fine but having that effect on Cher’s voice during the more quiet verses adds a new layer of emotion that wouldn’t have been present without it. 

The producers tried to hide its use saying it was a vocoder effect but it got out soon enough. Many artists quickly began incorporating AutoTune into their work whether it was in electronic, hip-hop, rock, or country. This influence would later be dubbed as the “Cher effect.” A decade after, artists like T-Pain and Kanye West further developed the use of AutoTune showing its more creative prospects. Soon after, almost every artist imaginable was using AutoTune to good or bad effect. And it was Cher that started it all. (Kanye West himself personally thanked Cher for popularizing AutoTune.)

“Believe” would wind up being Cher’s biggest hit but it didn’t lead to much more chart success. Believe’s second single “Strong Enough” only peaked at #57 on the Hot 100. She would have one more charting song with 2002’s “Song for the Lonely,” a song dedicated to New York City in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, peaking at #85. That wound up being the end of Cher’s pop chart dominance but she’s still one of the most famous women in the world. She’s 74 now and still very much in the public eye. She’s very good at Twitter. In 2018, Cher received the Kennedy Center Honors at the same time a musical based on her life, The Cher Show, premiered on Broadway. (It only lasted eight months.) She still acts, still records, and is currently on a two-year worldwide tour that is on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Cher already had a very accomplished career before “Believe” but the song and its massive success gave her a nice late-career boost. “Believe” arguably affirmed Cher as the immortal pop-cultural icon we know her as now and with a song this good I can’t complain. 

GRADE: 8/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s the bit from a 2001 episode of Friends where “Believe” plays as Matthew Perry and Courtney Cox are at a Las Vegas drag show:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the “Believe” needle drop from a 2012 episode of Family Guy:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Adam Lambert’s soaring cover of “Believe” he performed during Cher’s 2018 Kennedy Center Honors ceremony: 

(Adam Lambert’s highest-charting single, 2009’s “Whataya Want From Me,” peaked at #10. It’s an 8.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Jake Owen’s surprisingly good 2019 country cover of “Believe” he released in honor of Pride Month:

(Jake Owen has never had a Top 10 single. His highest-charting single, 2011’s “Barefoot Blue Jean Night,” peaked at #21.)

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