The upcoming album from the most mellifluous wig in music — Sia — is a specimen of pointedly impersonal pop: it mostly comprises songs she wrote entirely for other artists. Seen in light of the music itself, the title of the album, This Is Acting, seems neither to glorify the concept of being a blank slate and molding oneself to write for icons nor make a more sinister statement about self-erasure.It’s just smartly matter-of-fact — whether or not you decide to then project cynicism or idealism onto it depends on how you already feel about pop.
Back in February, Sia described the process of making the track “Reaper” — the anticipated Kanye West “collaboration” — to Rolling Stone. She was supposed to co-write the song for Rihanna, with West — and went into the studio under the assumption that both of them would be working directly with her. Instead, she “stayed for less than an hour,” working with neither star, but rather with a few notes West left in the studio.
“I remember I just raced in and raced out,” she said. “And I thought there was something about the chorus that seemed fun about this song, but I never thought it would see the light of day. My manager pushed for this song to be on the record, but I don’t care about it.” A pop star might normally embellish, proclaiming that West didn’t need to be a physical presence in the songwriting process because she just felt a connection with his vision, or that the track’s rejection was a happy accident because she ultimately fell in love with the song. But this statement just seemed so… pragmatic, and so OK with being thus.
So. As you listen to “Reaper” — a jaunty song that swells in intensity to a thwacked beat as Sia’s voice crescendos and begs the grim reaper to shirk his soul-collecting duties on this happy day — you now hear the extent to which the geyser of passion was simulated, originating from a dispassionate process that sounds like the artistic equivalent of going to the DMV (and maybe, once there, receiving a memo of instructions from Kanye on how to smile for your license photo). The song is, in part, a matter of convincing acting: Sia has a distinctive, emotionally contortionistic voice — and she uses it for both art and business. Like all pop stars. Except that normally, in pop, the necessary fact that an artist is also a businessperson is either aggrandized to the extent of self-deification (West) or obfuscated by an overemphasis on emotional authenticity (Adele).
This Is Acting openly presents a series of reworked unsuccessful business endeavors and wonders, or at least leads us to wonder, what separates these “acted” songs, that Sia wrote but didn’t initially intend as representations of her own brand, from the rest of pop. It manages to be Sia’s poppiest album – more dance floor-ready than 2014’s 1000 Forms of Fear, and more guiltlessly hedonistic (as Sia’s not recounting her own dealings with addiction and compulsive partying, but rather articulating more generic ideals of the types of experiences pop should describe) — while also demystifying pop itself.
Most of these songs — with the exception of the catchy but all-too-trite sexercise innuendo “Move Your Body” and the Ellie Goulding-meets-Bieber-banger “Cheap Thrills” — bear a pretty clear Sia stamp, with mild nods towards the artists they were meant for. Working again with 1000 Forms collaborators Greg Kurstin and Jesse Shatkin to create lush production that verges on but never quite becomes saccharine, Sia implements similar singular vocal flourishes that may have drawn us to some of her earlier tracks — alien samples of her voice course through songs like “Cheap Thrills,” and her voice punctuates the lyrics with outlandish ululations on “One Million Bullets.”
The songs themselves are thus emphatic, unironic, purely good pop songs. This album, as a conceptual gesture, isn’t so extreme as to compromise the music by suggesting that all pop stars are strictly role-playing pieces of cardboard; rather, it non-judgmentally insinuates the banal calculation behind the industry that manufactures sex, inspiration, and all the feels. “I’m Alive,” Sia screams defiantly, on the album’s most anthemic single, one that’s reminiscent of her notedly personal hit “Chandelier” — but the “I” who’s “alive” was originally meant to be Adele. Then Rihanna. It’s a testament to Sia’s vocal prowess that she performs “Alive” with more pained oddity, more effectively uncomfortable strain than either Adele or Rihanna likely would have. But when you go through the cursory motions of finding out who was initially intended to sing these songs, you can imagine these other artists filling them in, making them “their own.”
So many of the songs on the album thus work as deconstructions of pop brands and, perhaps even more importantly, deconstructions of the ways in which we might see these brands as specific to particular pop stars’ own biographies or emotional lives. Adele, for example, may be a pop star who maintains an air of relative privacy, but the power of her voice — not dissimilar to Sia’s in its belting expressiveness — leads listeners to assume they’re connecting on some abstract level to her authentic heartbreak: the unadorned music video for “Hello” suggests this is exactly what her brand aims for, and response to it suggests this is exactly what it achieved.
Curiously, early coverage of This Is Acting tracks showed how, even with an awareness of the album’s theme, the media was still trying to project biographic authenticity onto its tracks. When MTV first found out that album opener “Bird Set Free” — an ode to the liberating qualities of singing — was written for Adele’s 25, they did a breakdown of how its lyrics seem to apply to Adele’s struggle with a tenacious vocal polyp:
“I’m not gon’ 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”: Adele’s surgery was a complete success, but even if things hadn’t returned to normal, it sounds like she wouldn’t have given up on her love of music.
But… it turns out the song was written for Pitch Perfect 2. Then it followed the same trajectory as “Alive” — Adele cut it, then it was pitched to Rihanna, then Sia kept it for This Is Acting. This mistaken set of self-serious speculations underscores how pop becomes individualized in part through the talent of an individual, but more through a collective effort to market that individual a certain way. The pop song begins as a tract housing unit and becomes a capitalist fortress, claiming to contain the tenacious sprit and empowerment of the individual.
The framework of a pop song is an extremely simple generalized projection of what the public collectively desires from an artist. Where it gets complicated — and where it gets interesting — is in the confluence of the heavy branding that ensues after the initial writing process (through production, music videos, album art, and most importantly the artists’ voices) and the public’s own projections back onto that brand, all of which create something singular and personal — if illusorily so.
Sia makes one final attempt at deconstruction: the album’s haunting closer, “Space Between,” is its most intimate and nuanced track — one last bit of fascinating manipulation revealing the power of pop illusions. The way pop songs are made and chosen to represent something we perceive to be — and internalize as — deeply personal is often strategic and businesslike. It is first and foremost the product that matters. What this product-over-process art form creates are, of course, influential sonic commodities — and if we love them as such, get down with them as such, and even internalize them for our own personal fulfillment as such, at least they aren’t fooling us.