How Sia Kept Breathing and Became a Formalist

Although there are for Sia 1,000 forms of fear, if you will, there are only two formal conventions in her manual of pop songwriting.
This Is Acting

Sia Furler’s 2005 song, “Breathe Me”, is about being on the verge of breakage. It’s about losing oneself and needing to be found, hurting oneself and wanting to feel safe. Known to many as “that song in the finalé of Six Feet Under, “Breathe Me” has a poignant chorus, sung in the imperative mode.

Be my friend

Hold me, wrap me up

Unfold me

I am small and needy

Warm me up

And breathe me

This is an alchemical chorus: in six short lines, the singer’s constitutive matter undergoes at least two magical transformations. “Be my friend / Hold me, wrap me up”: the singer is most likely a person. “Unfold me”: the singer becomes the very material she longs to be wrapped in. “Breathe me”: the singer acquires an elemental quality. As a being made of air, she can’t be broken, lost, or hurt.

If “Breathe Me” is a cry for help, it’s a faint one. The demands made by the singer approximate what the literary critic Anne-Lise François calls “recessive actions”. These are actions that take themselves away as they occur. Their relationship to agency is murky. “Breathe Me” doesn’t perform passivity so much as it makes a request for suspended action. In Sia’s minimalist aesthetic, a person can yearn to become so small she’s no longer solid. A person can become ambient — nothing more than a voice.

Sia’s new album, This Is Acting, releases 29 January. Its lead single, “Alive”, shares a lexicon with “Breathe Me”. These are the pre-chorus, chorus, and post-chorus of the album’s lead single, “Alive”:

I’m still breathing

I’m still breathing

I’m still breathing

I’m still breathing

I’m alive

I’m alive

I’m alive

I’m alive

You took it all, but I’m still breathing

You took it all, but I’m still breathing

You took it all, but I’m still breathing

You took it all, but I’m still breathing

You took it all, but I’m still breathing

You took it all, but I’m still breathing

You took it all, but I’m still breathing

You took it all, but I’m still breathing

“Alive” clearly revisits the breathing trope on which “Breathe Me”, Sia’s first commercial success, pivots. But the two songs are antipodes, both lyrically and sonically. “Alive” gives up the imperative mode for the declarative mode. Rather than aspiring to turn into air as an antidote to vulnerability, the singer of “Alive” asserts her aliveness as evidence that she has overcome vulnerability. By the time she sings, “I’m still breathing”, she has survived an injury (“You took it all”). “Breathe Me” proposes variations on themes of breakage and safety. “Alive”, on the other hand, repeats lines that remain unaltered. “Breathe Me” exists halfway between indie pop and blues, whereas “Alive” embraces anthemic pop. The insistent percussions recall Florence and the Machine. The unrestrained use of reverb gives the odd impression that a glee club’s worth of Sias are singing the first-person chorus.

Sia’s transition from indie darling to hit maker has been well documented. In a New York Times Magazine profile published in 2014, reporter Steve Knopper tells a rags-to-riches tale of some sort. Despite the occasional success (read: “Breathe Me”) Sia was in shambles. She had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and suffered from addiction. When her new manager, Jonathan Daniel, encouraged her to write pop songs for other artists, neither she nor he was sure she’d know how to do so. Chart-toppers written for, and popularized by, Rihanna, Beyoncé, Katy Perry, and Britney Spears proved Sia’s status, in Knopper’s words, as a “one-woman hit factory”.

“Chandelier”, from the 2014 album 1000 Forms of Fear, marked Sia’s official return as a singer (she had previously been featured on tracks that she had written for other artists, but had released no albums of her own in four years). Aware that celebrities could afford little privacy, Sia decided she wouldn’t show her face in public. She set out to perform in a blonde — and, more recently, a half-blonde, half-black — wig. Interpretive dancers, ranging from virtuosos (Dance Moms daughter Maddie Ziegler) to wannabe virtuosos (performance art enthusiast and James Franco-spiritual cousin, Shia LaBeouf) became the faces, or more accurately the bodies, of Sia’s own voice.

To say that Sia’s stunt has been successful would be an understatement. As documented by PopMatters’ Jon Lisi (“The Artist Is Not Present: The Significance of Sia’s Anti-Pop Persona”), Sia’s withdrawal in her mesmerizing TV appearances has allowed her to leave a lasting impression while avoiding the accusation of “trying too hard”, as is so often directed at pop stars like Lady Gaga.

Sia’s comeback as a singer didn’t coincide with a return to indie pop. With 1000 Forms of Fear, Sia pondered how to make hers a bombastic pop that she had so far written mostly with other performers in mind. Her strategy was to give her anthems a darker, more melancholic tone than an order from Britney Spears or Katy Perry might warrant. The visual aspect of her work also helped Sia distinguish between her career as a performer and her career as a hired songwriter.

In a characteristically candid interview with Rolling Stone’s Brittany Spanos, Sia said she viewed her visual work as art and her music as commerce: “I think I managed to trick people a little bit into thinking I’m more arty by making artistic, visual work and applying it to commercial music. Maybe. I don’t know.” If the visual aspect of Sia’s work is closer to art, art functions, here, as a trick to conceal the commercial nature of her music. Then again: “Maybe. I don’t know.” Sia doesn’t appear to be sure whether art is for her an alibi for commerce or commerce an alibi for art.

With This Is Acting, the line between Sia’s music as a hit maker and her music as a singer songwriter is blurrier than ever. A concept album, This Is Acting contains tracks that were declined by the artists for whom they were intended. “Alive”, for instance, was written with and for Adele. Throughout her career, Sia has been interested in what is rejected or left behind. This Is Acting seeks to propel broken pieces to the top of the Billboard chart.

Although there are for Sia 1,000 forms of fear, if you will, there are only two formal conventions in her manual of pop songwriting. The first of these conventions is what she and Daniel call a “high concept”. A high concept is the simple, iterable image that anchors a song: “I’ve got an elastic heart”; “I am titanium”; “I’ll fly like a cannonball”; “I hope she smells my perfume”; “You’re my flashlight”’ “Fire meet gasoline”’ “Through the eye of the needle”’ and of course “I wanna swing from the chandelier” and “Shine bright like a diamond”. The subject of a high concept is often “I”. In certain songs, a high concept pertains to a phenomenon described in the present tense. In others, it predicts a future action. A high concept most often relies on a metaphor or a simile.

“Alive” stretches Sia’s “high-concept” rule to its logical extent. She makes a bombastic song out of commonplaces and platitudes. Breathing and aliveness (a notion that lacks the positive connotation of liveliness) are rudimentary bodily mechanisms and conditions. Conjugated in the first person (“I’m still breathing”, “I’m alive”) and repeated, they acquire some gravitas. While in “Breathe Me” a whispered demand to be breathed reveals a minimalist aesthetic of comfort and protection, “Alive” turns to a minimally original subject matter to generate an anthem with maximum impact. Content-wise, “Alive” is as thin as can be. Formally, it’s huge: loud, triumphant, explosive.

The second convention that organizes Sia’s pop is what she calls the “victim-to-victory” formula. A survivalist song like “Alive” alternates between memories of a gloomy past and empowering claims about the present. The progression from victim to victory often coincides with the transition from verse to chorus. This is the case in “Alive” as well as in “Bird Set Free”, also from This Is Acting:

Clipped wings, I was a broken thing

Had a voice, had a voice but I could not sing

You would wind me down

I struggled on the ground

So lost, the line had been crossed

Had a voice, had a voice but I could not talk

You held me down

I struggle to fly now

But there’s a scream inside that we all try to hide

We hold on so tight, we cannot deny

Eats us alive, oh it eats us alive

Yes, there’s a scream inside that we all try to hide

We hold on so tight, but I don’t wanna die, no

I don’t wanna die, I don’t wanna die

And I don’t care if I sing off key

I find myself in my melodies

I sing for love, I sing for me

I shout it out like a bird set free

Just like “Alive” displays a thematic kinship with “Breathe Me”, the verses of “Bird Set Free” convey themes — feeling lost, being debilitated, fearing death –that echo the 2005 ballad. Yet, the chorus of “Bird Set Free” is uplifting — almost absurdly so. Absurdly because the chorus conveys a kind of nonchalance (“And I don’t care if I sing off key”) at odds with the viscerality of what precedes it (“But there’s a scream inside that we all try to hide / We hold on so tight, we cannot deny / Eats us alive, oh it eats us alive”). Absurdly, also, because before it was released by Sia, the song was pitched to other skilled singers, including Adele, who, well, don’t “sing off key”.

Sia acknowledges that her choruses are clichéd, shallow. Her relationship with her own songs is puzzled. At times, she’s amazed at, and visibly grateful for, the success they’ve had. In other reports, she outright mocks their content. She confessed to New York Times Magazine, “I can’t believe I got away with it.” In an interview for Nightline, ABC News’ Chris Connelly asked her how long it took her to write “Titanium” for EDM superstar David Guetta. “It was, like, around forty minutes, I think. And then, maybe, half an hour to record the vocals,” she evaluated. “That’s amazing,” Connelly responded, which caused Sia to laugh with aplomb.

The victim-to-victory formula that Sia uses and reuses in her songs, but doesn’t seem to entirely buy, is eerily similar to the rags-to-riches story that reporters, and she herself, regularly put forward when they recount her transition from indie to anthemic pop songwriting. Sia repeatedly employs these conventions despite her mixed feelings about them. For her, a person can be attached to a narrative, but remain ambivalent about the ideology it conveys.

This is a simple idea, maybe even a truism, but few pop stars are willing to recognize it. Lady Gaga displays an absolute conviction in whatever message is attached to the album she’s promoting. When she claims that life is art, or that “you were born this way, baby”, she means it. Sia writes and sings that it gets better because it sounds right. It fits the melody. It feels good. It doesn’t get better because getting better as such is right. It gets better because getting better fits the form of a good, catchy song.

While I’m moved by “Breathe Me”, and by Sia’s earlier albums more generally, I’m in awe of her formal prowess in 1000 Forms of Fear and what I’ve heard of This Is Acting. By producing maximalist pop out of minimally original content, and by treating empowerment as musical and narrative structure rather than moral discourse, Sia earns her status as the faceless icon of a formalist approach to pop music.

Jean-Thomas Tremblay is a Ph.D. Student in English at the University of Chicago. He holds a graduate certificate in the Study of Gender and Sexuality. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Criticism, Women & Performance, Arcade, Public Books, Make Magazine, and The Oxonian Review.