In a week where I have been defending myself against charges of hipsterism (I really like scarves, dammit), I fear that I am going to add fuel to the fire by reviewing Sia’s new album ‘1000 Forms of Fear’.
I liked Sia before she sold out. There. I said it. When I was in uni, Breathe Me was a regular feature on my playlists. The album, ‘Colour the Small One’, was never going to rate on anybody’s list of favourite albums, but it was still solid and dependable when you needed a bit of a sulk. The next proper album, ‘Some People Have Real Problems’ was an altogether different beast. Sia claimed that she only ever wanted to make pop songs, so SPHRP was filled with songs like Clap Your Hands and The Girl You Lost to Cocaine, with Soon We Will Be Found as a song in her old style: mopey, moody, and melodramatic.
Oh yeah. Feel those strings.
Then ‘We Are Born’ was released which was a runaway success, especially Clap Your Hands and You’ve Changed. That brings us up to ‘1000 Forms of Fear’, the first single from which, Chandelier, has been an enormous hit in the US — not least due to its amazing music clip.
Everything that’s good about this album is right there in the single.
The album is a mix of B-sides that are instantly forgotten as soon as heard. A lot of it feels over produced, and if I hear that synth clap one more time, I’m going to vomit. Sia’s strength is — and always has been — her amazing voice. It’s layered with so much bullshit on this album that it loses its distinctive excellence. Burn the Pages (the third track) is especially bad; it sounds as if it were performed on instruments manufactured by Fisher Price.
Two other albums have tried to play in this space, and both of them did it better. The first was Lorde’s ‘Pure Heroine’. A number of the tracks on ‘1000 Forms of Fear’ feel like bad knock offs — borderline parodies — of Lorde’s album from earlier this year. Partially this is because, like Lorde, the focus is on the artist’s amazing and distinctive voice, but it’s mostly due to the adolescent content of the lyrics. In Lorde’s case this (mostly) works because Lorde is herself an adolescent. It doesn’t work quite as well for a woman pushing 40. The infelicities of prose which are adorably forgivable from a teenager wear thin when sung by somebody older than me.
The other album was Jack White’s ‘Lazaretto’ which occupied a similar space: adolescent lyrics. Some of the woeful lyrics on ‘Lazaretto’ was forgivable due to the conceit: the lyrics mostly came from one of White’s diaries that he wrote when he was a teenager. But White was also able to hide the clumsiness of the lyrics behind some amazing music. Underperforming so woefully on the instrumental aspect of the album, Sia can’t hide in the same way.
The thing is, there’s nothing stopping Sia from moving into the space of making fun, mature music, but it means scrapping the rubbish music and the fantasy that we’re all still sixteen. Something like this:
The worst part about the album is the pretense behind it. Sia announced that she doesn’t want her face to be linked with the album — so she’s represented by the blonde wig. This has been lauded as a triumphant and powerful rejection of the media engine that target’s woman’s images and creates false senses of worth.
Here’s MTV’s take:
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? [Source]
Here’s the Guardian:
If Kanye and his imperial ego have set a standard for contemporary celebrity, it’s one Sia is stealthily subverting. Proclaiming non-interest in celebrity, is of course, good manners for any person wishing to be judged on their art rather than their ubiquity. There was, for example, that recent moment when facelessness seemed de rigeur for every breaking band courting “bloggability”. In a selfie-saturated online world, this was a strategic demurral: Ms Mr, for example, who kept their identities secret while buzz built. Or, The Weeknd, who began as a faceless, anonymous online mystery as did Burial. In other words, it is the kind of hiding that ultimately enhances visibility. There’s also, of course, the precedent of faceless masked musicians: Daft Punk in their chic robot headgear, Deadmau5 in his giant mouse head and, at the schlockier end of the spectrum, acts like Insane Clown Posse, Slipknot and Gwar who use Halloweenish disguises to amp up their carnival horror.
Both forms ultimately drive celebrity, a very different kind of facelessness then, to Sia’s whose every quasi-anonymous TV appearance has been extraordinary. More extraordinary though, is the paradigm that Sia-as-pop-star offers: that a person’s voice and songs might be famous while they themselves remain as unidentifiable as a unicorn’s bumhole. [Source]
Even the academic press got in on the action. Here’s the Conversation:
Discussions generated by Sia’s choices have focused on issues around fame and celebrity. But gender is also at stake in Sia’s strategy. By performing without showing her face and absenting her image from publicity, Sia forces viewers to listen to her voice rather than focus on her appearance.
In this way, she turns around the history of women in music. Sia fits into a trajectory of female singer-songwriters beginning with Laura Nyro, Joni Mitchell, Carole King and Carly Simon whose music, since the late 1960s, has explored personal themes in a confessional mode. [Source]
Far be it from me to police authenticity, but this is a gimmicky as it gets. You don’t say ‘I just wanted to have a private life. Once, as my friend was telling me they had cancer, someone came up and asked, in the middle of the conversation, if they could take a photograph with me. You get me? That’s enough, right?’ while simultaneously featuring an 11-year old girl from a reality television show in your music clip. Removing Sia’s image from the promotional material is supposed to emphasise the authenticity of the work created. ‘This isn’t about flashy pop starlets seeking fame,’ the advertising material goes; ‘This is about a real person expressing their real emotions and real feelings while staying out of the spotlight.’ Her point of differentiation from other (music) products on the (music) market is that she is rejecting the objectification of being a (music) commodity.
Instead, we have the opposite. Sia herself has become just a brand — a collection of images mostly centred around the blonde wig — loosely linking the collection of (frankly) fairly mediocre music produced on the album. Far from being authentic, it’s impersonal and plastic. ‘Your heart and me/There’s two of us/We’re certain with desire/The pleasure is pain and fire, burning’ she sings on Fire Meet Gasoline. So much for casting off the music industry’s shackles.
A lot of the mass produced music affects authenticity as a marketing point. It sells the image of being not-an-image. The deeply ideological ‘Cynical non-ideological’ style is probably somebody’s trademark. We’re all eating from the trashcan called ideology. Either the music writers who breathlessly extol Sia for casting off the vanity of the music industry have absolutely no idea that they’re part of the machine that they’re decrying, or they do know and they’re happy participants with the marketing campaign. Either way, it strikes unpleasant notes.
This might have been forgiven if the album were really great, but it’s not.