Pop music is for the young. Stick with me. The charts are dominated by teen- to 30-somethings and whilst there is a place for the ageing artist, they are usually well established from their youth. Jack White and 50 Cent are among those who reach their 40th year in 2015. Whilst there are exceptions, how many near 40-year-olds break through and maintain a string of hits?
Onto the namesake of this article. Honestly, I'd heard of Sia a few times previous to "Chandelier" but not in that 'I knew them first' way. She gained true mainstream recognition, to my knowledge, as a featured artist and writer on David Guetta's "Titanium", a good song let down by the overproduced EDM mess section in place of a true chorus. She worked with Flo Rida (for some reason) and had a writing credit for Rihanna's "Diamonds" - a perfectly adequate song let down by very odd pronunciation. A kind of Sia-esque impression in hindsight.
Then in 2014 she launched what would be a string of hits starting with the aforementioned "Chandelier", a beautiful pop song about self-destruction. She sets up a self-loathing character who tries to get over their troubles with alcohol. The prechorus in particular builds energy and pounds like she’s putting shots away with Lil Jon. It culminates in the ethereal chorus, expressing a sentiment of 'fuck it' and 'let’s worry about this tomorrow'. She holds nothing back, soaring through the chorus where thematically she is swinging from the ceiling and flying like a bird. The vocals are technically on point, exhausting and desperate, and carrying the hook whilst staying connected with its tone and subject matter. That’s how you connect to a song.
Despite the elegance of this track, most attention was garnered towards the video featuring a child reality TV star dancing erratically as though possessed. Visually it feels like an artistic expression and it’s not out of place for a musician to exclude themselves from an arty video. However, a performance of the track at the 2015 Grammys saw the same Maddie Ziegler dancing with actress Kristen Wiig whilst Sia performed the track turned away from the audience towards a wall, face concealed. The follow up video was also focused on Maddie and again a celebrity in the form of Shia LaBeouf. Similarly odd, similarly without Sia. The third release was more of the same with the oddity of Maddie’s dancing now somewhat losing its intrigue and feeling entirely like 'that's what she does.’ My point here: do we know from any of this what Sia looks like other than the short blonde bob?
This is a songwriter, turning 40 this year, being able to achieve mainstream chart hits as the credited artist and has barely revealed her face throughout the lifecycle of 1000 Forms of Fear. Blonde bob, a kind of symbol for this period, and music videos have enjoyed most of the attention. Were the songs strong enough to become hits without the additional spectacle? Surely "Chandelier" was destined to be a hit, but did the others have the same legs? Maybe not as sturdy.
Don’t mistake me in thinking that this is a flash in the pan either. She has been releasing material under her own name for some time and has had some chart success, but it is fair to say that her previous efforts pale in comparison to her current stretch in the charts. One could also point to the fact that her music is perhaps more palatable and so appeals to a wider audience. Her style of electro-pop may have found new listeners amongst the surge of EDM-pop prevalence in the mainstream.
The overall presentation, which is oddly a non-present Sia, is intriguing. Remaining faceless meant she is perceived ageless. I’m sure that, like me, those that did not know what she looked like could have easily have been as surprised to find that she is a blonde Australian woman in her late 30s, and for those that are now wondering, maybe drop by Google. Of course this is a pointless exercise as her image should not be important and honestly, despite spending considerable time thinking about it, it does not matter to me either. But there is a lot of attention paid to image in pop music and that is why the majority of artists are young and good looking, at least to their desired demographic.
Pop music will likely remain an endeavour for the young and a quiet ageism will always be around, especially in the case of aging female artists. Consider that a woman like Madonna is regularly suffixed with something like '...for her age' or '…embarrassing herself'. I would hope it can be agreed that this undermines credibility, but do also consider that credibility is something Sia has so far managed to maintain. Certainly as a songwriter and artist but also as a recognised pop entity, even choosing to release a series of songs she’s co/written for other artists in her new record, This Is Acting, as Sia. Sia the popstar. And a fair chunk of her audience wouldn't even recognise her face.