Sia's brand is not just a gimmick, but something new and creative which makes us reflect upon the media we consume.
Turn on any music channel, before or after the watershed, and you'll inevitably meet sexual stereotypes incarnated on your screen. R&B singer Robin Thicke may have blurred the lines between sexual desire and consent, but we rarely see such blurring when it comes to gender representation in mainstream music videos. Whether songs and accompanying visuals promoting hyper-masculinity, rape, objectification or skinny-shaming, we all find ourselves locked into a representational cage.
Perhaps you watch Drake bewitched by Nicki Minaj and her gyrating bum, or Miley Cyrus swinging seductively from her Wrecking Ball and licking her hammer, and think: why not? Women are entitled to sexuality just as much as men are, and aren't these artists reclaiming what was taken from their ancestors?
My problem is this: if male artists performed these same parts in their videos, it would be seen as a parody. On top of that, the word controversial has become synonymous with hyper-sexualised female flesh and misogynist ventriloquism. But in no way is such content controversial, it is boring. Music videos are rife with gender and racial stereotypes, which are quite frankly bland and ubiquitous. It's a bit like those that's what he said, that's what she said jokes everyone tells, you always know when they're coming.
This is why I find Sia's brand and music videos so utterly refreshing. The Australian singer, songwriter and music video director is known for her reclusiveness. She rarely shows her face, allowing others to lip-sync and interpretively perform whilst she sings songs from her album 1000 Forms of Fear, hiding behind her signature blonde bob wig or turning her back to the audience. Sia's doubles have included Lena Dunham, creator and star of the HBO series Girls, Kristen Wiig, American actress and writer known from the NBC sketch comedy series Saturday Night Live, and Maddie Ziegler, 'Dance Moms' reality TV star.
Is not fame the giving and taking away of faces? Celebrities are defaced and labelled by the media and the public on a daily basis: we've all criticised at least one celebrity for their actions and choices. Often, such criticism is directed at their bodies or clothing. Yet Sia's experimental performance art detracts judgment from her own body, opening up new forms of representation.
The emotional charge of Sia's songs come to life through different performers. In 'Chandelier', 12-year-old dance virtuoso Maddie interprets a very adult experience. The lyrics describe a young woman lost in a desperate attempt to belong and heal through costumes and a never-ending bender, evoking Sia's own struggle with depression and drugs after the death of her boyfriend. Watching Maddie impart a nervous breakdown is extremely unsettling; innocence and experience are collapsed, and we all relate: do we ever really grow up? Does crossing the threshold into adulthood truly stop us feeling small and vulnerable?
More recently, Sia's video for 'Elastic Heart' featured Shia LaBeouf (known for the wrong reasons for his involvement in performance art) and Maddie wrestling like cubs in a cage. Of course, there were cries of paedophilia!!! You can't have a young girl wrapping her legs around a man's neck, rolling around in a dirty cage with him! But the media has conditioned us to see things this way, and I feel the performance is anything but sexual. Instead, it is a playful role reversal between subject and object, aggressor and victim: Maddie is the stronger animal who is toying with subservient Shia, but at times there are also hints of a brotherly-sisterly relationship. Sia notes that Maddie and Shia are extensions of herself: conflicting, fighting, playing, collaborating. Gender is shown as something with diverse possibilities; we all possess polymorphous self states, no matter what our on-paper identity may read.
I'm not saying all celebs should put a paper bag over their face or hide their bodies. That's not the point. But surely novel, imaginative approaches to mainstream representation like Sia's, will better reflect the diversity of roles, identities and sexualities out there? Our lives should never be purely determined by our bodies.
Some studies such as 'Pornographic Performances' have revealed the damaging effects of sexism and racism in music videos, and suggested there should be compulsory age ratings and commitment to media literacy. Yet censorship alone will not revolutionise cultural representation. It may even make boring, repetitive content seem all the more alluring and risqué. What we need is more approaches like Sia's which redefine controversy, shining a light for the music industry and the media.
On a closing note, you need to watch Sia's video for her song Buttons: she's not afraid of poking fun at herself and our cultural tendencies, and her facial manipulations exhibit the grotesque quirkiness which ties us all together.