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#RSFlashback: 50 Years Later, Is Cher’s Number One Hit A Woke Nightmare?

“Gypsies, Tramps & Thieves” was a radical shift in the singer’s artistic direction

Amit Vaidya Oct 29, 2021

Cher. Photo: Machado Cicala

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So it’s 1971 and Cher releases the mystical-sounding “Gypsies, Tramps & Thieves” and it skyrockets to the top of the charts. The song was written for Cher by Bob Stone who thought the artist would be the perfect vehicle for the song that narrates the story of a 16-year-old girl and her struggles with all the -isms we’re still talking about and fighting about (racism, sexism, classism). It was a radical shift in Cher’s artistic direction.

By the late 1960s, Sonny & Cher — the “I Got You Babe” folk-rock husband and wife duo proved too benign for audiences and their music had stalled commercially. Bohemian culture had overtaken their sunshine-like personalities and was out of step with psychedelia and acid rock now thriving. 

The song marked a significant departure from the style of the duo and looking back, it served as a prelude to the decade-long fascination Cher had in singing songs that relied on storytelling (like the #1 singles “Half-Breed” and “Dark Lady” that followed).

“Gypsies, Tramps & Thieves” was critically lauded, and had even been ranked as one of the best singles of the Seventies. Cher scored her first Grammy nomination for the song in the Best Female Pop Vocal Performance category (she lost to one of the all-time greats — Carole King’s “Tapestry”).

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50 years later, Cher is one of the if not the ultimate diva standing, a cultural icon (especially for the LGBTQ community), an almost EGOT winner (just the Tony missing!) and revered across the globe as a symbol of resilience and strength. Her single on the other hand, while still incredibly catchy and melodic – well, with a title like “Gypsies, Tramps & Thieves” – would it ever even have a chance to make it on the radio today?

“I was born in the wagon of a travelin’ show / My mama used to dance for the money they’d throw” begins the song with the chorus narrating the storyteller’s experience, “Gypsies, tramps and thieves/We’d hear it from the people of the town/They’d call us gypsies, tramps and thieves/ But every night all the men would come around/And lay their money down.”

I wonder, in today’s world, even in a story like this, would it allow these terms to be used? After all, even 50 years ago, Stone knew that “gypsy” was a derogatory racist term but that was the intent. Would Cher, not being a Romani woman, be allowed to use it? And in a post #MeToo world, would “tramps” be acceptable for a Top 40 hit?

With each passing year, so many more songs, albums and artists are getting canceled, bleeped out of our collective histories. While no one in their right mind would think that Cher wasn’t woke, I’m very curious how much music we’ll be asked to unlearn or unlove over the coming years. We see it happening already and while I understand the need for it at times with growing sensitivities, I just hope somewhere along the way, we remind ourselves that we all evolve with time and that everything, including music, needs to be listened to and can be revered when put in the right context.

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Fun Fact: Nirvana covered the song in 1987, check out this early demo recording.

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