The Number Ones

March 13, 1999

The Number Ones: Cher’s “Believe”

Stayed at #1:

4 Weeks

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

Less than a minute into her improbable comeback smash, Cher shatters. The moment happens when she sings the line “I can’t break through.” On the word “can’t,” Cher’s voice atomizes, breaking into a billion tiny little shards, before coming back together. She sounds like a glitching-out robot, or like a kid singing into a fan. All throughout “Believe,” her first #1 hit in a quarter-century, it keeps happening. Cher’s voice falls to pieces, and then it resolves. When “Believe” came out in late 1998, almost nobody had ever heard a voice do that. A couple of decades later, virtually every voice on pop radio would sound like that. The robots have taken over, and that process begins with “Believe.”

Nobody is entirely certain whether “Believe” was the first #1 hit to use Auto-Tune, the pitch-correction software that first hit the market in 1997. But “Believe” is definitely the first #1 hit to make its own Auto-Tune use obvious, which means it was the first to use the program wrong. The whole idea behind Auto-Tune was that you weren’t supposed to notice that it was there. Andy Hildebrand, the inventor of Auto-Tune, had played flute as a young man, and then he’d gone into science, earning a PhD in electrical engineering. Hildebrand made a fortune in seismic data processing, using sound waves to find underground oil deposits for companies like Exxon. He retired at 40, and then he went back to music, tinkering around and inventing things like a sampling synthesizer. At a dinner party, a friend’s wife asked if Hildebrand could come up with something that could help her sing in tune, and Hildebrand had a lightbulb moment.

The technology that had once helped Hildebrand map the subsurface, it turned out, could also shift vocal pitches, adjusting the sounds of voices so that they could hit specific notes. That invention made things a lot easier for the music industry. It was a time-saver and a money-saver that kept producers from having to record vocal take after vocal take. Usually, Auto-Tune changed those vocal sounds gradually, keeping itself hidden in plain sight. For fun, though, Hildebrand also included something called the zero setting in the first version of Auto-Tune.

The zero setting changed the pitch of a vocal instantly, not gradually. It made voices sound unnatural — a chopped-up series of discrete vocal blips that would fracture apart when the voice naturally moved from one note to the next. Hidebrand didn’t think anyone would actually use the zero setting, but then “Believe” came out a year after Hildebrand’s company Antares first started selling Auto-Tune, and it quickly went on to conquer the world. In future editions of Auto-Tune, the users’ manual referred to the zero setting as the “Cher effect.”

That kind of Auto-Tune abuse is simply one chapter in a long story of pop-music vocal manipulation, and that story goes back beyond the birth of rock ‘n’ roll to the early days of recorded pop music. In the ’30s, bandleader Alvino Rey, the grandfather of Arcade Fire’s Win and Will Butler, invented a sort of talk-box. Rey’s wife, the singer Luise King, could use her mouth to warp the sound of Rey’s steel electric guitar. It sounded strange and robotic, so Rey invented an onstage character, a freaky-looking guitar puppet called Stringy, that could lip-sync King’s parts onstage.

All through pop history, different musicians have messed around with the human voice in similar ways — echo, delay, multi-tracking. One of the very first Hot 100 chart-toppers was David Seville and the Chipmunks’ endlessly irritating “The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late).” Seville created the characters of the Chipmunks by speeding up the tape of his own voice, turning it into three different high-pitched squeaks. In the time of disco and electro, producers used talkboxes or vocoders to turn voices into robot hums. In the late ’90s, house artists like Daft Punk and their offshoot Stardust brought that sound back, and their vocoders worked as a kind of retro-futurism.

When the British producers Mark Taylor and Brian Rawling put that zero-setting Auto-Tune effect on Cher’s voice, it was merely the latest in a long history of technology-enabled vocal mutation. I have to imagine that Taylor and Rawling were at least partly inspired by the French filter-disco that was huge in UK clubs at the time. Rob Dickens, the head of Warner Brothers’ UK office, had tasked Taylor and Rawlings with coming up with some dance tracks for Cher. Cher hadn’t made a hit in nearly a decade, but she had a huge gay fanbase, and Dickens thought that he could capitalize on that by bringing Cher to the club. Cher was dubious, but she went along with it. The plan worked better than anyone could’ve anticipated, and it gave Cher the biggest hit of her life.

When Cher got to #1 with “Believe,” she was 52 years old, and she replaced Starship’s Grace Slick as the oldest woman ever to sing lead on a Hot 100 chart-topper. (Cher still holds that record.) Cher had landed her first #1 hit more than 33 years earlier, when she and her much older boyfriend Sonny Bono reached the top with “I Got You Babe.” Cher was 19 when “I Got You Babe” reached #1, but her voice had existed on hit singles even before then. Before Sonny and Cher started their recording career, Cher had worked as a backup session singer for Sonny’s friend Phil Spector, singing on songs like the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling.”

Sonny and Cher’s hits had dried up by the late ’60s, but the couple found a second career wind in the early ’70s. After working as guest hosts on The Merv Griffin Show, CBS gave the couple their own reality show, The Sonny And Cher Comedy Hour. The show was a sensation, and it led to a bunch of solo hits for Cher. Between 1971 and 1974, Cher scored three different #1 hits, all of which misleadingly made her out to be some exotic ethnicity. But after she topped the Hot 100 with “Dark Lady” in 1974, Cher went 25 years without a #1 hit.

The same year that Cher released “Dark Lady,” she and Sonny Bono separated; they divorced a year later. Both went on to host their own unsuccessful variety shows, and then they got back together to host another one as a broken-up couple, which also didn’t do well. For years after the divorce, Sonny and Cher fought in court over money and child custody. In 1975, Cher married Gregg Allman. They divorced nine days later, but they remained a couple for a while, and they had a kid together. They also made music, but Cher’s mid-’70s rockers didn’t do well on the charts. She didn’t land another top-10 hit until she signed with Casablanca and went full disco. Cher’s 1979 song “Take Me Home” peaked at #8. (It’s a 4.)

Disco didn’t give Cher any kind of sustained career boost. In the late ’70s and early ’80s, Cher made a whole lot of money as the in-house performer at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, but she didn’t like the work. Going back to the ’60s, Cher had taken occasional movie roles; she and Sonny made their screen debut in the 1965 teensploitation flick Wild On The Beach. In 1982, Cher decided that she wanted to take acting seriously, so she moved to New York to study with Lee Strasberg. Robert Altman cast Cher in his Broadway revival of Come Back To The 5 And Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, and then he also cast her in his 1982 film version of the same movie. Mike Nichols saw her onstage, and he cast her opposite Meryl Streep in Silkwood. I’ve heard stories about people laughing when they saw Cher in the trailer for that movie, but she did well enough to shut people up and to earn an Oscar nomination.

After Silkwood, Cher made more big movies, often with big-deal directors — Mask with Peter Bogdanovich, The Witches Of Eastwick with George Miller. In 1987, Cher starred with a young and already-nuts Nicolas Cage in Norman Jewison’s ridiculously charming romantic comedy Moonstruck, and she won the Oscar for Best Actress, beating out Meryl Streep, Glenn Close, Holly Hunter, and Sally Kirkland. I don’t know if anyone can ever deserve an Academy Award, but Moonstruck rules, and Cher rules in it.

After achieving the unlikely coup of full-on no-shit movie stardom, Cher went back to music, making the vast and anthemic arena-rock that she’d long wanted to make. In 1987, eight years after “Take Me Home,” Cher got back to the top 10 when her version of “I Found Someone,” a song that Michael Bolton had co-written for Laura Branigan, peaked at #10. (It’s a 7.)

In 1989, Cher released Heart Of Stone, the biggest album of her career to that point. Heart Of Stone is top-shelf late-’80s corporate rock. It went triple platinum, and it launched three singles into the top 10. The biggest of those hits was the Diane Warren belter “If I Could Turn Back Time,” which was the first time that Cher’s name ever really impressed itself into my kid brain. In the song’s video, Cher famously straddled cannons and danced across a battleship deck in an ass-tattoo-baring thong while sailors cheered her on. (“If I Could Turn Back Time” peaked at #3; it’s a 9.)

Cher went into another career lull after Heart Of Stone, and she didn’t land another top 10 hit for nearly a decade after “Just Like Jesse James” peaked at #8. (That one is a 7.) In the early ’90s, Cher came down with chronic fatigue syndrome, which made acting and recording difficult. So she made a couple of fitness videos and became an infomercial pitchwoman. That infomercial gig led to Christina Applegate clowning Cher on Saturday Night Live.

In 1998, Cher’s ex-husband Sonny Bono, who’d gone on to become a Republican Congressman, died in a skiing accident at the age of 62, and Cher gave a tearful eulogy at his funeral. At that point, Cher was not a terribly relevant pop artist. Her previous album, 1995’s It’s A Man’s World, bricked, and it only sent one single into the Hot 100. (“One By One” peaked at an anemic #52.) When Warner UK boss Rob Dickins got the idea that Cher should record a dance album, he signed her to the UK branch of the label, and the idea was that her next album would only come out in Europe. Cher herself wasn’t into the idea of a dance album, since she didn’t think the genre had any good songs. Dickins set out to find one.

The British songwriter Brian Higgins, who eventually founded the production group Xenomania and made UK hits with groups like the Sugababes and Girls Aloud, had started writing “Believe” years earlier, when he had a go-nowhere office job at a paper company in Sussex. Eventually, Higgins broke into the music business. He co-wrote and co-produced 1997’s “All I Wanna Do,” a UK hit for Kylie Minogue’s sister Dannii. On a visit to the Warner office, Higgins ran into Rob Dickins, who asked if he had any songs for Cher. Dickins sent a tape over, and a version of “Believe,” a song that Higgins had been tinkering with for years, caught Dickins’ attention.

After “Believe” hit, Rob Dickins told The New York Times what he’d heard in the song: “I thought: ‘Cher could do this chorus, especially the lyrics, with her private life the way it is. She’s gone through all these things.'” By that point, Brian Higgins had already enlisted a bunch of collaborators to work on “Believe,” and it already had four songwriters. Dickins loved the chorus but thought the verses were trash. He told Higgins that he was taking “Believe” away from him: “You’ve done no justice to your own song.” A bunch of other songwriters went to work on “Believe” before Dickins thought it was acceptable. By the time it reached #1, “Believe” had six songwriters — not including Cher, who’d changed at least one line herself but who went uncredited.

Another team that had submitted songs for the Cher album was the duo of Mark Taylor and Brian Rawling, two British producers who had also done some work with Dannii Minogue. For whatever reason, Dickins decided that the two of them should produce the bulk of Cher’s Believe album. She recorded a few tracks with big-deal house-music names Todd Terry and Junior Vasquez, but most of the album came from a few weeks of sessions in Taylor and Rawlings’ dumpy studio in Surrey. (Taylor and Rawlings’ work will appear in this column again.)

When both Rob Dickins and Cher were finally satisfied with “Believe,” it was a song about surviving a shitty breakup and imagining your life afterwards. Cher’s narrator sings the entire song to the person who’s left her. She’s crushed, not sure she’s strong enough to keep going, but she comes to a couple of big epiphanies. By the time the song is over, she’s gotten it together enough to move on: “I’ve had time to think it through/ And maybe I’m too good for you.” (Cher apparently wrote that line, and it’s the best line in the song.) She believes in life after love.

There’s a light sprinkling of guitar in “Believe,” but Taylor and Rawlings put together most of the track in the digital program Cubase, and virtually everything in there is electronic. The track shamelessly dials up the sound of cheesed-out Euro-house, and Cher commits to that style. Cher had been making records for decades before anyone could’ve even conceived of Auto-Tune, which weirdly makes her the perfect singer to bring that sound to the masses. Cher belts the hell out of the chorus, and her voice is deep and rich and distinctive. But for whatever reason, it sounds better when it’s been digitally diced into atoms.

Taylor and Rawlings tried out the zero effect Auto-Tune setting when they were messing around with Cher’s vocals in the studio late one night. They were afraid that she would reject that filter right away, but she loved it, even demanding that the duo delete her original vocal tracks. When Rob Dickins demanded that the effect be taken off of the vocals, Cher absolutely refused: “I said, ‘You can change that part of it, over my dead body!’ And that was the end of the discussion. I said to Mark before I left, ‘Don’t let anyone touch this track, or I’m going to rip your throat out.'” For a while, Taylor and Rawling lied about the Auto-Tune, claiming that they’d achieved that effect with a Digitech Talker vocoder pedal, but the truth eventually came out.

These days, we mostly remember “Believe” as the song that introduced that freaky Auto-Tune effect into the world. For that alone, “Believe” is hugely historically significant. I’d originally planned to include a chapter on “Believe” in my book, which comes out in November and highlights 20 pivotal #1 songs, but then I decided to devote that chapter to someone who pushed the whole Auto-Tune thing even further. The effect definitely lends a weird novelty to “Believe,” which is otherwise, I think, a pretty average Euro-dance track. It’s catchy, and I like the interplay between Cher’s grand belting and the swooshing robot sounds around her, but the song always sounded a little thin and brittle to me.

There were better dance tracks coming out in the late ’90s, but there weren’t any bigger ones. “Believe” went to #1 in the UK first, and when Warner decided to release the track in America, it took off just the same. When “Believe” reached #1 here, it followed three chart-toppers from literal teenage girls — Brandy, Britney Spears, Monica. Cher was almost as old as the three of them put together. Britney Spears had ended her debut album Baby One More Time with a cover of “The Beat Goes On,” a song that Sonny and Cher had released all the way back in 1967. Cher was a relic, a boomer icon. With “Believe,” she didn’t just compete with the new wave of teenage pop stars; she beat them. Billboard eventually named “Believe” the biggest hit of 1999. (As it happens, The Matrix opened in theaters while “Believe” sat at #1 in the US. The pre-Y2K zeitgeist was very into the idea of “what if everything real is really fake because technology?”)

The Believe album went quadruple platinum, replacing Heart Of Stone as Cher’s biggest record. Believe sold even though it was pretty much a one-song record; the follow-up single “Strong Enough,” practically a “Believe” sequel, peaked at #57. Since then, Cher has only made the Hot 100 once, when her 2002 single “Song For The Lonely” peaked at #85.

But Cher has been doing just fine without pop hits. She made a lot of money touring behind “Believe,” and then she made more when she returned to Las Vegas. She retired and then unretired a couple of years later. She acted alongside Christina Aguilera, a singer who will soon appear in this column, in the 2010 bomb Burlesque. She sang on the Wu-Tang Clan album that only exists as a single copy, the one that Martin Shkreli bought for millions. She reunited with Meryl Streep in 2018’s Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, and she released a pretty successful tie-in album of ABBA covers. She’s a funny left-leaning weirdo on Twitter.

Cher is now 76 years old, and she’s probably not about to mount another pop-chart comeback. But she’s been around for so long and made so many unlikely comebacks in the past that it doesn’t make sense to count her out completely. If Cher never makes another hit, she’s still the person with the longest gap between #1 hits in Billboard history, and it’s hard to imagine anyone else breaking that record anytime soon. She’s also the person who introduced the world to robotized Auto-Tune vocals. That doesn’t necessarily make her a hero or a villain, but it does make her a figure of vast importance.

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GRADE: 6/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s Me First And The Gimme Gimmes’ inevitable 2014 pop-punk cover of “Believe,” which also goes hard on the Auto-Tune:

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s a video of Charli XCX singing her never-released hyper-pop cover of “Believe” in 2017:

(Charli XCX’s highest-charting single as lead artist, 2014’s “Boom Clap,” peaked at #8; it’s an 8. As a guest and a songwriter, Charli will eventually appear in this column.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Cher was given the Kennedy Center Honors in 2018, and during the ceremony, Adam Lambert sang a version of “Believe” that left Cher visibly moved. Here’s his performance:

(Adam Lambert’s highest-charting single, 2009’s “Whataya Want From Me,” peaked at #10. It’s a 6.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: At the Psycho Las Vegas festival in 2019, Jordan Olds, the comedian who spearheads the great Two Minutes To Late Night video series, covered “Believe” with an all-star metal band that featured members of Royal Thunder, Intronaut, and Converge, as well as Olds in his Gwarsenio Hall character. There’s that performance:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: The best scene in the 2020 movie Eurovision Song Contest: The Story Of Fire Saga is the ridiculous, orgiastic Song-A-Long montage. In that bit, Will Ferrell, Rachel McAdams, Dan Stevens, and a bunch of actual past Eurovision competitors belt out an ecstatic pop medley that starts with “Believe.” Here it is:

(As for the other songs in that montage: Madonna’s “Ray Of Light” peaked at #5 in 1998. It’s a 9. ABBA’s “Waterloo,” a former Eurovision winner, peaked at #6 in 1974. It’s another 9. Céline Dion’s “Ne Partez Pas Sans Moi” also won Eurovision, but it never charted in the US. That other song will eventually appear in this column.)

THE NUMBER TWOS: Whitney Houston’s “Heartbreak Hotel,” a gleaming and frictionless team-up with Faith Evans and Kelly Price, peaked at #2 behind “Believe.” It’s an 8.

The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out 11/15 via Hachette Books. You can pre-order it here.

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