This Is Acting
The 2016 studio release from Australia's most famous bag- and wig-wearing singer, Sia, is called This Is Acting. That title is reportedly a nod to the fact that her seventh album is largely a collection of hits written for other artists, Rihanna and Adele among them. Thus, the acting part. We're meant to believe that these seemingly deeply personal songs aren’t really deeply personal at all. They're supposedly just another expression of Sia's chameleon-like performance art, an art that hides or reveals only at her discretion.
I'm not buying it. Because, well, all of these song sound exactly like Sia songs. And what does a Sia song sound like, you ask? Well, more often than not, it's this fiery singer against the world. She's isolated. Alone. Broken down. Hurting. Then … triumphant and defiant.
I think there's more of Sia in these songs than she wants to admit. Or, as Time writer Nolan Feeney puts it, "If this is all indeed acting, Sia is quite good at it." Which raises the question, of course, of whether the roles she's playing (or living) this time around will be "good" for her fans, too.
Crude or Profane Language
Drug and Alcohol Content
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Right out of the gate, “Bird Set Free” sets the album’s tone: “Clipped wings, I was a broken thing/ … You held me down, I struggle to fly now.” Thankfully, Sia spends the rest of this self-respect anthem moving forward, not back. She wails, “I sing for love, I sing for me/I’ll shout it out like a bird set free/I have a voice, have a voice/Hear me roar tonight."
Next up is “Alive,” which treads similar territory. Sia says she’s in a bad place—a really bad place (“I had a one-way ticket to a place where all the demons go”). But she again finds strength within herself to overcome the stormy isolation she’s endured (“I found solace in the strangest place/Way in the back of my mind/ … I’m still breathing/I’m alive”). In fact, she’s even accomplished stuff that her former flame (or perhaps a parent) told her she’s never pull off (“Did all the things that you said I wouldn’t/I told you that I would never be forgotten”). And more indomitable determination to overcome all obstacles turns up on “Unstoppable.”
Meanwhile, “Reaper” faces down death, perhaps a subtle reference to forcefully saying no to suicide’s siren call (“Broke down, thought that I would drown/ … Saw you out of the corner of my eye/Don’t come for me today/I’m feeling good/ … I got good things to do with my life, yeah”). Sia also admits, “You [the titular Reaper] came to take me away/So close was I to heaven’s gates/But no baby, no baby, not today.” Then she reappropriates the famous “Footprints” poem about Jesus carrying us through tough times. She sings, “And I saw only two footprints in the sand/Thought you’d abandoned me and/Let go of my hand/But you were carrying me/Carrying me to safety.” It’s not clear whether she’s singing about a lover or the Savior, of course. And it's equally unclear whether her repetition of the phrase “Lord knows you can’t trust your head” is a misuse use of Jesus' title or an earnest one.
“One Million Bullets” references bad romances in the past (“Yeah, I picked the wrong kind/ … I drank from the poisoned wine”), but Sia’s so thankful for one that’s so good now that she gushes, “I’d take 1 million bullets” for her current love. Later she adds tenderly, “I’d give my life for one of your belly laughs.” “Broken Glass” finds two people working through a rough spot early in their relationship, with Sia repeatedly counseling, “Don’t give up.”
“Sweet Design” is the most unabashedly sexual—and easily the most problematic—song here. Sia brags about her backside’s appeal (“My junk, hypnotize the whole room/Bump, bump, Ima rub it on you/ … My seat is here to bring you wicked wishes”). Later she sings, “News travels fast/When you got an a-- like that/My sweet design/ … It’s a man trap.” She also goes on about another body part in a way that's too sexually evocative to print.
“Move Your Body” objectifies someone on the dance floor (“Poetry in your body/You got it in every way/And can’t you see that I’m watching?/I am hot for you in every way/ … Won’t you let me be your rhythm tonight?”). “House on Fire” includes this suggestive description of desire: “Baby, I’m a house on fire/And I want to keep burning.” Among the things Sia says she has to live for on “Reaper” are alcohol and physical intimacy (“I got drinks to drink and men to hold”).
On “Broken Glass,” Sia unwisely sticks her head in the sand when it comes to a lover's past (“There’s things I don’t ask/What I don’t know can’t hurt me”). “Space Between” talks of the distance between estranged lovers still sleeping together (“Feel the void in our bed/The space between is deafening/ … I’m too tired to push you from the bed”).
I have an impulse to give Sia credit for some positive forward momentum on this album. Compared to 2014’s 1000 Forms of Fear, the messages here on balance are more self-respecting and less self-destructive …
… right up to the moment when that generalization falls apart on booty brag “Sweet Design,” which sounds more like something we’d expect from Nicki Minaj. That's when Sia shamelessly trades in her hard-won self-respect for a big dose of self-objectification, something she, oddly, flirts with on a couple of other tracks as well. Oddly, because it’s a surprising and ironically disappointing turn of events for someone who’s gone to such great lengths to make sure the media doesn’t objectify her.