The Week In Pop: Sia Steps Out Of The Shadows, Sort Of
You’ve known Sia Furler for a while whether you realize it or not. The Australian singer and songwriter has been hovering around the music industry for nearly two decades. She scored a UK hit with the exceptionally late-’90s-sounding 2000 trip-hop single “Taken For Granted,” but the Sneaker-Pimps-meets-Spice-Girls approach didn’t fly in the US. Thanks in large part to Six Feet Under using her piano ballad “Breathe Me” for the series-ending montage — a seven-minute slice of TV so memorable that Vulture devoted an entire oral history to it — she built up a strong enough fan base that her last two albums charted in the top 40 stateside, but those didn’t produce any hit singles either. Eventually she became dependent on alcohol and various illicit substances and started sabotaging her own touring and promotion. She enrolled in a 12-step program and got clean. Then, in 2011, she decided to retire as a solo artist and live a quiet life writing megahits for superstars.
As explained in last year’s Billboard cover story — and as you might surmise about someone who was the subject of a Billboard cover story — Sia’s plan to disappear didn’t work out so well. She hit the top 10 twice by co-writing and contributing vocals to songs by two lowest-common-denominator pop-radio powerhouses, David Guetta (the respectable self-worth anthem “Titanium“) and Flo Rida (the mostly forgettable “Wild Ones“). Suddenly her songwriting was in demand, so she penned Rihanna’s “Diamonds,” Ne-Yo’s “Let Me Love You (Until You Learn to Love Yourself),” and Beyoncé’s “Pretty Hurts” among others. The result was more than 12 million in track sales and Sia songs on the soundtracks for The Great Gatsby and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. Now she’s getting her big look with sixth LP 1000 Forms Of Fear, and she’s swinging for the fences by swinging from the chandelier.
Sia is the queen of killer choruses, and she really outdid herself with “Chandelier,” the song that has become her breakthrough single in America. What could have been your basic post-Santigold reggae-infused urban pop jam about coping with depression instead explodes into glorious euphoria rivaled by few hits in recent memory. Sia’s vocals shoot straight past the ceiling and out into the sky, pushing the limits of the volume register as she scrapes the stratosphere. The “1-2-3″ lyric might as well be “3-2-1,” as in “We have liftoff.” It’s one of the most exultant blasts of sound I’ve encountered this year, a song that makes the most of Sia’s moment. There’s barely an iota of funk in the song, but she tears the roof off the sucker anyhow. Then there’s the video, which went viral by putting 11-year-old dancer Maddie Ziegler in a Sia wig and a leotard and turning her loose on some existential crisis modern dance/Flashdance business. It’s a compelling and slightly unsettling display, and it only stoked the excitement that’s swirling around Sia this year.
So yeah, “Chandelier” has helped Sia seize the spotlight, but only sort of. Her voice is everywhere this summer, but her face has been scarce. That’s intentional; Sia is actively fleeing fame and celebrity culture. She has clauses in her contract with RCA that says she doesn’t have to tour or do press. She posed for the Billboard shoot with a paper bag over her head, and she refused to be photographed for a big New York Times feature that ran in the spring. Her album cover features her signature blonde bobbed haircut without a head, the same wig that appeared on Ziegler’s head in the video and on Ellen, the one that Lena Dunham rocked on Seth Meyers and the entire NYC Gay Men’s Chorus donned during Sia’s Trailblazers performance. On all those shows, she performed with her back to the audience. Taking such pains to hide herself is less about social anxiety than an intense desire for normalcy. “I just wanted to have a private life,” she told the Times. “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?” But like Sia’s move behind the scenes, all this elusiveness is backfiring somewhat; few marketing tricks have been as effective or recognizable as that blonde bob this year.
If Sia seems to be pulling out all the stops with “Chandelier,” the rest of her new record isn’t so likely to draw people in, viral wig exploits or not. More often than not, 1000 Forms Of Fear feels more like 12 forms of the same song, Sia striving to recreate the triumph that is “Chandelier” but rarely making it off the ground. The likes of “Big Girls Cry,” “Fire Meet Gasoline” and “Dressed In Black” are passable runs through Sia’s formula that mostly glide rather than soar. The beat on the Weeknd- and Diplo-assisted Hunger Games track “Elastic Heart” is successfully squishy, but I couldn’t remember the melody to save my life. Second single “Eye Of The Needle,” a mournful ballad halfway between Rihanna and Adele, succeeds as a comedown from the up-up-up feeling elicited by “Chandelier” but wouldn’t have attracted many listeners on its own. “Free The Animal” has neat skittering chopped-up vocals, and “Cellophane” almost feels like a Radiohead dirge. Even when she tries other people’s style on for size — the glitchy Lily Allen number “Burn The Pages,” the uptempo Bruno Mars bit “Hostage,” the McCartney-esque ballad “Fair Game” — she ends up with nothing but deep cuts.
None of these songs are outright bad, they just feel like fizzles compared to the fireworks she’s capable of. The whole album has the air of product from a professional songwriting factory, whereas the best songs from that sort of assembly line tend to feel like they sprung from thin air. It seems she saved most of her heart-stopping hits for other people; even if this material is a labor of love, it all sounds so labored. The songs bleed into each other in much the same way Sia hopes to bleed into the background. Fortunately for her and unfortunately for us, I have little doubt she’ll be able to retain her anonymity if she wants it.
1000 Forms Of Fear is out 7/8 on RCA/Monkey Puzzle. Stream it at iTunes.
In our mid-2014 pop report we named Frozen and Pharrell your album and singles overlords, respectively, and SoundScan’s mid-year sales data affirms that to the tune of 2.7 million Frozen soundtracks sold and 5.6 million “Happy” transactions completed. Beyoncé’s BEYONCÉ (702,000) and Katy Perry/Juicy J’s “Dark Horse” (4 million) are your runners up. The #3-5 top-selling albums of the year so far include Eric Church’s The Outsiders, Lorde’s Pure Heroine , and Coldplay’s Ghost Stories, and your #3-5 singles are John Legend’s “All Of Me,” Jason Derulo and 2 Chainz’s “Talk Dirty,” and Idina Menzel’s “Let It Go.” Check out the full albums figures here and the mid-year singles totals here.
Sure to be joining those ranks soon is which Ed Sheeran, whose sophomore effort x (pronounced “multiply”) sold 210,000 to debut atop the Billboard 200. It’s the fourth-best debut sales week of the year, as Billboard notes, trailing Coldplay, Eric Church, and Brantley Gilbert, as well as the largest first-week sales for a British male since Rod Stewart’s Stardust … The Great American Songbook Vol. III back in 2004. So not everybody hated “Sing” as much as I did. With Sam Smith’s In The Lonely Hour holding at #2 with 67,000 in its second week, this marks the first time two British men have held the top two spots on the US albums chart since Eric Clapton and Sting in 1993.
Label-less Bay Area white rapper G-Eazy opens at #3 with 46,000 for These Things Happen, so he’s basically your next Macklemore. Lana Del Rey’s Ultraviolence is down to #4 with 44,000 after its #1 debut. The Frozen soundtrack remains in the top 5 for the 28th straight week with 38,000. Mastodon’s Once More Round The Sun enters at #6 with 34,000, the band’s highest-ever chart position but not its biggest first-week sales figure. (That’d be Crack The Skye‘s 41,000.) Phish’s Fuego debuts at #7 with 32,000, which represents their highest chart position since 1996. The rest of your top 10 is Miranda Lambert’s Platinum, Linkin Park’s The Hunting Party, and Now 50.
Atop the Hot 100 singles chart, it’s Iggy Iggs once again. Iggy Azalea and Charli XCX’s “Fancy” is #1 for a sixth straight week, breaking Lil Kim’s record for the longest run at #1 by a female rapper. (Tellingly, Kim got her record as part of the “Lady Marmalade” remake in 2001.) Azalea’s other big summer hit, Ariana Grande’s “Problem,” still hasn’t managed to crack #1 and in fact falls from 2 to 3 this week, surpassed by MAGIC!’s Sublime pastiche “Rude.” What’s the problem, “Problem”? This means Azalea’s streak at #1 and #2 ends at five weeks. The “Rude”/”Problem” switch is the only movement in the top 10 this week, meaning the #4-10 rankings remain identical to last week: Nico & Vinz’s “Am I Wrong,” Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me,” Jason Derulo & Snoop Dogg’s “Wiggle,” John Legend’s “All Of Me,” Calvin Harris’ “Summer,” DJ Snake & Lil Jon’s “Turn Down For What,” and Pharrell’s “Happy.”
Also notable on the Hot 100: Disclosure and Sam Smith’s “Latch” hovers at #11, so Smith could potentially have two top 10 singles simultaneously as soon as next week. And 15-year-old Vine sensation Shawn Mendes made it into the top 25 with his debut single “Life Of The Party” “without a lick of radio promotion,” as Idolator mentions. That makes Mendes the youngest artist ever to log a debut single in the top 25.
Ariana Grande – “Break Free” (Feat. Zedd)
Grande’s covering all her bases, music-wise. The follow-up to “Problem” forgoes the funky, saxy, hip-hop sound for a starry-eyed EDM production by Zedd. It’s not nearly the same quality as “Problem,” but I appreciate the house diva feel they pulled off, which goes well with the subject matter. It’s essentially the same concept as her last single, only this time she’s definitely breaking it off with the loser boyfriend. Hard to imagine this not going to #1, but then again I thought the same thing about “Problem” and that got ponytail-blocked by “Fancy.”
Kiesza – “Giant In My Heart”
“Hideaway” was a stunning bit of turn-of-the-’90s house-informed pop, and the dance routine that drove its low-budget video only amped up the appeal. So of course now there’s a more professional second video, which finds Kiesza providing a confidence boost for an ailing drag queen. The song is even better than the last one, and we get some more rad dancing, so basically a win all around.
David Guetta – “Lovers On The Sun” (Feat. Sam Martin)
David Guetta tapped Avicii to co-produce this, yet another example of Avicii’s mighty successful hybrids of traditional American music with modern EDM. This one latches the beat to something like spaghetti Western music, and while I’m already getting sick of this trick, I could see “Lovers On The Sun” further cementing this microgenre’s place on the charts. In other Guetta news, he also ripped off Van Halen’s “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love” for his recent “Blast Off,” which is worth hearing if only to marvel at the audacity.
Becky G – “Shower”
This Dr. Luke jam is basically foolproof, as omnivorous musically as Becky G appears to be culturally. She’s every teenage girl/ It’s all in her, or something. I dunno, the song is OK verging on really good, but it feels like the start of something big, like there could be a lot more hits where this one came from. To paraphrase Becky herself, there ain’t no guarantee, but I’d take a chance on she.
Robin Thicke – “Still Madly Crazy”
Robin Thicke is for the children.
NEWS IN BRIEF
- Ariana Grande’s My Everything features the Weeknd, A$AP Ferg, and Childish Gambino. [CBS]
- Grande was also the first performer announced for this year’s VMAs. [MTV]
- Diplo is working on new albums by Madonna, Gwen Stefani, Ty Dolla $ign, Usher, and more. [Idolator]
- Among the songs Diplo recorded with Madonna is one called “Bitch, I’m Madonna.” [Popjustice]
- Christian rapper Flame is suing Katy Perry, claiming “Dark Horse” ripped off one of his songs and tarnished it with witchcraft. And I mean, say what you want about the witchcraft thing, but the guy’s song does sound a lot like “Dark Horse.” [Gossip Cop]
- Lily Allen dedicated a performance of “Fuck You” to controversial FIFA president Sepp Blatter. [Vulture]
HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME
— Mastodon (@mastodonmusic) July 3, 2014