A pop star who shuns the spotlight seems like an oxymoron in today's world, in which celebrities can not only grab our attention through their torrid love affairs and transgressions, but also their Facebook updates, Instagram posts and those modern-day gladiator battles known as Twitter "beefs."
But that's what Sia is -- a spotlight shunner. She's an arena-sized musician who probably won't be hitting an arena any time soon. She's a song-of-the-summer-spinner who declines to appear in the video for said song of the summer. She's a Greta Garbo for the modern age, but has somehow captured and held our wavering, fruit fly-esque attention by dodging that very attention. Now that her most recent solo effort, 1000 Forms Of Fear, has dropped, the question becomes: Can she keep our interest?
Subverting The Pop Forumla
1000 Forms Of Fear, out Tuesday (July 8), is not your average pop record -- even though it may sound like it -- and "Sia obviously isn't our run-of-the-mill pop star," publicist Lily Golightly of Golightly Media told MTV News of the musician's rise. "I think that her reluctance to show her face and the reasons behind it (which she is super vocal about) is really interesting and almost art unto itself. I think it's so rad that she can stand with her back to an audience but still give them a crazy amazing performance with killer vocals and interpretive dance."
Yup, Sia's star power is an interesting and potent cocktail. Her music is raw and throbbing -- and dark -- but she's not going to let you see her face while she emotes. And that's part of her power.
By now, you likely know the story of the elusive musician, but for those who don't, here's a primer: The 38-year-old Australian singer tried her hand at being a solo star, but found the pressure of fame and all it encompasses to be too much -- she even wrote a 2013 manifesto against the limelight in Billboard, likening the public eye to a critical mother-in-law, and appeared on the cover of the magazine with a bag over her head.
She's made her bones over the years writing hits for other singers -- she wrote Rihanna's "Diamonds" in 14 minutes, according to The New York Times, as well as hits like Flo Rida’s “Wild Ones” and Eminem’s “Beautiful Pain," Beyonce's "Pretty Hurts" and Britney Spears' "Perfume" -- and has thus far been happy with the money, houses and anonymity the practice has granted her.
That is, until she started writing tunes that would appear on 1000 Forms Of Fear, like the wrenching single "Chandelier," which dropped in March.
“I usually think, ‘Oh this would work for Rihanna, or this would be a good one for B or Katy,’” Sia told “On Air with Ryan Seacrest" at the time. “But this time I was like, ‘Uh oh, I think I just wrote a full-blown pop song for myself by accident!’ ”
The jam was one of the songwriter's first original tracks since her 2010 effort, We Are Born -- in addition to "Elastic Heart," off of "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" soundtrack -- and would herald a kind of comeback from someone who never truly went away. And an unorthodox one at that.
"Chandelier," like many of the songs off of the record, seems more personal than the songs that Sia writes for other musicians -- and much darker, despite its anthemic feel.
That single deals with something she's only too familiar with: alcoholism and the highs and lows it can engender in those who suffer from it. "Party girls don't get hurt/ Can't feel anything, when will I learn/ I push it down, push it down," Sia sings, before launching into the YOLO chorus, "I'm gonna swing from the chandelier."
"Chandelier" sounds like the kind of thing you'd belt into a hairbrush with your friends before getting ready for a night out, but the subject matter is ... less than party-friendly. That's the genius of the songs Sia pens for herself: She takes the structure of a pop song (jubilation! overcoming odds!) and subverts it lyrically.
Just a glance at the track list -- and title, even -- of the record hints at a darkness running through the catchy hits. There's "Hostage," a bouncy, almost Katy Perry-esque tune that sees Sia chirpily proclaiming, "You bring me to life/ Then you shut me out/ You keep me silent when I should shout." She's held hostage by this dude's -- or metaphorical dude's -- love, and it doesn't quite seem like a good thing, despite the dance-y feel of the jam.
Then there's the slow and sensuous -- yet creepy -- "Straight For the Knife," a love-gone-bad song that reads something like a Sylvia Plath poem -- if Plath wrote pop songs with help from Lana Del Rey: "You went straight for the knife and I prepared to die/ Your blade, it shines/ Look me straight in the eye, you turn the gas on high."
"Free the Animal" bristles with teeth as Sia wails about a kind of love that's damaging and hard, a pulsating jam that sounds like 2008-era Santigold.
Sia does write love songs, sure, but they're smart -- more analytical than starry-eyed euphoria. "Fair Game," in particular, should resonate with anyone who's learning how to let go of the bad boys and let the right one in: "You terrify me because you're not a man, you're not a boy/ You got some power and I can't treat you like a toy."
Sure, the record does feature some cliched imagery -- she busts out terms like "eye of the needle" and likens lovers to "fire" and "gasoline" -- but her propensity to pick a random image and then pen a song based on it, as described in The New York Times story, serves her well on "Cellophane." A strange little song that features a crinkling audio track reminiscent of the title, it sees Sia calling herself "such a basketcase, delivered to you wrapped in cellophane."
Comparing herself to a basket wrapped in cellophane, talking about her addiction to pills, harping again and again on death and violence -- this all seems like a lot for a musician to pour out on a pop album. Especially for a musician who has again and again rejected the spotlight.
Case in point: for every performance she's busted out in support of the record, Sia has declined to let us see her. She's enlisted Lena Dunham to perform an interpretive dance while she lay face-down on a bunk bed. She turned from the camera during Logo's "Trailblazers" while The New York City Gay Men's Chorus sang in Sia wigs. She got a pint-size dancer to fill in for her in her "Chandelier" video.
Still, perhaps this ability to hide behind choruses and dancers and actors is what has allowed her to be so bold with her music.
Madison Farmer, a publicist for Goner Records, knows a thing or two about musicians who hide their faces. She works with NOBUNNY, a punk musician who wears a bunny mask onstage -- and little else -- and shies away from audience interaction after shows.
"If I showed that much skin elsewhere, it seems like a mask would make the pre- and post-performance experience easier," Farmer told MTV News of NOBUNNY's decision to hide his face. "When the mask is on, its easier to do and say things to facilitate the act without having to deal with the repercussions from (drunk) fans when the act is over and the disguise is gone. He doesn't have to be NOBUNNY all the time because the mask is like his punch card into work."
In short: The mask not only makes it easier for him to perform, it creates a barrier between his persona as an artist and himself.
In a sense, Sia probably feels the same way as NOBUNNY (a.k.a. Justin Champlin sans mask). "I became a pop songwriter because I was uncomfortable touring, getting famous," she told Howard Stern in one of her rare interviews. "I didn't like the things that were coming with singing ... The clapping and the people being interested in me was not feeding my soul. When I got sober and was diagnosed bipolar, too, I was like, 'I have to change everything. I need to have a serene life with a routine.' "
Donna Rockwell, celebrity mental health specialist and clinical psychologist, thinks Sia's reluctance to do interviews, tours and appear in public has to do with this separation between musician and self.
"I feel in a way that maybe she is trying to hold onto some anonymity," she told MTV News. "I think that what this also is, perhaps -- I can't speak for anyone else -- but a stand on her part saying, 'I want to maintain control over my image. And when I want you to see it, you'll see it. And when I don't want you to see it, you won't.' And that's the degree to which a famous person can own their own visage -- their own image."
"A lot of celebrities create splits between their famous self and their personal self so that they can at least hold onto some authenticity," Rockwell added. "The person that they put out there is a caricature. It's not a real person. But there's actual human beings that go along with these images. And it's the person that's the actual person who's left to suffer trying to hold onto their true self."
Tim Kasser, Professor of Psychology at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, and author of "The High Price of Materialism," said that Sia's method of shying away from the public will definitely be beneficial to her in the long run, as he has found the more people strive toward things like fame and image, the lower their well-being.
"Assuming that this isn't just a marketing ploy that she's doing, if she really is honestly saying, 'What I want to do is focus on my art, on my songwriting, I don't want to buy into the whole fame part of it anymore,' all of the evidence of which I'm aware suggests that that is a move toward psychological health," Kasser said.
Keeping Pop Music Weird
In addition to preserving her serenity, it also seems like Sia is just trying to do something new -- to inject a much-needed dose of weird into a world that sometimes seems replete with plastic chart-toppers and glossy celebrity magazine worship.
"I'm just trying to keep it weird, dude," she told Stern. "I have enough money making pop songs for other people now that I can just put out music for my fans and it doesn't matter if I don't make any money from it.
"All I want to do is things I haven't done -- see what I can get away with," she continued. "I'm going to put a paper bag on my head, I'm going to be on the cover of Billboard ... I'm literally giggling inside for a month."
And we're giggling along with her -- waiting for her next out-there move. Will she show up to a talk show in clown makeup? Will a man in a wig accept an award in her stead? Part of Sia's mounting fame -- despite her reluctance to embrace it -- at the moment has to do not only with her talent, but the mystique she has built up around it.
Will The Music Be Enough?
The question now becomes: Can she maintain this buzz while also preserving her anonymity and sense of self, or will she have to start conforming to the tenets of celebrity in order to keep the public's attention?
The Weeknd eventually had to come out of the shadows as Abel Tesfaye and iamamiwhoami became Jonna Lee -- to varying degrees of success. Daft Punk, on the other hand, have always been a relative mystery (even though we technically know who is behind the masks).
I mean, it's not as if Sia is actually content to put out a vanity record for the fans and leave it at that -- despite what she said above. "I had always intended to [put out a record]," she told Stern in that same interview. "Just I wasn't planning to promote it and then look what's happened. I'm doing very key things because it turns out I am ambitious and I do want a #1 record." OK then.
"You have to ask what the fans' motivation is here, too," Kasser said. "What they want is a relationship. What they want is, our evidence suggests, something to fill a hole in their own lives. ... So what does it mean for her career? Well, if her fanbase is made up of people who want to have a relationship and know about somebody in order to kind of fill some emptiness in their life ... Sia may well be in trouble for that fanbase."
At this point, Sia has us all in her thrall -- with her dark personal story meted out over sparse interviews, with her amazing voice, with her seriously envy-inducing songwriting ability and, of course, with her mystique. It just remains to be seen whether all this can buoy her forward past the release date -- if Sia
can subvert the ultimate pop star conundrum and have her music be enough.