“The music’s no good without you baby, come back to me,” laments a haunting Cher. “The Music’s No Good Without You” is the lead single and international opener to her 2001 album Living Proof, which served as the commercial follow-up to 1998’s triumphant Believe. The song’s music video shows Cher commanding a crystal city (that also doubles as a disco), which protrudes from a space rock, floating through deep space. Yeah, it’s out there in more ways than one and feels camp as fuck, qualifying it to be quintessential Cher.
“The Music’s No Good Without You” would have been an adventurous choice for a lead single in the United States. The vocal dials up the auto-tune even higher than “Believe” in an era where auto-tune was still used primarily to correct pitch, not as a transformative vocal effect. Coupled with the trance-inspired beat, it makes for an intriguing way to kick off a body of work and engrosses the listener. Instead, the U.S. version of Living Proof (released on February 26, 2022) was led by the radio-ready, vocally organic dance-pop record “Song For The Lonely,” which also became the opening cut on the U.S. version of the album. It’s a song that Cher still cherishes despite it’s minimal impact. In 2018, she said “Song For The Lonely,” “might be my best song I’ve ever done,” echoing a sentiment she expressed to Billboard Magazine on the eve of Living Proof’s U.S. release in early 2002.
I still have a vivid memory of the cold February day in 2002 when I secured my copy of Living Proof. It was one of the first 100 cds I owned (I’ve been cataloging them since 2002, because there are a lot). The album was prominently displayed at the entrance to Sam Goody as a New Release and that cover drew me in, especially after having enjoyed Believe so much. After getting home from my town’s Sam Goody, I sat in the family room at my parents house and studied the glossy liner notes with photos of Cher scattered throughout. The wigs. Oh the wigs. Her platinum blonde hair is nearly white on the album’s cover, accentuating her pale skin and causing her to resemble one of the elves from Lord of the Rings. It’s an album cover with depth and character, giving the impression that she’s embodying a gothic snow queen. She had me mesmerized at just 11 years old.
Living Proof struck all the right chords for me. As a budding closeted gay pre-teen, I’d already begun gravitating towards the divas of pop and R&B. In turn that also meant that I was being exposed to some pretty significant dance music, largely via the integral dance remixes that typically accompanied 90’s and 2000’s singles. But Living Proof was my first full-blown dance album (Believe is dance, but not as intense as this). By juxtaposing anthemic hooks with a range of dance music styles Living Proof helped push this budding gay deeper into the world of dance music.
Back then, I had no idea that Living Proof had already been circulating around the world since November 2001 with a different sequencing, tracklist, and lead single. It was enthralling to discover and then acquire a copy of the Japan version of the album. Japan’s edition includes the song removed from the U.S. version, “You Take It All” as well as Japan’s exclusive bonus track, “The Look.” It’s a unique experience to consume the album with different sequencing and two different tracks, as well as marinating on their exclusion from the U.S. version, which led to a different listening experience than overseas fans (or those who knew where to get the import in the US).
Living Proof wasn’t the first Cher album to experience a stifled release and restructured tracklist. More than six months passed between 1995’s It’s A Man’s World November release in Europe and late June release in the U.S. Not only did that album’s tracklist cut 3 tracks and re-sequence the rest when it arrived in the U.S., it also remixed recordings in hopes of giving them stronger appeal in the American market. For all the work that went into restructuring Living Proof for the U.S. market, it failed to replicate the success of Believe. However, the album is an underrated masterwork of dance anthems amongst Cher’s extensive, genre-diverse discography.
Though Cher released an album between Believe and Living Proof, 2000’s not.com.mercial was an internet-exclusive release composed of folk-rock songs written and recorded in 1994. Her label rejected the songs in 1994 because they were seen as, you guessed it, “not commercial,” so Cher held onto them and dropped the set in 2000. That made Living Proof Cher’s first commercial effort after skyrocketing back to the top of charts and winning her first Grammy Award ever (yes, Cher didn’t win her first Grammy until 1999,) with “Believe.” She continued to lean into the electronic and dance motifs that helped make Believe a smash success.
After the positive returns for her vocal effects use on “Believe” (the only song on that album to implement such effects), Cher liberally uses them throughout Living Proof. Her voice is so smooth that even when there’s no vocal effect it sounds like there might something helping her along (there’s not). That’s part of the magic of Cher.
Hinging on the success of Believe, which focused on and found its footing with dance tracks, Living Proof dives even deeper into the world of dance. Believe deviated from dance at times, but Living Proof does not. The album almost bore the same name, and had a working title of ‘S.O.B. (Son Of Believe).’ Both the final title and the working title’s acronym are perfect fits for Cher and her personality, as well as one of the album’s recurring themes: resilience. The album drew its title from a line in “A Different Kind Of Love Song”: “I am part of you, we have living proof, there is some kind of light that flows through everything.”
Not only does Living Proof zero in on its musical focus, it also shifts lyrical focus. The album centers around themes of love, loss, reflection, resilience, and unity. There’s such a heavy focus on love that the word appears in five separate song titles. They range in subject from songs about spreading love in the non-romantic sense (“A Different Kind Of Love Song,” “Love One Another”), the power of love (“Love So High,” “Real Love”) to the challenges of existing in love after loss (“Love Is A Lonely Place Without You”). And those are just the songs with the word in the title.
“Song For The Lonely” (“[This Is] A Song For The Lonely” on international pressings) takes things a step further and merges all the album’s themes together in one record. It was written about persevering through loneliness, in any form. “Can you hear this prayer, someone’s there for you,” Cher pleads as she attempts to quell the slightest bit of loneliness in even just one person. The song took on another life and became something of an anthemic cry of resilience because it was released in the immediate post-9/11 world. “This is a song for the lonely… for the broken-hearted, battle-scarred… when your dreams won’t come true.” Even two decades later, it’s hard to separate the song from that singular event, for which Cher dedicated the music video.
On both sequencings of the album, “A Different Kind Of Love Song” immediately follows. The driving, warm dance-pop beat fuels Cher’s computer-distorted vocals as she attempts to unify by reminding the world that “I am part of you, these are universal truths.” While other records narrow their focus to one person, this love song is “dedicated to everyone.” It’s a feel-good, dance-floor ready record that even hysterically found its way onto Will & Grace during Cher’s second cameo on the show.
Love and unity also rule “Love One Another,” another driving dance-pop record that would be, by any other artist, unbearably schmaltzy. Cher makes it work, even delivering the line “try to understand, open up your heart, a fist is just a hand, it can come apart,” with such conviction it sounds powerful and revelatory. She doesn’t say anything earth-shattering, but she expands on the commonalities from “A Different Kind Of Love Song,” and calls for unity, forgiveness, and spreading love and kindness.
She creates other overwhelmingly warm declarations of love while narrowing her focus to a romantic partner. “Love So High” begins with an acoustic introduction that boils over into another thumping beat, and recollections of a love that reached heights allowing her to touch the sky. “Body To Body, Heart To Heart,” pounds with a touch of Latin influence and disco strings as Cher illustrates a scene of two lovers intertwined, “I don’t know where I end, not sure where you start,” she concedes after declaring “I could drown in your eyes, die in your arms” during the song’s anthemic chorus.
She finds her best groove on the record with the ecstatic and more electronic “Real Love.” It’s light on the percussion during the verses, letting declarative synths do the heavy lifting. Record scratches abruptly silence the music, allowing the full instrumental to surge in at the inception of the anthemic hook. It even briefly phases in a piano during the second half of the chorus. It delivers just four notes that deliciously resemble that iconic piece of “The Glow Of Love” re-used on Janet Jackson’s “All For You” in 2001 and Aretha Franklin’s “Here We Go Again” in 1998.
Preceding the songs about loss is “Rain Rain,” a dance-pop record that illustrates the emotional storm that brews when Cher is apart from her lover. “The sun is strong when you’re near, but when you’re gone it disappears,” Cher laments as she wishes he would return because only he can stop her tears, which pour like rain. The same goes for the yearning she projects on “The Music’s No Good Without You.” He was “the center of attention, the eye of the storm” who’s absence makes her “agonize till (he) come(s) back and (they) dance that close again.”
On “Love Is A Lonely Place Without You,” she explores the void that exists in love when the other person is gone, while stumbling . “Though I’m moving on, I’m still holding on,” she concedes in the bridge, while she finds herself orbiting “Believe”’s sonic territory on the chorus. It’s a place that many have found themselves as they attempt to keep going after enduring the loss of a love.
The pair of songs that are unique to their respective versions of the album cover similar ground, and coincidentally, both land at track eleven. Both detail loss in their own right. On the international version, “You Take It All,” makes the lights in the disco go dark. A single spotlight remains on a despondent Cher, with minimal vocal effects applied as the ambient garage beat phases in and out. She cryptically laments inevitable loss “like the sea takes the land from under (her) feet.” The U.S. track, “When You Walk Away,” is another dance-pop record with a big hook (penned by the tremendous Diane Warren) that falls in line with the other radio-ready cuts. A resilient Cher frames a dissolving relationship not as a loss, but rather as her remaining, and the other party walking away. She’s firm and confident in her position and there will be no tears, begging, or even dying as a result of this disengagement.
Resilience converges with loss on the third international single, “Alive Again.” Cher contemplates a life where she could solve all the relationship problems that have led her to “a bridge I need to burn before I leave.” She sounds like a phoenix, preparing to burst into flame and implode into ash, completely aware that she’ll rise again stronger than before. The biggest crime of this album is that “Alive Again” didn’t receive the full remix and video treatment it and its anthemic chorus deserved. It did half-receive a music video, which was stitched together using footage from a commercial shoot that features Cher in numerous wigs, while only actually singing the song in the red wig.
While the album’s sequencing varies between the two versions, one song remains in the same place: Both close with a pulsing cover of Bruce Roberts’ “When The Money’s Gone.” It ends the album on a high note. After spanning the album’s themes, the song second-guesses and asks the question, “will you love me baby, when the money’s gone?”
It’s hard to resist the bossa nova tango of the Japan-exclusive bonus track, “The Look.” It musically has no place on this album, but it’s a razor-sharp description of those intoxicating moments of instant attraction. “It’s the look that’s got me hooked, I can’t take my eyes off you” a mesmerized Cher explains. Plus the record has a catchy hook and an always-essential key change at the optimal moment, plus a seemingly random electric guitar solo a-la Carlos Santana. She probably could have gotten this on a Santana album if she had recruited him to participate.
For a period of time, the international version of Living Proof appeared on Spotify in the United States, making the alternate sequencing and removed song “You Take It All” available digitally in the U.S. for the first time. It’s since been removed, but of course the song is easily discoverable on YouTube.
In the lead-up to Living Proof’s release, someone gaffed and accidentally pressed a 5-track album sampler with Cher’s demos of five of the album’s songs. For a deeper dive, they’re absolutely worth a listen.
Living Proof was also reinforced with an artillery of dance mixes to keep dance floors grooving to Cher all night long. “Song For The Lonely,” “The Music’s No Good Without You,” “A Different Kind Of Love Song,” “Love One Another,” and “When The Money’s Gone” all received the remix treatment, plunging Cher even deeper into the dance world. With the exception of “The Music’s No Good Without You,” all of the remixes from Living Proof rose to number one on Billboard’s dance chart in the U.S. Their availability today ranges from digital to vinyl-only.
Twenty years later, this thirty-something gay man revels in Living Proof. With a greater cognizance of what Cher’s singing about on these songs of love and loss, her intense vocals resonate through the depths of my soul. These days, I find myself spending more time with the international version, with the album’s original sequencing. It’s a no-skips record for me, and continues to be, regardless of which version I’m spinning. Though the album failed to replicate the success of Believe, it upstages Believe in it’s lasting quality and consistent sonic profile.
Stream Cher’s Living Proof