With paparazzi always on the prowl and the rise of social media, it can be difficult for famous artists to keep their private life out of the public eye. However certain artists are proving that it's not impossible. Australian singer-songwriter Sia has had a career in the music industry for quite some time. When she started to become famous, she felt uncomfortable and began concealing her face in all public settings. Sia did not want her looks to become more important than her music. Since the release of her sixth album, 1000 Forms of Fear (2014), Sia has hidden her face from the public with a blonde wig that covers her eyes. She also has remained visually absent from her own music videos and she sings with her back to the audience during live performances.
We live in an age of social media, where celebrities share more about their personal lives than ever before. It is therefore interesting to investigate how Sia’s persona as an (absent) artist and celebrity is constructed. This article will analyze this constructed persona through several of her media appearances and performances.
Who is SIA?
Sia Furler is an Australian singer, songwriter, and director. About nine years ago, Sia was ready to retire. She had released several albums and she had been, she says, “minimally successful,” but no longer wanted to perform. Having suffered from depression and alcohol abuse in the past, when she got sober she wanted to stay behind the scenes and write pop songs for other artists.
That didn't work out as planned. On the podcast Grounded (2020), she explains that her plan was ruined by David Guetta and Flo-Rida. She wrote the songs “Titanium” and “Wild Ones," which Guetta and Flo-Rida then released, using Sia’s vocals without her permission. Sia had provided sample vocals that could be easily re-recorded by another artist. Guetta and Flo-Rida assumed that using her Sia's voice wasn't a big deal, because everybody wants to be famous, right?
Sia was not amused. Around the time Titanium" became a hit, she was 35 years old and trying to step out of the spotlight. Instead, "Titanium," and other songs she wrote (often sung by other people), made her the kind of celebrity she never intended to be (Sanders, 2014).
Eventually these hits did kick off Sia’s songwriting career. During this time she also needed to put out one last album to get out of an old publishing deal. She wrote and released the album, but without touring, press or media appearances: “I thought I’d shit that album out and it wouldn’t do anything. And that I would be behind the scenes from now on” (Aron, 2018). Instead, "Chandelier” became a worldwide hit.
Sia the absent songwriter
Barthes' (1967) concept of “death of the author” is highly relevant to how Sia presents herself as an artist. Barthes argues that written work and its creator are not related. In other words, the author's intentions and the biographical context are irrelevant to the interpretation of their work. A reading of a work should not take into consideration the author’s political views, religion, ethnicity, or other context. Barthes believed that this actually limits the text to just one interpretation, namely the author’s interpretation.
According to Barthes the meaning of a work should come from the reader as opposed to the writer. The text's unity lies not in its origins but in its destination. The author is no longer an author but a scriptor, with the purpose of producing text instead of explaining it. The author can never be original, because language itself is not original. It is the result of thousands cultural influences, and the words themselves can only be explained by using other words. The main focus of writing is to have it be read. Meaning for Barthes lies in the language itself and not in any context. He argues that we cannot really know what a scriptor means. We can only use the language itself to interpret and analyze the text, and ultimately not text has a single meaning.
Barthes' essay was written in 1967. Today authors and songwriters are more accessible than ever through social media. For Sia, she explained in an interview with ELLE Magazine that when she puts her music out, it’s owned by the listener. She wants them to project their experiences onto it and make it their own, so that it marks a time in their life. The writer has no control over what the listener takes out of it (Kletnoy, 2014). In order to do so she says: “I have to dumb it down to a degree, or make it broader and less specific, because then it can appeal to more people. They can project their sh*t onto it more easily. Don’t be specific because that alienates 70% of the world” (BBC, 2020).
Sia's explanation is in line with Barthes' idea that an author is someone who produces a text rather than explains a text. Sia produces a song (lyrics) and the meaning of her lyrics can only be interpreted and analysed through the language used. When she produces songs for other artists her intentions and biographical context become even more irrelevant. In some cases the audience is not even aware who actually writes their favorite artist's lyrics.
On the other hand, Sia sometimes writes and releases songs by herself, such as “Chandelier.” In this song Sia refers to a challenging time in her life where she battled intensely with drug and alcohol addiction (SMF, 2019). Even though she has explained that the lyrics' meaning is related to her own life and experiences, it is still a text without any inherent meaning. The “I” in the text is always a construction of the creator and therefore does not coincide with the author him/herself. Therefore Sia can be considered an "absent" author.
Physically she’s on stage, but the most important part of her public appearance, her face, is covered.
Looking at Sia's performances in the context of death of the author, we see that she always hides her face with a big blonde wig. In some performances she even sings with her back turned to the audience, for example at the Jimmy Kimmel show and at SoundClash in 2014. In these two performances other people act as Sia’s persona, all of whom wear a normal wig that doesn’t cover their faces. In many live performances and video clips, child dancer Maddie Ziggler acts as Sia’s persona (figure 1). In these performances Sia can be considered an absent performer. Physically she’s on stage, but the most important part of her public appearance, her face, is covered.
In his book Star Authors, Moran (2000) uses the term “author-recluses” to refer to writers or artists who choose to be private or reclusive, shunning fame and attention. However, people tend to be even more interested in these reclusive personas. Sia is frequently asked in interviews about her choice to cover her face. On the one hand, perhaps she is a person who doesn’t want to be recognised in public or when she does her groceries. On the other, she still appears on TV shows and does interviews, so in that respect she doesn't avoid media attention.
Or not so absent?
Sia’s desire to remain anonymous contributes to a narrative that highlights her dramatic personal life. She has been outspoken about how her personal tragedies, abuse, and depression have been interwoven into her music career. In a recent episode of the Grounded podcast with Louis Theroux (2020), Sia explains that performing in public has always frightened her and she still doesn’t love it. She used to use alcohol to feel comfortable on stage, and touring sober was the hardest tour of her life. She describes this as the moment she realised she wasn’t built for this business and wanted to stay behind the scenes. She states doesn’t want to be famous or live a celebrity lifestyle where everyone will criticise her appearance. In her opinion being famous is a "disease."
Sia's personality and vulnerability in interviews makes her claim to be an absent author less convincing: the audience knows more about her life and the reason she doesn’t want to show her face.
The image of a star
Richard Dyer’s (1986) star theory argues that “stardom is an image of the way stars live, it combines the spectacular with the everyday, the special with the ordinary.” Fans can never really know a celebrity through media texts, as these texts are just as constructed as a celebrity’s public performances. No media source can give people a full understanding of the complexity and tensions inherent in celebrity personas.
Dyer suggests that the audience’s relation to a star is a compulsive search for the ‘real’ – an attempt to distinguish between the ‘authentic’ and the ‘superficial’ in the star’s personality by playing different sorts of texts against each other. In doing so he argues people use celebrity as a way of speculating about the nature of the individual in contemporary society (Moran, 2000).
Furthermore he argues that there is a difference between a pop performer and a pop star. Pop performers are fundamentally known for their music whilst a pop star is known for not just their music but also their fashion or TV personality. Their persona becomes a ‘brand’ and they regularly appear in magazines and online news. Dyer proposes that a star is an image, not a real person, that is constructed (as any other aspect of fiction is) out of a range of materials (e.g. advertising, publicity, gossip etc.). Their Unique Selling Point (USP) constructs them into individuals and recognisable ‘stars’.
Dyer explains in this book Stars (1979) that a state of celebrity relies on factors of production and consumption. In other words, those in the spotlight are gears in the industry machine. Music icons are used as tools to create music and popular content and therefore keep the music industry alive.
Sia as a brand
By Dyer's standard, Sia can be considered a pop star. She’s known not only for her music and incredible voice but also her appearance. She attracts attention with how she presents herself in public. Her wig has become an important element of her appearance. People ‘recognise’ her by her blonde bob wig that first appeared on her sixth album (figure 2).
From that moment on, the wig became her trademark. She and her dancers have worn it in live performances and video clips. Throughout the years her use of wigs has evolved, for example she has also worn a black and white wig with a huge bow on top of it and a curly wig. These wigs can be seen as Sia's USP.
Sia’s persona and style have become a brand. A good example of this is when Sia was in a Google commercial. In this commercial the audience sees Sia’s star image, as she wears her wig and a matching outfit. According to Marshall (1997), celebrity functions as a semistable identity and cultural icon that runs through several cultural forms to establish an identity through which an audience can estimate the cultural forms’ relative value. Consumer culture’s use of celebrities to endorse products positions their function between commodities and collective formations of the social world. Celebrity endorsement provides a cultural pattern for products that can be seen as the intermediary between goods and the individuals using those goods (Marshall, 1997, p.245).
In addition, Sia also promotes her own clothing line and merchandise, which is closer to her own personality. On these products she frequently presents the slogan: “I love you, keep going.” In an interview with ELLE magazine, she explains that this slogan comes from her meditation teacher and was important to her in difficult times: ”everybody is going through something in their life. Especially now in this day and age of technology, primarily people are lonely, and they're projecting an image of, 'I'm a participant in life!' But the truth is those images that we project are usually lies. Everybody's suffering in their own small way” (Tang, 2018).
Between the authentic & superficial
Throughout the years Sia has occasionally been interviewed on TV shows such as The Ellen DeGeneres Show, Jimmy Kimmel Live, and Carpool Karaoke with James Corden. In some of her recent media performances we can see a switch between her pop star persona and her being ‘herself’, or as Dyer (1986) would phrase it, between the ‘authentic’ and the ‘superficial’.
“the person I’m presenting this award to is my friend, so I wanted to award it to him as a friend and not as the ‘pop star'."
For example in a recent interview with Steve Hargrave from the Australian breakfast show Sunrise (2020), Sia didn’t wear a wig to cover her face. When asked by the host, she explained that this interview is about her own film Music, and she wanted to show her real emotions, because she had worked so hard. She thought it would be silly to wear a wig to talk about something she's extremely proud of.
Earlier that year she also showed her face during the television show Good Morning America, where she appeared to promote her new single "Together" and talk about her upcoming movie. During this interview she stopped mid-conversation to spread awareness about the Black Lives Matters movement in the United States. In her opinion this was more important than anything else at that moment. After the interview she performed her new song "Together" live with Maddie Ziegler. In this performance she did wear a wig, literally transforming from her ‘ordinary’ self to her ‘superficial’ self.
This was not the first time she showed her face. For instance she went wig-less at the Global APRA Music Awards in 2020, when presenting an award to her uncle Colin Hay, who is also a musician, and during The Daily Front Row's Fashion Awards in 2019, when she presented an award to fashion designer Christian Siriano (figure 3). In her speech she clarified her reason for suddenly showing her face: “the person I’m presenting this award to is my friend, so I wanted to award it to him as a friend and not as the ‘pop star’."
In these media performances, Sia presents herself in two different ways. When she performs her songs she presents herself as a pop star: she wears her wig and matching clothes. If she speaks to someone she knows personally or speaks about something that is really important to her, she shows her face to the public. She makes an explicit and self-concious distinction between being a friend and a pop star.
Sia’s persona: absent artist and celebrity?
Even as networked online culture creates a new kind of public intimacy with celebrities, we can never really know the 'truth' behind their mediated and highly constructed position. Due to her overall ‘absent’ appearance, Sia can be seen as an absent performer who prefers to cover her eyes and even sing with her back to the audience. The same applies to her work as a songwriter. She mostly writes songs for other artists and therefore her intentions and biographical context become irrelevant. Contrary to Barthes (1967) 'death of the author', the personality and vulnerability shown in interviews makes Sia all the more alive.
Due to her growing popularity and success Sia has constructed a specific image of herself as a pop star, namely the woman who covers her eyes in public. Her blonde wig has become her 'signature' and has been integrated into her promotional material, public appearances, and music videos. The wig functions to create a brand - it enables her to put anyone under it, such as her dancers and allows almost anyone to portray the singer.
Through her interviews and media appearances we see a clear distinction between how she presents herself as 'pop star' and as 'ordinary person'. Her constructed pop star image is visible when she performs on stage and during TV shows. She shows her face to the public when she doesn’t want to be seen as ‘the pop star’, but rather as a friend or to raise awareness about something that is close to her heart.
Aron, H. (2018). How Sia Saves Herself. Retrieved on 15th December, 2020.
Barthes, R. (1967). The death of the author. Aspen.
BBC. (2020). Podcast Grounded with Louis Theroux. SIA. Retrieved on 12th December, 2020.
Dyer, R. (1986). Heavenly Bodies: Film Stars and Society. Macmillian Press Ltd.
Dyer, R. (1979). Stars. BFI Publishing.
Kletnoy, S. (2014). Sia Opens Up About Autobiographical Songs And Celebrity Crushes. Retrieved on 16th December, 2020.
Marshall, P.D. (1997). Celebrity and Power: Fame in Contemporary Culture. University of Minnesota Press, p. 245.
Moran, J. (2000). Star Authors: Literary Celebrity in America. Pluto Press.
Sanders, S. (2014, July 8). A Reluctant Star, Sia Deals With Fame On Her Own Terms. Retrieved on 12th December, 2020.
SMF. (2019, April 15). Meaning of “Chandelier” by Sia. Retrieved on 16th December, 2020.
Tang, E. (2019). Sia’s Repetto Shoes Are Good For Dancing And Going Undercover At Kardashian Parties. Retrieved on 20th December, 2020.