Sia’s This Is Acting Is Full of Hits, Misses, and Some Great What-Ifs

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One of the best songs on Sia’s new album is the bright, bouncy “Reaper” — a feel-good ode to cheating death. “You came to take me away, so close I came to heaven’s gate,” she belts in a weathered wail, “But no, baby, no, baby, not today.” It is easy to take this song as autobiography, given the personal anecdotes that Sia dutifully supplied interviewers like Ellen DeGeneres and Howard Stern while she was promoting her last album, 1000 Forms of Fear. We know that, in her early 20s, Sia’s boyfriend was killed in a car accident, and that this tragedy triggered an emotional downward spiral that eventually led her to a bipolar diagnosis. We know that, in the decade or so that she was making less commercial music, she abused drugs and alcohol to numb herself from her grueling tour schedule. We even know what her rock bottom looked like: Writing a suicide note, calling her dealer and ordering “two of everything,” and planning to take it all at once until, at the last minute, a friend intervened. Sia has been clean and sober for five and a half years now, and her subsequent decision to opt out of the pop spotlight — turning her back to live audiences, refusing to pose for publicity photos, finding artful ways to hide her face at awards shows — is largely, she says, to preserve her newfound peace of mind. The visuals that came of that breakthrough album, 1000 Forms of Fear, speak quite personally of her struggles and triumphs; the set of her now-iconic video for “Chandelier” is dotted with paintings done by her 12-step sponsee. The more we know about Sia’s backstory, the more we buy into her performance of a song as wrenching as “Reaper,” and the greater the catharsis we feel when she pushes to the cracking limits of her vocal range to resist that hooded demon: “Don’t come for me today, I’m feeling good, I’m gonna savor it.”

So, apologies in advance for pulling back the curtain.

“I don’t care about the song,” Sia said, discussing “Reaper” in a recent Rolling Stone interview. “I know in print that will look bad, but what I mean is I’m not emotionally attached to it. I think it’s a good, fun song, but I didn’t anticipate it being on the record.” Sia initially wrote “Reaper” for Rihanna, the artist for whom she penned the 2012 hit “Diamonds,” and the new track also bears co-writing and co-producing credits from Kanye West. Assuming, perhaps, that this collaboration would get Sia to wax a little more poetic about the writing process, the interviewer asked what it was like working in the studio with Kanye. “Well, he wasn’t there!” Sia replied. “I went in the studio to write for Rihanna and Kanye and neither of them showed up … They had two tracks. They told me what they had wanted. There were notes from Kanye, but I can’t even remember what they were.”

Sia’s new album, This Is Acting, is full of these sorts of shrugged-off, unromantic, and decidedly utilitarian creation stories. There’s a would-be Beyoncé ballad (“Footprints”) and an Adele single that wasn’t (“Alive”); there’s a song that was written for a character in Pitch Perfect 2 (“Bird Set Free”) that was eventually passed over for a different Sia composition (“Flashlight”). Although it’s being marketed, somewhat self-deprecatingly, as an album comprised of other artists’ “rejects,” that word feels unduly harsh given the insanely prolific, trial-and-error, spaghetti-against-the-wall method in which pop music is produced.

A fact I’ve seen recited over and over again with awe in stories about Sia is that she wrote Rihanna’s “Diamonds” in 14 minutes. Of course she did. Pop is instinct over analysis: Gut trumps mind; ease (or at least the illusion of it) beats sweat. And like the most prominent pop songwriters, Sia’s process is all about tuning in the moment, trusting her first thought, and chucking whatever’s not working for her. In current pop parlance, Sia, when she writes for other artists, is what’s now called a top-liner, someone who scats melodic gibberish over a producer’s finished track and, if she’s really vibing with her creation, turns these placeholder sounds into acceptable lyrics. (If this process sounds to you like Everything That’s Wrong With Music Today, you have probably forgotten that Paul McCartney’s initial placeholder lyrics for “Yesterday” were “Scrambled eggs, oh you’ve got such lovely legs.”) Producers will send Sia dozens of tracks in a given week, so if one is not clicking with her, it’s no big deal to chuck it and move on to the next. “It’s really just hit or miss,” she told Rolling Stone, “and I think the reason I’m pretty successful is actually because I’m really productive, not necessarily that I’m a great songwriter.”

Sia started writing pop songs for other people when she was in her mid-30s, newly sober and sick of touring. She says she only put out 1000 Forms of Fear to get out of a publishing deal, and its subsequent success (debuting at No. 1 on the Billboard charts, garnering five Grammy nominations) was a surprise to her. It seemed, actually, like one of the most surprising pop successes in recent memory, flying in the face of the music industry’s supposed obsessions with youth, accessibility, and (readily visible) pretty faces. Other prolific top-liners like Bonnie McKee and Ester Dean have made earnest but ill-fated runs for the kind of pop stardom that they help orchestrate. Sia was the one who broke out, though, without even wanting to.

Or anyway, that’s another one of those pop backstories it’s romantic to believe. 

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People who jump to the usual, lazy conclusions about why Sia wears a bag over her head (she’s shy, she thinks she’s ugly, she’s uncomfortable onstage) should watch her 2009 DVD TV Is My Parent, because it proves all these assumptions silly. Between songs she’s bubbly and loquacious, twitchy but comfortable in her skin. She makes dick jokes that gently ridicule her all-male backing band; at a few different points, she does an Ashlee Simpson–on-SNL-esque jig. Fatally shy this person is not. The materials she’ll eventually arrange into her pop persona are there — darkness and demons undercut with a whimsical, childlike kitsch — but they’re messy. She is quite literally trying to stuff more into these songs than they will hold. Before she sings “Academia,” a fey, too-precious indie-pop song that stretches its title metaphor way too far (“I’m greater than X and lesser than Y, so why is it that I still can’t catch your eye?”), she gives the audience a premature mea culpa: “This one’s … got a lot of words in it. And sometimes I run out of breath.”

That song, though, contains the kernel of what would eventually become Sia’s signature trick as a pop songwriter, what her collaborator Jonathan Daniel has called the “high concept” song. In a New York Times Magazine profile of Sia, this type of song was described as “the industry trick of coming up with a word or phrase that works as a simple, poignant, bankable metaphor, like the Katy Perry song ‘Firework.’” Bankable is an important word in that sentence, of course, but so is simple. Pop is not only ease but simplicity, restraint; pop is Coco Chanel saying, “Elegance is refusal.” “TV Is My Parent” and “Healing Is Difficult” (the title of Sia’s 2003 album) are alluring and relatable concepts, but they are clumsy phrases. “Chandelier,” on the other hand, glistens and beckons. “Alive” is primal. “Diamonds” are forever.

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There are two ways to listen to This Is Acting. One is to take it at face value, an album of pop songs made and sung by a pop star named Sia. But the other — which is certainly invited by the title — is to pull back the curtain and see a collection of speculative pop fictions. When you learn that “Alive” was co-written by Adele and Tobias Jesso Jr., you start to wonder how 25 would flow had it made the cut instead of their collaboration “When We Were Young.” In some alternative universe, could Adele’s “Alive” have been her comeback single, rather than “Hello”? Would it have been as big a hit? What sort of reworking would Beyoncé do to “Footprints” to make it her own? Would Icona Pop have had a second smash if they’d recorded the punchy “Cheap Thrills” instead of their tepid 2015 single “Emergency”? Does Rihanna’s rejection of “Reaper” tell us anything about the sound of Anti? You start to squint. The pop world starts to feel very small, because it is.

As with 1000 Forms of Fear, this album contains hits and misses — but the misses are especially fascinating for what they reveal. “Move Your Body,” perhaps the most ridiculous song on This Is Acting, is sung entirely — and Sia has admitted this — in a strangely convincing Shakira accent. (I scoured the credits the first time I heard it to confirm that it wasn’t actually Shakira.) “Unstoppable” and “House on Fire” (co-written with Jack Antonoff) both adhere rather formulaically to the songwriting arc Sia has dubbed “victim to victory,” a state of mind that’s all but inescapable on pop radio these days. On the other hand, I’m glad that Sia kept “Bird Set Free” and, especially, “Alive” for herself. There’s a gritty kind of daring in her voice — Sia scales melodies like a stuntwoman without a harness — that make these songs feel uniquely her own.

Which is ironic because on her more eccentric “indie” albums (you know, the kinds we’re supposed to consider more “original”), she didn’t really do that. What now makes Sia so unmistakably Sia, in a pop world where the same hit songs are shopped around to all the top artists, is that little crack in her voice when she grazes her edge, as she does in the chorus of “Alive,” the bravery of risking failure as she pushes against her limits. I don’t entirely believe her when she says there’s nothing of herself in the songs she writes for other people (especially given her quick, intuitive process; those are the moments when all of our subconsciouses usually kick in), but I respect her right to weave her own kind of pop fiction: The story of the artist so detached from her material and her stardom that she’d rather give it all away. It wouldn’t be the first half-truth we’ve ever been told.