‘1000 Forms of Fear’: Sia Is the Rare Pop Star Who Doesn’t Need a Gimmick

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The best mainstream pop album of 2014 so far will be released this week by a woman whose face some cannot recall. They’ve seen the back of her white-blonde bob and can recognize the way her raspy, belting style stretches ordinary words, but in recent years, Sia Furler has clicked the opt-out button on fame. It’s a good thing her metaphor-driven songs about feeling terrified, depressed, and oddly empowered over love and addiction are strong enough to accommodate what is practically an unheard-of promotional strategy in Top 40 — one that points out pop music’s overreliance on the cult of personality in the process.

Still, there is a narrative to Sia’s unconventional life in pop. At 38, 1000 Forms of Fear is the Australian native’s sixth album, following five LPs that sounded more like Fiona Apple and tUnE-yArDs than radio pop, plus a stint in British trip-hop group Zero 7. The biggest hit of her solo career’s first act was “Breathe Me,” a dramatically crescendoing piano-and-strings ballad that is among the most-synced songs in 21st-century television. Six Feet Under fans may feel tears well up in their eyes just upon hearing a few notes.

A lack of interest in fame and its tedious requirements led Sia down the pop songwriting path, initially alongside Christina Aguilera in 2009. The results of their collaboration appeared on Aguilera’s Bionic, an electro-pop flop that arrived the week before the release of Sia’s fifth album, the wildly underrated and relentlessly upbeat We Are Born. Right around the time of that album’s release in June 2010, Sia announced that she would be ceasing promotional appearances and live performances in support of We Are Born due to poor health. She had been diagnosed with Graves’ disease and, according to a recent New York Times Magazine profile, plotted a suicide attempt around this time, complete with a note and the purchase of “two of everything” (except meth and heroin) from a drug dealer. A friend called and deterred Furler’s plans.

In the four years since then, Sia has kicked addictions to alcohol, antidepressants, and painkillers, the latter two obtained following a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. Often working alongside 1000 Forms of Fear producer and co-writer Greg Kurstin, Sia has co-written Rihanna’s No. 1 hit “Diamonds,” Celine Dion’s big “comeback” single “Loved Me Back to Life,” the only redeeming track on Britney Spears’ 2013 album Britney Jean (“Perfume”), Beyoncé’s realest commentary on her surprise-attack album (“Pretty Hurts”), and many more album cuts for pop stars one might consider Sia’s current competition… were she trying to compete. She is not.

In fact, the only reason Sia still has a career as a recording artist is because David Guetta and Flo Rida liked her scratch vocals so much on the demos she’d co-written for them, they left her on the finished products (2011’s “Titanium” and 2012’s “Wild Ones,” respectively) as the hook girl. When her name ended up in the credits of these Top 10 hits, her manager said, “I don’t think I really believed you that you didn’t want to be credited or get the recognition you deserve.” So much for being the next Linda Perry.

From there came songs on high-profile soundtracks, The Great Gatsby (“Kill and Run”) and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (“Elastic Heart”), which brings us to 1000 Forms of Fear. As Billboard reported last year in a rare interview with Sia, her record contact with RCA states that she does not have to tour or do press to promote the album. Though songs Sia has written have sold more than 25 million copies, she had never cracked the Hot 100 chart as the lead artist on a song when she signed this contract (she has since shattered this barrier with “Chandelier,” currently sitting at No. 20).

“I’ve never been a ‘priority’ before,” she said in 2010. “This buzz doesn’t just come because of a good song. It’s marketing. Which is sick. This is a sick business. It’s so sad. Knowing now what goes into making a successful artist, it’s disheartening.”

She put the blame on Internet users and news cycles in her “Anti-Fame Manifesto” last year: “If anyone besides famous people knew what it was like to be a famous person, they would never want to be famous. Imagine the stereotypical highly opinionated, completely uninformed mother-in-law character and apply it to every teenager with a computer in the entire world. Then add in all bored people, as well as people whose job it is to report on celebrities. Then, picture that creature, that force, criticizing you for an hour straight once a day, every day, day after day.”

So she doesn’t show her face when she appears live, instead turning her back to the audience and using proxies — Lena Dunham, the New York City Gay Men’s Chorus, and a young dancer named Maddie Ziegler (from her “Chandelier” video) — wearing bluntly cut blonde wigs that resemble Sia’s own hair. She’s reluctantly referred to the wigs — on other people, of course — as a symbol of her “I don’t want to be famous” brand. Some would say that’s a gimmick not unlike the mysterious, even faceless, approach to publicity favored by buzzy new acts like The Weeknd. But to me it seems a tool for survival in the mainstream, where female pop stars can’t exist without being separated in Mean Girls-esque cliques and subsequently pitted against each other.

Perhaps it’s easy for people to judge pop stars so harshly when they give us so much of themselves, or at least their public personae. I put an emphasis on Sia’s backstory because her name gets tossed around in the music world, oftentimes with little understanding of her previous work as a solo artist, rather than a songwriter to the stars. Both have allowed her to create 1000 Forms of Fear, an album full of lingering songs that strike the right balance between violently raw emotion and universal uplift, between piano pop and beats the snap and pop in ways that are just a little off, recalling the patchwork quirk of some of Furler’s earlier albums. “Dressed in Black,” an album standout, represents the breadth of Sia’s talents: atop a music-box melody and hard-hitting percussion, Furler suggests death by heartbreak via funeral imagery and, in a very un-Top 40 way, two minutes of freestyle wailing. It’s impossible not to feel this woman’s anguish, but the damn music-box twinkles make you think she could easily be resurrected and brush it all off.

The real Sia is in the music, not in her proximity to established stars or an anti-fame attitude others have attempted with far less sincerity. Unconventional approaches to art often ask us to appreciate the work on its own terms, instead of in the context of conventional methods. It’s what Sia, at least in her third act as the reluctant pop star, attempts to do. And it’s a testament to 1000 Forms of Fear that you’ll enjoy the songs just as much if you fight the urge to Google Image search her.