Free to choose Cher

Terry Jeffrey

10/15/2003 12:00:00 AM - Terry Jeffrey

In the midst of a recent Cher concert at a packed arena in Washington, D.C., massive TV screens flashed a clip of the star declaring that if she wanted to take a certain pair of body parts from her chest and implant them in her back it would be nobody's business but her own.

Cher's anatomy, of course, sports no such anomalies.

Quite the contrary: The star on stage that night had everything in the right place. If anything, she resembled one of those cookie-cutter female characters in a contemporary Disney animation. Slap a red wig and fish tail on this Cher, and she could play Ariel in The Little Mermaid. Make it a black wig and veil, and she's Princess Jasmine in Aladdin.

Once upon a time, Cher was distinctive. No one could have mistaken her and Sonny for Steve and Eydie.

But at D.C.'s MCI Center, Cher's transformation was demonstrated by videos of her old self, displayed on the screens above, contrasting with her new self, cavorting on the stage below.

The original Sonny and Cher didn't fit anybody's preconception of a pop culture phenomenon. Whatever the secret to their appeal, it was unique and real -- real not only in the sense that the market bought what they were selling, but also in the sense that what they were selling was authentic.

At the MCI Center, Cher's performance might as well have been pre-recorded. Too many tunes, old and new, were remolded into the same formulaic sound.

So what homogenized Cher? Some might argue the market did.

The D.C. concert was the 189th in Cher's farewell tour, which reportedly has grossed almost $100 million. Clearly, she has attracted large numbers of paying customers.

But is this the true triumph of capitalism? Does it come only after dumbing-down products -- whether it's Big Macs or pop singers in fishnet stockings?

A recent story in BusinessWeek suggests this is so.

On its Oct. 6 cover, BusinessWeek asked: "Is Wal-Mart Too Powerful?" The story reported that Wal-Mart is now the "world's largest company," and got that way by offering excellent deals to its customers.

But Wal-Mart's mass-market efficiency, argues BusinessWeek, carries a cultural price tag. The company's purchasing decisions are beginning to influence not just the production of toothpaste and shampoo -- where it controls about 30 percent of U.S. market share -- but also entertainment and literary items. "Wal-Mart also is Hollywood's biggest outlet, accounting for 15 percent to 20 percent of all sales of CDs, videos and DVDs," says BusinessWeek. "They pile up best-sellers like toothpaste," said Barnes & Noble CEO Stephen Riggio.

The cultural left finds this troublesome. "Wal-Mart's cultural gatekeeping," says BusinessWeek, "has served to narrow the mainstream for entertainment offerings while imparting to it a rightward tilt." It doesn't sell "CDs or DVDs with parental warning stickers."

Yet, if Wal-Mart abandoned its apparently conservative bias and started making purchases with the same sensibilities that inspire television networks to program raunchy sit-coms, it would be conservatives who complained. Indeed, BusinessWeek foresees just such a change as Wal-Mart continues expanding from its rural base into urban areas. "The market for profanity-laced hip-hop may be tiny in Bentonville, Ark.," says the magazine, "but it is big in Los Angeles."

What's the antidote to homogenized Cher concerts in 189 arenas and "profanity-laced hip-hop" someday hitting the shelves even at Wal-Mart? Freedom to choose.

I found an excellent choice just a couple of days before attending Cher's concert. My wife and I went to the Birchmere, a music venue tucked into an old warehouse in Alexandria, Va. About 500 people gathered there to see the Mavericks, a unique country band led by Raul Malo, whom a reviewer for The Los Angeles Times once said "delivers a sweet croon as well as anyone since Roy Orbison."

For years critics have predicted the Mavericks will be huge stars. I agree they should be. But, so far, my view is not shared by the masses that crowd Cher concerts and the aisles of Wal-Mart.

They make their choices; I make mine. Cher makes her music; the Mavericks make theirs. And someday, maybe, they'll play the MCI Center, too.

But truth be told, I'd rather see them at the Birchmere -- even if that's one choice the Mavericks hope the free market denies me.