Herstory 17: Cher Introduces The World to Auto-Tune
In 1998, Cher released her dance anthem “Believe”.
Cher is considered the Goddess of Pop because she’s been able to reinvent herself for six decades. In showbizz, that’s not normal — staying relevant for that long is a big acheivement. With the release of her Believe album in 1998, she went from rock star to pop star. This moment is important for another reason — Cher popularized a new software, auto-tune.
In the late ‘90s, a software called auto-tune came onto the market. Auto-tune has been highly contested within the music world; Some consider it a lazy shorthand or a crutch used by vocalists, others have embraced it as music innovation. To learn more about the history of auto-tune, check out this video by Genius.
The chorus for Believe was written 9 years prior to its release. Over the years, 6 songwriters are credited on the song, plus 4 more unofficially (including Cher).
Believe went through a pretty extensive evolution before it ever hit the radio. Brian Higgins, a sucessful songwriter from England, created the chorus of Believe in the early days of his career. As his songwriting career took off, he used any opportunity to play his dance song for artists, managers, and label heads.
As Brian Higgins was pitching the early versions of Believe, Cher was working on her next album. Her label, Warner Music UK, wanted her to focus on her LGBTQ+ fanbase and suggested that she makes an upbeat dance record. Her last project, It’s a Man’s World (a collection of rock ballads) didn’t perform chart well - this is why Warner was pushing her to change her sound.
Brian Higgins ended up submitting his dance track (plus 15 others actually) for the Cher album. The folks at Warner loved the chorus but hated the rest - they asked Higgins to let their team rework the track. Higgins admitted that his judgement might be clouded because the track was so close to him. A number of songwriters and producers tinkered with the song at this point. When they eventually took it to the recording studio, the song felt lifeless no matter how Cher sang it.
In the midst of creative block, Cher’s music producers started experimenting with auto-tune.
In one of the studio sessions, Cher wanted the group to take a break and suggested that they all listen to the new Andrew Roachford CD that she has purchased. One of the tracks on the CD had used a vocoder to alter the vocals. A vocoder was another tool that artists used to sound more mechanical - it was the predecessor to auto-tune software. The genius video at the start of this post dives deeper into the science behind the vocoder. The vocoder was developed by Robert Moog, who we touched on for Herstory #2 all about Wendy Carlos.
After hearing the vocoder on the Andrew Roachford album, Cher suggested that they try something similar for Believe. The auto-tune software had been released by this point, so they weren’t restricted to the vocoder. With the auto-tune, the ‘lifeless’ element to the song disappeared and the team presented the track to Warner.
Cher, her songwriters, and her music producers loved the end result but her label (Warner Music) thought the sound was too robotic.
As much as the team loved the song, auto-tune was foreign territory for Warner. With the New York Times, Cher recalls, ''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.''
Cher fought to keep the auto-tune and Believe went to No.1 in over 20 countries . It also allowed Cher to reinvent herself (again), this time as a pop singer.
Once we started digging into the story behind Believe, we started to see why Cher (in particular) has managed to build a career that spans six decades. Cher’s openness to innovation and experimentation has made her an icon. By popularizing auto-tune, Cher has been an important element in the musial careers of many. Kanye West even made point to thank her for auto-tune when they met at the Met Gala. He used auto-tune initially in his 808s and Heartbreaks album, plus My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and Yeezus. We’re sure there are countless others that would have a similar reaction to meeting the Goddess of Pop.
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For our Herstory Lessons blog series—we're retelling the stories of womxn in music that have been misheard, mislabeled, or erased completely from our history books.
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