Australian singer-songwriter Sia’s new album 1000 Forms of Fear has been released internationally today, accompanied by a deluge of media reporting her story: she’s one of a handful of the most successful songwriters in the world, an artist in her own right, and doesn’t want to be famous.
She’s written hit songs for Beyoncé, Rihanna, Britney Spears, and Kylie Minogue. People want her songs because they know they will be hits, in part because Sia’s songwriting craft is infused with intimate knowledge gained from her own incredible singing voice. The clip for her current single Chandelier has been viewed over 51 million times on Youtube.
In a sexist industry driven by image and obsessed with youth this is an incredible feat for a 38-year old woman from Adelaide who now refuses to show her face.
In recent performances including on the Ellen DeGeneres Show and Jimmy Kimmel Live! Sia sang with her back to the audiences. When the Australasian Performing Rights Association (APRA) honoured her with songwriter of the year award in June she accepted via a male stand-in dressed in her signature blonde wig.
The cover of her new album features only its title and the image of a blonde bob wig floating in blackness.
Sia has been making music since her teens, and released her first album in 1997. She had some success, including with Breathe Me, a song featured on the television series Six Feet Under, but her most significant success has come through writing hit songs for some of the biggest names in popular music.
The money she has earned and the reputation she has established have given her the clout to get a unique record deal with RCA that does not require her to tour or do promotional press.
In an “anti-fame manifesto” published in 2013, Sia wrote that the collective public response to fame creates a creature that is “sharp-tongued and lying in wait for my self-esteem”.
And, having experienced this beast by proxy through the famous people she’s worked with, she seeks to avoid it. This evasion protects her personhood, private life, and mental health: Sia has spoken publicly of her struggles with addiction and mental illness.
Discussions generated by Sia’s choices have focused on issues around fame and celebrity. But gender is also at stake in Sia’s strategy. By performing without showing her face and absenting her image from publicity, Sia forces viewers to listen to her voice rather than focus on her appearance.
In this way, she turns around the history of women in music. Sia fits into a trajectory of female singer-songwriters beginning with Laura Nyro, Joni Mitchell, Carole King and Carly Simon whose music, since the late 1960s, has explored personal themes in a confessional mode.
Yet these women struggled with a music industry that had no idea how to market them without sexualising them or somehow highlighting their femaleness.
Since the 1980s, some women in music have sought to combat this phenomenon by owning it. In that decade, through popularising music videos, MTV made image central to music and its marketing. Madonna capitalised on this by using music videos as a forum to explore her sexuality and create publicity through sexual controversy, a trend that continues with artists such as Lady Gaga.
Madonna also made clear that the female body was not simply an object for male consumption but a site where women themselves could explore their sexual desires and gendered identities.
In the 1990s, Riot Grrrls and Courtney Love played with non-traditional performances of femininity and sexuality, using what scholar Karina Eileraas has described as “ugliness as resistance,” to comment on issues including beauty standards, the objectification of and violence against women, patriarchy and compulsory heterosexuality.
But despite their challenges to the status quo and claims to agency, women who use their bodies as part of their musical performance still navigate a treacherous line between personal power and a wider system that continues to exploit, objectify, and cruelly judge women.
In this context, Sia’s refusal to show her face or use her body to sell her music is potentially revolutionary. By disappearing her own image and symbolising herself through a wig that is easily replicated and switched between various users, she refuses norms of female beauty, plays with gender, and draws attention to identity as a performance.
Sia’s strategy defies the obsession with appearance and youth, especially for women, and especially for women over the age of 30. Interestingly, as the result, she’s received an extraordinary amount of international attention, likely more than if she’d bared everything.
For women in music and the role of image in music more broadly, is Sia’s the face of the future?