Sia is one of the most interesting pop stars relevant today, due to the fact that she is the embodiment of the secret world of the music industry. After years being the brain behind some of the world’s biggest hits (like Rihanna’s Diamonds and Beyoncé’s Pretty Hurts), she came out with songs that everyone else had rejected. True to form, her latest album This Is Acting is fourteen tracks of pop’s throwaways. More than that, Sia, who is separate from the songwriter-extraordinaire Sia Furler, rejects the fame that comes with releasing massive hits, choosing to hide her face behind huge wigs, and subsequently making her one of the most talked about artists of the time.
Opinion on Sia’s refusal to embrace the mainstream is split. Some think that it’s an attention ploy as there are already hundreds of pictures of her face on the Internet dating back years. Others credit her for not being fame hungry, while even more say that she hides due to social anxiety, or a skin condition on her face. Regardless of the reason, Sia’s refusal to embrace the ‘show’ side of showbiz has led to diverse and interesting artistic choices, such as her employment of young girl Maddie Ziegler and her skin coloured leotard (along with Shia LaBeouf and his) to express the meaning of her music through contemporary dance. While this makes for an interesting spectacle in her live performances (it’s hilarious trying to see talk show hosts interview her back and wig after she’s sung) and music videos, does it do anything for her music?
In the case of this album, no it does not. While Sia’s apparent ambivalence to the fact that she’s singing Beyoncé’s castaways is somewhat admirable, in this record it results in a mish-mash of ideas and themes that all come together to make, actually, very little. For the majority of the album, Sia sings in her harsh, squeaky growl about staying true to yourself, using your voice, keeping the fight going and lots of other clichés. Some of them - such as lead single Alive - seem on the surface to be personal and not abhorrent; she sings with conviction if nothing else. However, it’s hard to appreciate a seemingly introspective tracks like Bird Set Free when you know it was turned down by Adele, Rihanna, and Pitch Perfect 2. Perhaps the album’s main failing lies in this; if the songs are written to be flogged in the pop market, they need to be a certain level of predictable faux-deepness relevant to Katy Perry or Rihanna or even Fat Amy, if she wants it. In some cases this results in a strange combination of image and music that doesn’t quite fit; in the random remix of Sisqo’s Thong Song entitled Sweet Design, Sia sings about her bottom: “Bump, bump, Imma rub it up on you.” While I see Beyoncé or J. Lo singing this easily, it’s hard to reconcile these lyrics with someone who doesn’t even like people looking at her face. Grouping all of these tracks together, moreover, doesn’t guarantee that they flow well. This is very much a collection of potential singles, rather than a record.
All of this being said, it’s clear from this album that Sia has a mind made for the music industry. The overall production and instrumentation of the album is on point with what’s popular at the minute: the heavy drum beats, the almost-dance track, the highly affected voices are all very in vogue this year (and last). However, again Sia fails to capitalise on this, letting the successful elements pale in comparison to the dated clichés she relies on. At points, these statements, which on the surface seem so meaningful, are actually meaningless drivel, such as the lyrics for Fist Fighting A Sandstorm: “Fist fighting a sandstorm / Now I ain’t boxing anymore… It’s a losing battle.” Sia boasts that her lyrics often come from a game of ad-libs from phrases she writes on her phone, which seems almost arrogant (although this maybe fair, due to her stellar track record). However, this shows, such as in another track filled with clichés: House On Fire. What does the fact that she’s a house on fire and she’s going to keep burning mean? Probably very little.
While there are genuinely catchy, well constructed pop songs on here (Alive and Reaper being prime examples), mostly this record fails to live up to the shock value of 1000 Forms Of Fear. While her voice is actually incredibly impressive, and strangely endearing with its unashamed cracking on the top notes, at some point the stylised nature of the way she sings sinks into unintelligible mumbling. All in all, releasing an album of songs that no one else wanted to sing is a risky move fit for a new-wave artist such as Sia. Unfortunately in the case of This is Acting, it’s not a risk that paid off.