How Sia’s Polarising Vocals Have Invaded The Pop Mainstream
On tracks she writes for others and her own top 40 hits, this Australian artist favors rough-hewn emotion over perfection.
Whenever I’m trying to explain to someone why I love listening to Sia, I play them this shaky video of the Australian artist singing her David Guetta collaboration “Titanium” live in 2013. Specifically, from around 2.40 onwards, when she sings the final reprise of the chorus, and her voice sounds like it’s constantly hovering on a precipice, rasping, crumbling, and breaking at perfect moments. It’s the kind of precise chaos that Sia alone, among her mainstream pop peers, commands. Her unique vocal style is the reason most YouTube comments beneath her videos can be divided into two camps—those who mock it, and the passionate tribe who pride themselves on loving it. I frequently find myself going through this ritual of attempting to convert non-believers who say Sia “screams” too much for them. At its most laid-back, her voice is quirky; at its soaring peak, it can be actively uncomfortable to listen to.
It’s not the intensity of Sia’s voice alone in this video that grabs me, but its strangeness in the context of the song she’s using it to sing. Because “Titanium” itself is far from strange—it’s a cheesily uplifting EDM-pop banger. Sia herself has commented that she was initially “really upset” to learn her vocal was used on the song, as she only ever intended it to exist as a demo that she supplied to Guetta as guidance for the final vocalist (Katy Perry and Mary J. Blige were both considered). One review at the time of the song’s release claimed Sia’s “square-peg vocals elevate ‘Titanium,’” while another enthused, “Teaming up with Sia was probably the smartest move [Guetta] has done in recent memory.” Sia had been a successful indie solo artist and a behind-the-scenes songwriter long before she appeared on “Titanium” in 2011, but it could be pinpointed as the moment—along with Flo Rida’s “Wild Ones,” which was released the following month and featured her voice on the hook—when her uniquely unwieldy vocal spilled over into the realm of chart pop.
Sia’s latest album This Is Acting self-consciously plays with this unique space she occupies: it’s full of straightforward, super-catchy pop songs she initially wrote for other people, but sung in her own idiosyncratic style. In the Billboard Hot 100 landscape, Sia’s songwriting voice, which deals with depression and addiction, is singular—her actual voice even moreso.
Sure, there’s a long history of female voices that challenge the listener in similar ways to Sia’s, and even some whose belting made it to the top of the charts: see the ragged new precedent that was set by 1970s punks Siouxsie and the Banshees, Bjork’s catalogue of extreme pitches and screams, Yoko Ono’s much-ridiculed, unrestrained moans, and Kate Bush’s rocketing vocal. Rock has known boundary-testing female vocalists like Tina Turner, PJ Harvey, and Sinead O’Connor, who once told the NME, “I like the idea of being able to wipe the floor with people because I open my mouth and scream.” But for a female singer making commercial pop music, screaming, or any kind of perceived imperfection, is undesirable. Voices like Kate Bush’s are worlds away from the more smoothed-out edges of (for example) Britney, Beyoncé, Adele, Katy Perry—the cleaner female vocals we’re used to hearing on power-pop anthems like “Titanium” in the ‘00s and ‘10s (and in fact, the types of voices that were originally considered for the track).
Why is it that the act of pushing your singing voice to its physical limits is seen as a sign of emotional strength in men, and and emotional weakness—aka hysteria—in women?
As a kid raised on chart pop (and whose first concert was Spice Girls), my world changed when I first encountered a less-than-perfect female vocal on Alanis Morrisette’s seminal 1995 album Jagged Little Pill. Instinctively, to my bubblegum-tuned ears, it was ugly; later, it got under my skin, and I would rewind this live recording of her bellowing the infamous line are you thinking of me/ when youuuu fuck her of “You Oughta Know” again and again. Morrisette sold over 33 million copies of that album worldwide, but her voice occasionally made her the butt of jokes and critique. David Browne, writing in Entertainment Weekly in 1995, noted her tendency to “wildly oversing”—an accusation that was repeated in a retrospective 20 year anniversary review of the album in the Irish Times, alongside an AllMusic.com review that stated, “Alanis isn’t a particularly good singer.”
“There were times when I would sing from the felt sense in my throat,” Morissette remembered, in Entertainment Weekly, last year. “I was basically screaming...All my shows were so loud and intense, and [Dave Grohl] was like ‘Chill out.’ And I was like, ‘You chill out!’” It’s a poignant anecdote when you consider that Grohl himself is a big fan of wildly oversinging, and frequently praised for it: in 2005, MTV ran the headline Tireless Dave Grohl Screams Twice As Hard On Double LP. “When you go out and sing words from the heart, you scream twice as hard,” Grohl claims proudly in the article, describing feeling “blood in [his] throat.” Morrisette claims a similar unity between her voice and emotional honesty, yet the reaction to her vocal is one of discomfort and policing rather than praise. Why is it that the act of pushing your singing voice to its physical limits is seen as a sign of emotional strength in men, and and emotional weakness—aka hysteria—in women?
As critic Spencer Kornhaber put it in The Atlantic, even 20 years after Jagged Little Pill’s release, it’s tough to come up “with mainstream singers who have as much character and verve and comfort with sounding [as] totally ugly as [Morrisette] does.” Importantly, it’s not “mainstream singers,” but mainstream female singers who scarcely exploit the rougher, chaotic potential of their voices. In an essay for The New Inquiry in 2014, Sasha Geffen outlined the ways in which female singers’ voices are critiqued and admonished differently to those of men, which are permitted to be—as Kornhaber puts it—“ugly.” Geffen writes: “Like it does with women’s bodies, popular culture permits a narrow range of acceptable beauty in women’s voices. There’s a reason Dan Reynolds of Imagine Dragons has room to sing flat on a live television performance but Beyoncé is expected to catapult through multiple key changes with perfect tone and pitch. There’s a reason Lana Del Rey bore the undiluted resentment of her audience when she failed to sing charismatically on Saturday Night Live. There is a reason Britney Spears’ isolated, untreated vocals score listens in the millions every time they’re leaked.”
“I am not concerned with what my voice is doing...I created my own niche. If I tried to present you classic music it won’t be what I created.”—Yoko Ono
It’s a double standard that Yoko Ono also noted in an open letter to her critics in 2015. “They demand the musical standard of a classic musician and attack me for the rhythm or some notes which are not precisely in tune,” Ono wrote. “I am not concerned with what my voice is doing...I created my own niche. If I tried to present you classic music it won’t be what I created. You don’t get that way, with Iggy [Pop] for instance, a grand rocker, who is creating his own brand of Rock, just as I am.”
At least in alternative genres, there are major examples like Ono and Morrisette that can be pointed to, even if they are disproportionately admonished for it by the same critics who revere their male peers. More recently, even indie-signed singers like FKA twigs and Grimes—often characterized by journalists as sounding “choir girl-like” and “breathy”—have taken vocal leaps to shock their listeners out of their comfort zones, with throaty, digitally distorted raps and blood-curdling screams.
But in the world of commercial chart pop, Sia’s gritty and frequently scream-y voice is unprecedented in its success. What’s more, her unconventional vocal technique has also been permeating the sound of the major artists she’s written for and with. Since she began writing for Christina Aguilera, and soon a cast of other stars, in 2009, it seems like it’s no longer taboo for for a woman to sound like she’s near-breakdown on a huge pop anthem—it’s a cause for celebration. Female artists, more and more, are actively allowing imperfections and limit-pushing moments into their records. Take Kelly Clarkson’s “Invincible,” the Sia-written anthem she released last year, in which her voice takes on a crisp edge, creaking and rasping like she might run out of breath. It’s a sound that’s all over Sia’s music, and which you can hear in her recent single “Bird Set Free.”
Also see the way Beyoncé, a supremely controlled vocalist, lets go and hollers during the hard-hitting climax of Sia co-write “Pretty Hurts" (skip to about 5.50 in the video below). There’s seemingly no note Beyoncé can’t hit, and she’s been known to belt—but as critic Carrie Battan noted in her 2014 Pitchfork review, Bey significantly “loosened up her delivery” on her self-titled album, and that’s evident in the guttural half-screams that accompany her trophy-smashing montage in the opening video. It’s comparable to many moments in Sia’s catalogue: she’s a big fan of building her pop anthems to a conclusion of raw, messy adlibs—not pitch-perfect vocal runs—as you can hear on her 1000 Forms of Fear album closer “Dressed In Black.”
And then there’s Rihanna, who screamed like never before on her Sia-written smash hit “Diamonds.” As Andrew Hampp wrote for Billboard on its release in 2012, “‘Diamonds’ finds Rihanna doing one of her throatiest, most impassioned vocals to date (and one that seems to be channeling Sia herself).”
Also check out the generally slightly unhinged performances of Britney on “Passenger”; Lea Michele on “Cannonball,” and Jessie J on “Flashlight” (all written or co-written by Sia). It’s not a question of belting, which all these artists are capable of (and often do), but rather a case of roughing up their style. Each seems a little more willing to push themselves than they usually would—a little more willing to squeal at the end of a note, to use vocal fry, or allow a little scratch into their voices. It would be remiss to suggest Sia taught or introduced these vocal techniques to these artists, but she certainly seems to have brought them into the vocal palette of mainstream pop music. Other topline writers have notably had a similar trickle-down effect: Ester Dean, who wrote many of Rihanna’s biggest singles, has what The New Yorker described as a “low-down, growly” style with “swag”; meanwhile there’s a more light-hearted, peppy note to songs penned by Bonnie McKee, like Katy Perry’s "California Gurls" and “Teenage Dream.” The difference being, while Dean and McKee are working within pre-established tropes for female pop stars, Sia is pushing at their boundaries.
Maybe it can be put down to the impassioned demos Sia may have provided for each vocalist; perhaps it’s more broadly the influence she’s having on the chart pop world, where she’s proving with her solo hits that her whirlwind of a voice can sell as many units as it can break hearts. Either way, she seems to have contributed to a world in which Rihanna sings uninhibitedly like this:
It’s into this world that Sia is releasing This Is Acting: at once her most experimental and her most conventional album. This Is Acting is an archetypal pop record in the most literal sense of the term. It’s front-loaded with hopeful hit singles (“Alive,” “Bird Set Free,” and “One Million Bullets,” which all have you feeling exhausted by the time you’re less than halfway through); it sees Sia dip a toe in multiple genres (“Move Your Body” is quite obviously the Shakira reject; “Cheap Thrills” was destined for Rihanna; “Sweet Design” samples “Thong Song”), and it uses lyrical cliché after cliché (“Footprints,” for example, hinges on the image of two footprints in the sand). And yet, all over the record, that voice runs rampant: flinging itself between pitches, rasping with real pain, and shattering every convention it comes into contact with. On “Alive” and “Space Between,” Sia sings bloody murder in a way that surpasses her performances on even the more lyrically painful tracks she’s written for herself in the past.
In the end, it feels totally apt that no one but Sia should sing these songs. The record cements an effect she’s been having on pop music ever since she began writing for major stars in 2009. She’s created this world in which songs like “Titanium,” “Diamonds” and “Pretty Hurts” are not quite as straight or palatable as you expect them to be—they push the limits of your expectations, eschewing perfection in favor of representing the emotions at the heart of the song with unapologetic rawness.
Of all the rejects on This Is Acting, I’m particularly happy that Sia ended up with “Bird Set Free,” which was written in sessions for Adele’s last album 25, where she intones, there’s a scream inside, that we all try to hide. I’m happy partly because it’s hard to imagine Adele’s voice—undoubtedly as impressive, but much more polished and pristine—hollering: I don’t care if I sing off-key. But mostly because, in Sia’s voice, it gains an extra layer of meaning: she’s liberated a new standard for female voices in major label pop, making it cool, and even desirable, to scream and falter and generally let your voice do whatever you feel like doing. Or, as she puts it, to shout it out like a bird set free.
Addendum: A previous version of this article was published with the title “How Sia Made It Cool For Female Pop Singers To Scream Their Hearts Out.” It has since been edited for clarity.