The Artist Is Not Present: The Significance of Sia’s Anti-Pop Persona

For once, a pop artist has rejected the idea of stardom, and as a result, has become one of the world’s most discussed pop stars.

For the first time since Madonna emerged on the scene in the ’80s, Australian artist Sia has found a way to make mainstream pop music exciting. After decades of Madonna wannabes like Lady Gaga, as well as flash in the pan one-hit wonders like Mandy Moore, we finally have an artist that appears to be doing her own thing.

Sia has been in the music industry since 1997, when she released her debut album OnlySee to little attention. She tried to garner a mainstream following for years, often writing songs for other artists, and with the exception of the track “Breathe Me” that was featured on the Six Feet Under series finalé, her music has been regularly overlooked. It wasn’t until 2013, when Sia reinvented her image with the release of her sixth studio album 1000 Forms of Fear, that people began to take notice.

The irony shouldn’t escape anyone who follows Sia’s work. To understand her latest incarnation is to imagine if Daft Punk crossed paths with Marina Abramović. Her performances are incredibly physical, and they often make abstract commentaries on identity and intimacy. However, like the popular French robots, Sia remains an anonymous figure in the background. We know her by name, but she keeps her face hidden, and unless anyone wanted to search for her past work on the Internet (which is not recommended, as it would ruin the experience), they would not know who she is.

The idea of an artist removing herself from a performance isn’t groundbreaking in and of itself, but in the realm of mainstream pop music where every female is branded and marketed for maximum exposure, it’s an audacious move that should be applauded. For once, a pop artist has rejected the idea of stardom, and as a result, has become one of the world’s most discussed pop stars.

In an interview with The New York Times Magazine, Sia claims that her decision to remain anonymous stems from an opposition to celebrity culture and the negativity it produces. “I just wanted to have a private life”, she says. (“Sia Furler, the Socially Phobic Pop Star”, by Steve Knopper, 18 April 2014) It seems paradoxical, in this day and age, for a pop star to succeed without exposing herself, but Sia has done just that.

Sia’s image, or lack thereof, forces us to reconsider how we evaluate contributions to pop music. It challenges us to place less emphasis on the artist and more on the artwork itself, which inevitably undermines notions of fandom and the worshiping of artists that comes with it.

Perhaps we should have seen this coming. Madonna, the ultimate showgirl, broke so much ground to the point where any other female pop artist that followed was held to an impossibly high standard. Not only did future pop acts have to be good, they also had to be original. As the rise and fall of Lady Gaga’s pop career demonstrates (Gaga seems to have successfully transitioned to an adult contemporary sound after her album with Tony Bennett and her Oscar performance), there’s not much that Madonna hasn’t already tried, and no one yet has been able to do it better.

Sia must have paid attention to the backlash Gaga and others experienced, and realized that if she wanted to break new ground, she had to completely distance herself from anything that Madonna and her followers have done. Her success shows how simply this can be achieved, despite how impossible it always seemed.

For all that Madonna has experimented with, the one thing that she will never do is hide from the spotlight. For better or worse, she has always been the star of the show, and as she celebrates more than three decades of unprecedented success in an ever-evolving industry, she’s hell-bent on reminding us all how she arrived. Her latest songs, music videos, and live performances increasingly draw from her own iconography, as if to imply that it’s impossible to make pop music today without referencing her legacy. To some, the postmodern irony may be overly indulgent, but it’s ballsy for the Queen of Pop to imply that her impact is so widespread that even she can’t avoid calling attention to it.

Why bother to compete with a legacy like this? Sia understands that it isn’t worth it, and as a result has constructed a persona that can best be described as the “anti-Madonna”, which is to say that it is anti-pop. Rather than relish in the spotlight, she withdraws from it. Rather than expose herself emotionally and physically, she remains an anonymous mystery. However, by becoming invisible, Sia ironically stands out, and for all of her talk about the ills of celebrity culture, it’s appropriate to assume that she always knew this persona would catapult her to the top of the pop charts.

The phenomenon first began when the music video to “Chandelier” went viral in May 2014. To this date, the video has received over 500 million views, and a plethora of amateur users have uploaded recreations of the video on their YouTube channels. In the video, we see a young girl in a cream-colored leotard and now iconic “Sia wig” dancing in a room by herself. The choreography is abstract. It promotes empowerment and self-expression, and it encourages viewers to let go of their inhibitions and be free.

Sia, unlike other pop artists, is not present in her video. Instead, the dancer is 12-year-old Maddie Ziegler, whose appearance on Lifetime’s Dance Moms caught Sia’s attention. The clip from Dance Moms below highlights Ziegler’s incredible talent, but the choreography is reminiscent of traditional ballet, and there’s nothing to suggest that Ziegler was trained for the more avant-garde moves we see in Sia’s video.

Sia’s decision to cast Ziegler in her video is brilliant. Not only does it appeal to a younger crowd that might otherwise ignore her, it forces viewers to judge the video solely on artistic terms. The absence of the artist removes any preconceived biases one may have, and instead makes room for an objective viewing experience.

This is unprecedented in mainstream pop music. Whatever we may think about Madonna, Taylor Swift, and others, the point is that we have an opinion about them that often distorts our perception of their work. Swift fans, for example, will praise everything she does, and those that don’t like her will attack everything she does. The same applies to Madonna. Her presence comes with so much baggage to the point where opinions about her next performance are made before it happens.

The same cannot be said about Sia. Since she remains an anonymous figure in the background, we approach each song, video, and live performance with a fresh perspective. Her performance of “Elastic Heart” on The Ellen Show, for example, is unique and creative. It features a group of children in white boxes miming the words to the song as a hidden Sia sings in the background. Ziegler appears, but Sia does not recreate the music video, and instead offers something different. This strange performance is unlike anything we’ve seen from a mainstream pop artist, and would fit right in at the Museum of Modern Art.

Unlike other pop stars, Sia cannot rely on the popularity of her personality to succeed. This is not to say that she doesn’t have fans, as plenty of people admire her work and look forward to her next performance. However, she must earn the public’s respect with each song, video, and performance, and there’s a sense that she must top herself every time. This is incredibly risky, and in a celebrity culture where stars like Swift use social media to interact with fans on a regular basis, Sia has placed herself in a challenging situation, as the question of her success depends entirely on the quality of her art.

Sia proves that the less we know about the artist, the better. Her anonymity forces artists to be creative and think outside of the box, and it encourages them to experiment. In addition, it challenges our culture’s fascination with fandom.

As fulfilling as it often is to be a fan of a pop star, our unconditional devotion often destroys our ability to objectively evaluate their work. After a while, we attend a Swift concert not to experience a great show, but to be in the presence of Swift, someone we think we have come to know and love. Celebrity worship has pervaded popular culture, and for many it doesn’t matter what their favorite artists do as long as they are relatable.

Beyoncé, for example, can phone it in with a song like “7/11” and her fans will fawn over it because they believe that Beyoncé is bigger than any one song, video, or live performance. Sia rejects this notion, and suggests that artists should always have to prove themselves with each endeavor, and that no amount of accomplishments should allow them to rest on their laurels.

With Sia’s presence relegated to the background, our enjoyment of her work depends on the artistic choices she makes, and the only thing we can judge at the end of the day is the work itself. Sometimes she will be great, and other times she will fail, but each song, video, and live performance will be approached with an open mind and sense of discovery, and the baggage of her personality will not be there to cloud our critical eye.

At a time when female pop stars are celebrated for their likability, we need more artists like Sia to remind us that creativity is what counts.

Splash image: Still of Maddie Ziegler from Sia’s “Chandelier” video.