Can you be famous without being, well, famous? Australian singer Sia Furler is giving it her best shot. In a world in which image is everything for celebrities, Sia (pronounced see-a) is attempting to promote her sixth album, 1000 Forms of Fear, without using any pictures of herself.
You won’t see Sia’s face on the chart-topping album’s cover (just her trademark blond bob hanging over emptiness) … or anywhere else related to its promotion, for that matter. She was recently featured on the cover of Billboard magazine with a bag over her head. And in live performances on The Ellen DeGeneres Show and Late Night With Seth Myers, she sang her Top 20 hit “Chandelier” either facing a wall or lying facedown on a bed while other people wearing wigs mimicking her haircut dance and perform for the audience.
In an interview with dazed.com, Sia said, “I already have a much larger concept for this album and for how I’m going to present it and that was: I don’t want to be famous. If Amy Winehouse was a beehive then I guess I’m a blonde bob. I thought, Well if that’s my brand, how can I avoid having to use my face to sell something? So my intention was to create a blonde bob brand.”
Sia’s unusual approach seems to be more than just creative performance art. Following her fifth album, the singer, who’s penned hits for Rihanna, Eminem, Britney Spears, Flo Rida, Beyoncé, Christina Aguilera and Madonna, was nearly crippled by her growing success. Her phobic aversion to attention contributed to a downward spiral into drug and alcohol addiction as well as a suicide attempt in 2010. Since then, she’s been diagnosed as having bipolar disorder and has begun working to get sober and stable.
Stars who’ve collaborated with Sia insist her deep personal struggles enable her to connect with them and with her audience in a deeper way. “I fell in love with the way she looks at life,” Britney Spears has said. “There is a bit of darkness somewhere in there, but it doesn’t come across in a frightening way.”
But what happens when that “bit” of darkness makes its way onto an album? An album called 1000 Forms of Fear? An album on which Sia unpacks the myriad anxieties that haunt her heart?
“Dressed in Black” is easily (and ironically) the brightest spot on this 12-song set. On it, Sia praises someone who has loved her out of the darkness (“I was imprisoned by dark/You found me dressed in black/ … You started breaking down my walls/And you covered my heart in kisses/ … Life had broken my heart, my spirit/And then you crossed my path/You quelled my fears, you made me laugh”).
Full of references to drinking until you pass out, “Chandelier” actually seems to be a confessionary, cautionary tale about how Sia’s fears drove her into addiction. She sings, “One, two, three, one, two, three, drink/ … Throw ’em back ’til I lose count/I’m gonna swing from the chandelier, from the chandelier/I’m gonna live like tomorrow doesn’t exist/ … I’m gonna fly like a bird through the night, feel my tears as they dry/ … But I’m holding on for dear life/ … Keep my glass full until morning light, ’cause I’m just holding on for tonight.” And when the sun rises the next morning, she flatly adds, “I’m a mess/Gotta get out now, gotta run from this/Here comes the shame, here comes the shame.”
“Big Girls Cry” admits that even a “tough girl in the fast line” sheds tears when her heart’s broken. In the wake of a hard breakup on “Eye of the Needle,” Sia steels herself against fear with the line, “I won’t let the terror in.” She says she wants a man she can respect on “Fair Game,” and she seems to find someone who cares for her despite her flaws. She encourages a struggling friend on “Burn the Pages,” advising that person to let go of the past (“Yesterday is gone, and you will be OK/ … Yesterday is dead and gone, and so today/Place your past into a book/Burning the pages, let ’em cook”).
Alcohol is once again where Sia turns to numb herself on “Big Girls Cry.” And “Hostage” finds her in emotional (and perhaps literal) bondage to a lover (“You make me cry, and you make me come/ … Put me in cuffs/Lock me up/I’m held hostage by your touch”) whom she fears has other lovers as well (“The secret life/Of lovers who have others/Under the covers/ … You break my heart”).
Darker still are “Straight for the Knife” and “Free the Animal,” both of which mingle imagery that blurs the lines between violence, death and sex. On the former, Sia sings of her cravings for a sexual encounter (“Wore pretty underwear/Hoping you might take it off”) with someone whose response to her is described in violent terms (“You went straight for the knife/And I prepared to die/Your blade, it shines/ … You turned the gas on high/Held the flame alight/You wonder why I’m scared of fire”). On the latter song, Sia again frames sexual passion in murderous, violent terms: “Wanna put my hands through you/I’ll squeeze you until you take your last breath/Loving you to death/ … Detonate me/Shoot me like a cannonball/ … Kill me like an animal/Decapitate me/Hit me like a baseball/Emancipate me/Free the animal/ … I’ll kill you with my loving.” Pleasure and pain continue to mingle on “Fire Meet Gasoline.”
Sia describes herself as malleable and stretchable on “Elastic Heart,” which may or may not be a good thing. And “Cellophane” pulsates with hurt and desperation as she tells a lover, “Can’t hide the pain,” after which we hear, “While I fall apart, you hide all my pills again.”
Sia wades through difficult feelings and is determined not to let disappointments cripple her on quite a few of her songs. And I so wish I was able to end this review with that. But in so many other places, her determination is replaced with capitulation and manipulation as her grasp on tenacity fails and she slips into the thrall of murky choices and relationships. Listening to her, you finally feel like you’re being sucked into an emotional sinkhole where hurt and numbness, sex and violence all swirl down into the abyss with you.
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews.