We pride ourselves at The FADER on scouring the globe to introduce you to some of the most left-field music around. But in our monthly column Popping Off, Aimee Cliff—taking over from Alex Frank—takes the temperature of mainstream pop music.
“If Amy Winehouse was a beehive, I want to be a blonde bob,” Sia told Howard Stern in a wonderfully frank interview last month. The Australian pop powerhouse, who has written hits for Beyoncé, Rihanna and Britney Spears, has an unlikely camaraderie with the much-missed London singer; if you listen back to some of Sia’s early releases, they’re strikingly Winehouse-esque with their jazz-funk rhythms and lilting, spiralling delivery of lines about dangerous relationships and love lost to addiction. But she wasn’t referring to musical parallels. Sia was saying she wanted to disappear, like so many female pop artists before her, beneath visual signifiers. Amy Winehouse was a beehive. Lana Del Rey is lips pouted around a cigarette. Nicki Minaj, until recently, was a rotating set of cartoonish characters. The difference being, Sia’s taking this to its furthest, most radical point, by attempting to remove her face entirely from the realm of pop culture.
Sia’s sixth album, 1000 Forms of Fear, doesn’t have her face on the cover, nor is she shown in any of the promo or performances around it. If you haven’t been following the campaign, check her video for lead single “Chandelier” featuring 11-year-old dancer Maddie Ziegler, performances on Jimmy Kimmel and Seth Meyers’ late-night shows, her album art, and her cover of Billboard magazine (for which she wore a paper bag over her head): she’s nowhere to be seen. Live, she sits or stands with her back facing the audience, with dancers and performers making up the visual component.
As Dazed pointed out in their recent interview with her, this puts what Sia is doing into the realm of performance art; it might be familiar for popstars to shroud themselves in costume and character, but what Sia’s doing has a closer parallel in The Knife’s 2013 Shaking The Habitual tour, where they caused outrage by having a masked dance troupe perform to their songs, never making it clear whether or not they were on stage, or even who was singing or playing instruments at any given moment. Beyond this, though, it’s also revolutionary because it’s playing out on the most public stage you could possibly step onto. Sia is selling to the masses the idea that she doesn’t need to perform her gender through her body—or even have a body—to be a star.
In fact, Sia’s been subverting and parodying the music industry’s image obsession for years now. Check the disguises she plays with in the videos for her 2008 singles “Buttons,” and “The Girl You Lost To Cocaine.” In the interim between her fifth and sixth albums, though, she’s been skyrocketed into a new echelon of that industry. “I was thinking…how can I exploit my gift without hurting myself?” Sia told Howard Stern on her decision to approach her management on the possibility of writing songs for other singers. She started out working on Christina Aguilera’s 2009 Bionic album and, since then, she’s written “Diamonds” for Rihanna, “Pretty Hurts” for Beyoncé, and “Perfume” for Britney Spears amongst others, as well as writing and featuring on two huge global hits for David Guetta. She’s a part of the establishment now more than she’s ever been—she’s entered the world of mainstream pop, a market that trades on faces, and female faces in particular. That’s why it’s so exciting that she’s choosing this moment to release her most conceptualised and feminist work to date. Just as the spotlight is turning towards her, she’s holding up a mirror to it.
For some major artists, such as Daft Punk, wearing a disguise is a way to maintain a practical anonymity—in the words of Thomas Bangalter to Rolling Stone in 2013, “It’s nice to be able to forget.” For others, it’s political: take Kanye West, who has in the last couple of years taken to performing in masks. In the feature Behind Kanye’s Mask for the New York Times last year, he appeared in a red balaclava. “Fuck what my face is supposed to represent,” he told crowds at Wireless festival last weekend, “and fuck what ‘Kanye West’ is supposed to represent.” This statement was wrapped up in the middle of a longer speech on racial discrimination in the fashion industry—“Don’t discriminate against me because I’m a black man, or because I’m a celebrity, to determine that I can’t create”—and in the context of that as well as the thrashing anger of Yeezus, it’s impossible to not take Kanye’s face-covering as a revolutionary act.
Sia’s facelessness is political, too. We can’t ignore the fact that she’s a female popstar choosing to opt out of being sold on her image. Like Kanye’s, her decision has to be placed in its context. Sia’s context was once kooky art-pop, but now it’s hanging out with hyper-visible popstars: sitting at Beyonce’s dinner table (see above), writing songs for Katy Perry and providing guide vocals for Rihanna. She never explicitly says that the scrutiny she’s avoiding by opting out of fame is a direct result of her sex, but she hints at it. For one thing, she name-checks David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest in her violently upbeat song “Free The Animal”, nodding to the fact that there’s a character in the novel called Madame Psychosis who was once so beautiful to look at that she could literally kill (Loving you to death, loving you to death, Sia squeals on the track), but who now opts to wear a veil. Then there’s the fact that in her “anti-fame manifesto” (tell me that’s not political) for Billboard magazine, Sia characterises fame as a mother-in-law who keeps “asking me whether I’m ‘so unattractive under those clothes that her son/daughter doesn’t want to fuck me anymore,’ or if I’m ‘so dumb I don’t know what a dick is and how to use it.’”
That reads like a paraphrase of all the sexualised abuse that is hurled at women who exist in the public eye daily. Few prominent women get this kind of vitriol more than Lena Dunham, Sia’s choice of collaborator for her performance of “Chandelier” on Seth Meyers. Where Sia’s withdrawing entirely from the gaze of her audience, Dunham so often stirs up controversy by doing the total opposite, exposing her whole body in Girls; most recently, this hit headlines because a male journalist asked her at the press conference why there was so much nudity in her show. “It’s because it’s a realistic expression of what it’s like to be alive,” Dunham responded coolly. “If you’re not into me, that’s your problem.” As Sia and Dunham spoon in bed at the end of their performance of “Chandelier”, two polar opposite approaches to female artistic expression in popular culture embrace.
I want to play a fair game, Sia demands on her album track “Fair Game”, which is about being curiously both tantalised by and terrified of brute masculinity; the chorus elaborates, What good is intellect and nerve / If I can’t respect any man? These words ring in my ears as I think about her decision to pull her face from the public eye and express herself through performance art. She’s not only opting out of fame, but out of the body-scrutinising (male) gaze that comes with that fame for so many female artists; there’s no judgement placed on women who do choose to expose themselves to the public eye—the cuddle with Dunham shows there’s no shade—only an admission that it’s a terrifying position to be in, and one Sia would rather not have to deal with to release her music. 1000 Forms of Fear plays a fair game by relying entirely on her “intellect and nerve” rather than image.
Howard Stern confronted Sia by asking her whether she was not moved when watching Jeff Buckley, her favourite artist, sing—and was she not denying her fans the same opportunity? Sia laughed, cracking “I’m selfish!” She is denying her fans a piece of her, and she’s aware of it; but she’s saying that it’s her piece to keep, and the fact that she’s able to do that and still move mountains in the pop industry is empowering. In a flawless move, Sia says that whether or not her image is used to sell her music is a matter of her consent. To paraphrase a line from FKA Twigs—another artist whose lyrics play with tangled notions of vulnerability and power, and who isn’t afraid to distort her public face—you say you want it, but Sia says you’ll live without it.