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SIA (Photo: Don Arnold/WireImage)
SIA (Photo: Don Arnold/WireImage)

Pop CultureDecember 12, 2017

Has Sia’s performance art pop reached its expiry date?

SIA (Photo: Don Arnold/WireImage)
SIA (Photo: Don Arnold/WireImage)

Sia played Mt. Smart Stadium last week. Sam Brooks went and found the concert – and Sia’s entire anti-persona persona – sadly wanting.

We all know Sia’s concept (if you’re being kind) or shtick (if you’re being unkind) by now. She puts on a wig and sings while a dancer, usually Maddie Ziegler from Dance Moms, draws focus from her. It forces the audience to look away from Sia while also making them much more keen to see her.

All popstars hide behind an image of one kind of another. Lady GaGa has shifted personas so frequently and successfully that her most recent, more stripped-back version seems to be like her most constructed one yet. Even someone like Taylor Swift, who is as calculatedly vulnerable and personal as they come, has a persona that has slowly crawled from approachable wholesome girl through to… whatever Reputation is – crimped hair and combat boots.

Where Sia succeeds, and where these other popstars have stumbled, is that her reluctance to have a popstar persona actually becomes an asset. When we think of Sia songs, we think as much of Maddie Ziegler’s passionate all-body-all-face performances in their music videos as much as we think of Sia. We’re emotionally connected to this preteen girl, and she stands in for all of us. So where Gaga can come off as remote or distantly avant-garde, and Swift can come off as too calculated or, frankly, too white, Sia is universal.

When you’re watching her music videos, or even her live performances through a screen, that works. But when you’re at a concert with well over ten thousand people? That persona, that image, hits a seemingly insurmountable block.

SIA & Maddie Ziegler in concert (Photo: Don Arnold/WireImage)

When you go to a concert, you go to see that person perform. You want to see them live. Or at least I do. I want to form an emotional connection with that performer – with a group of hundreds or thousands of other people doing that same thing.

Sia’s concert at Mt. Smart Stadium prevents that, for a few reasons.

The first and most obvious one is that Sia removes herself from the performance. After the first few songs, including a one-two punch of power-ballad ‘Alive’ and Rihanna hit ‘Diamonds’, Sia steps more or less off-stage for the rest of the concert. If you happened to be standing or sitting anywhere close to stage right, you would not have been able to see her at all (I couldn’t!) for most of the show.

But of course, when you go to a concert you expect to see the headliner front and centre. (It’s very clever that this gig bills Maddie Ziegler as a special guest because she’s absolutely the star of nearly the entire concert.)

The second, less obvious way a Sia show prevents emotional connection is the disconnect between what is happening on the screens and what’s happening onstage.The footage playing on the screen is clearly pre-recorded, and beautifully so. Each song has its own video, choreography and concept, usually with a celebrity front and centre. You’ve got Tig Notaro, Gaby Hoffman, Paul Dano, Kristen Wiig, that kind of celebrity.

Onstage, dancers re-enact exactly what is happening on the screen. Like, beat-perfect. Except it’s not the celebrities, it’s the incredibly talented dancers Sia has brought with her.

When you’ve got a venue as big as Mt. Smart, that creates a strange experience. You want to watch the screen because it’s got the celebrities on it and you also have a better sense of what is going on because it’s professionally shot and filmed, whereas the action onstage is so far away and blocked by screaming teenagers/mums/dudebros/old men, or you’re at a strange angle to see it. And, because you can’t see the headliner, the person you paid many dollars to see, actually singing or performing, there’s no point watching the dancing in front of you. You may as well just watch the screen because the angles are better and it’s where the famous people are.

So why even go to the concert at all?

Maddie Ziegler, centre stage (Photo: Dave Simpson/WireImage)

Sia was preceded by Charli XCX and MØ (and also Theia, who I didn’t see because being the first of three opening acts at a four-and-a-half-hour concert is a lot for these weary bones). These are two popstars with some monster hits between them (‘Fancy’, ‘I Love It’, ‘Lean On’, ‘Cold Water’, ‘Boys’ and on and on) and with huge amounts of personality and charisma. Whether it’s XCX’s detached cool or MØ throwing herself around the stage and coming right up to the audience, they’re performers who are working hard for your love, performers who know you’re here for the hits, and here to see them see the hits.

It’s the complete opposite for Sia, but that’s the thing about her. People don’t connect with Sia the popstar or Sia the human being, even though she’s delightful, thoughtful and fascinating in her interviews. They connect to the songs. They connect to the feeling of being a fucking mess like the protagonist in ‘Chandelier’. They connect to the image of Maddie Ziegler or her other dancers. They connect to the images in the video. Most of the crowd at Mt Smart didn’t know Sia before her anonymous wig-wearing persona, and I say that with no judgement. They don’t remember the Sia who was a vocalist for Zero 7, or the Sia of ‘Breathe Me’ (the only hit from her pre-fame career that she both wrote and sang). They don’t remember the dorky, a little bit awkward woman singing her off-beat pop songs.

SIA at Big Day Out 2011 in Auckland (Photo: Getty)

They know ‘Chandelier’, they know ‘The Greatest’ – they know these big pop songs with a void at the centre that demands the presence of anybody who isn’t Sia, whether that’s Maddie Ziegler or the ten thousand-strong audience at Mt Smart. And it’s that lack of personality that makes her both so universal and so damn frustrating. 

Because she is universal! I’ve been to countless, countless gigs in my life and I’ve rarely seen an audience as bizarrely diverse as the one I saw at Mt Smart. I saw three generations of people standing up front, looking up adoringly at the screens, I saw groups of Traceys, Beckys and Karens having a fun night out after a long day at the office, I saw boys and girls who were born long after Zero 7 quietly dissolved. That void works for Sia. It draws people in. Those people come for the image, come for the dancing, and come for the songs. And if that’s all you come to a pop concert for, power to you.

Me? I want more from my popstars. I want the confessional of a Julia Michaels, the full Broadway of a Beyoncé, or the emotional powerhouse of an Adele. Standing off to the side and channeling your music through another presence doesn’t do it for me. That’s not being a popstar, that’s being a playwright.

Sia has started to talk, and quite eloquently, about her use of Maddie Ziegler as some kind of avatar. It’s a cool idea, and one that Sia as both human being and artist is still clearly navigating.

She’s a formidable songwriter, and her mumblecore belter of a voice is still strange and unique in an autotuned-to-hell pop landscape, but her concept is more performance art than it is pop – and I think it’s reached its expiry date.

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