Today’s pop star – no matter what genre they’re working in – exists in a strange, contradictory limbo of expectations. In a world rife with Celebrity Instagrams, Twitter feeds, Facebook pages, blogs, vlogs, and Tumblrs, fans have come to expect a 24-hour voyeuristic glimpse into a star’s lives. High profile celebrity antics, broadcast across the world thanks to Social Media, and endless beefs seem to keep these big names permanently trending, and the cycle continues.
The message seems to be that a certain amount of authenticity is expected of our pop stars. Those that step out of line, or toy with ideas of persona ala Lady Gaga or Lana Del Rey, can bring down a fiery rain of outrage and derision. Oddly enough, female musicians seem to suffer from this more than anybody. While somebody like The Weeknd can be almost applauded for “playing a character”, in a way pioneered and popularized by David Bowie in the ’70s, people seem to expect every single song written by a woman to be 100% autobiographical, that she needs to have lived through something to speak on the matter. God forbid, somebody should try and express themselves through, oh, stories, characters, and poetic allusion.
Which brings us to the wonderfully, delightfully head-screwy of Sia Furler. Sia, for those that don’t know (and that’s likely to be a fair amount of people, outside of liner-note scrutinizing obsessives) is a real songwriter’s songwriter. After a stalled first crack at a solo career, in Adelaide, Australia, Sia found notoriety lending her pipes to the downbeat vibes of Zero 7 in the UK, starting in the early 2000s. This pairing would lead to more and more people borrowing Ms. Furler’s talents, at first vocally and, later, penning catchy but poignant and powerful pop songs. Over the span of her shadowed ghost-writing career, Sia wrote big hit singles for Chistina Aguilera, Madonna, Celine Dion, Carly Rae Jepsen and, perhaps most impressively, Rihanna and Beyoncé, all while cultivating her own increasingly successful solo career.
So what can we say about authenticity, from someone who writes songs for other people?
Perhaps the only greater sin in the pop world than inauthenticity, ironically enough, is refusing to play the game. People might shun you for being a phony, but they could kill you if you won’t give them what they want.
This push and pull, at one point, was entirely too much for Sia, who was driven to the brink of suicide, via drug and alcohols, before thankfully getting herself clean and straight. When it came time to release 2014’s 1000 Forms Of Fear, Sia negotiated a deal that she wouldn’t have to do any press or promotions for the record. She famously debuted the lead hit single, “Chandelier”, with her back to the audience on the Ellen Degeneres show, while press photos featured random everyday people sporting iconic Sia wigs, most notably Maddie Ziegler, who played Sia in the “Chandelier” video, becoming a star in her own right.
Sia is no more forthcoming, this time around, with most of the press photos featuring the singer with her hair in her face, or covering herself with a wide-brimmed hat. With no clever, pat press release to frame Sia’s seventh full-length, the listener actually has to shake out the tunes, and decide for themselves what Sia is trying to say and whether this newest missive is an evolution or a step backward.
The list of potential recipients of these songs helps to decipher this wonderfully cryptic album. Songs that appear on This Is Acting were originally penned for high-profile releases for Beyoncé, Rihanna, and Adele. Not only are these songs good enough to be on those records, they also share a certain genetic make-up, which goes to explain why all of these artists are making some of their most outstanding art, at this moment in time.
“I don’t care if I sing off key/I found myself in the melody/I sing for love/I sing for me/I shout it out like a bird set free,” she sings on album opener “Bird Set Free”. Its a chilling moment, that will stand your hair on end as goose flesh climbs up your arm, as Sia’s silken battlecry breaks like a cracked bronze bell, or sunlight through a sheet of leaden, deadened skies.
This, my friends, is what keeps musical obsessives going. People want some drama, some epic, overarching narrative to help them wrap up an album in a tidy bow. For people who live and die by the pen, the guitar, and the notebook, music is the only thing. Even when life sucks, when your lovers leave or die, when you’re strung out on drugs and can’t find a friend on Earth, the music is still right there, waiting for you. Even in the blackest pits, those sweet resolutions can be sweeter than a drop on Ambrosia on Tantalus’ lips.
Likewise, look at the party ballad “Cheap Thrills”, one of the most pure-hearted and infectious pop bangerz of the past few years. There’s even a children’s choir. Sia sings of getting radio to go out over a rinky-dink Moombahton beat. “I’ll put on my lipstick and high heels/’cuz its Friday night/I don’t need dollar bills to have fun tonight/I don’t need no money/as long as I can feel the beat.” For those of us who love music, it gets no better. It’s the only thing, and when that beat drops, all your cares disappear, and you are free.
Ironically, despite the lack of a big concept, or a huge press campaign, or a bunch of buzzworthy quips from Sia, This Is Acting is one of the most personal, authentic, and relatable albums you’ll hear anytime soon.
When taken as part of a larger picture, with Rihanna and Adele, it seems that people are moving towards real authenticity, not a representation of it. Here’s to hoping that the days of glossy pop, manufactured for love of money instead of love of music, are drawing their last breaths. Sia will no doubt be doing her thing, writing incredible songs with outstanding collaborators, undisturbed, either way.
—words by J Simpson, Sia’s new album THIS IS ACTING was released January 29th, 2016