If you pay attention to the charts, you might notice that a female artist over the age of 40 just hit #1 on the Hot 100 for the first time in 16 years, when Madonna scored her 12th and final #1, “Music,” in 2000. At the time, Madonna was 42. Her next-most-recent #1 was “Take a Bow” in 1994.
Lady Gaga is 30. Beyonce is 34. Katy Perry is 31. Britney Spears is 34. Rihanna, with her long and storied career including more #1 hits than Michael Jackson, is still only 28. Adele, despite writing songs about “When We Were Young,” is the same age as Rihanna. Mariah Carey, who holds the record among soloists for the most #1 hits in the history of the Hot 100 (18), is 46. Madonna is 57. Sia is exactly 40. This is the short-list of female artists that could conceivably top the Hot 100 past the age of 40. Much like Madonna, Mariah Carey hasn’t reached #1 in eight years, and has had increasingly spotty success since then. Only 2 of her 18 #1s were released after the year 2000, in which Carey turned 30. The other giants all have years left to fall out of the public’s graces, assuming that that is even where they currently are. They are all maybes, with lots of ifs, buts, and caveats. Only Sia seems likely to top the Hot 100 again.
In the age of music videos and endless streaming, the female artist topping the Hot 100 over the age of 40 has nearly gone extinct. Despite colossal efforts, and 5 Top Ten hits to show for it across 5 studio albums, even the Queen of Pop herself has never managed to replicate her feat in 16 years.
In such a climate, how has Sia come to thrive?
1) She hides her face in music videos;
2) She is extremely talented at writing hit songs (and is therefore not dependent on access to hitmakers; she IS a hitmaker); and
3) She is actually legitimately an extremely talented vocalist.
In other words, Sia avoids letting her age actively damage her while she rides on pure talent.
Age is irrelevant to Sia’s success, and that is why it is possible for her to continue breaking the trend.
I recently replied to a comment on a Billboard article that if Madonna’s recent flop “Ghosttown” had been released by Katy Perry, it would have been a #1 hit. My response was to acknowledge that it very likely would have debuted at least in the top 20. And it would have. The song is passable. It has the building blocks for a hit. But it was wrong for the commenter to blame ageist radio programmers for the song’s lack of success. Radio programmers are rational actors. They play what they think the public wants to hear. The truth is that very few people are buying new Madonna music these days, and people aren’t streaming her new videos on YouTube either (with the exception of the celebrity-stuffed “Bitch I’m Madonna” video).
It is true that the quality of Madonna’s music hasn’t actually declined. She hasn’t suddenly become less talented than she used to be, when she was still racking up more top ten hits than any other artist in the history of the charts.
But there are lots of talented artists (with songs as good as Ghosttown) that have difficulty breaking through. They also have difficulty not because their music isn’t good, or because radio programmers are ageist, sexist, homophobic, or racist, but simply because popularity is a positive trait. There has to be a sufficient affirmative reason FOR someone TO be famous and successful in the music industry. Simply releasing a catchy song that merely COULD be successful on the radio is not sufficient. Artists have to capture the public’s imagination, and make the public (or at least some subset of the public) fall in love with them. They have to find their niche. They have to find a way to stoke the media fire. And today, that is simply not as easy as merely releasing a song that simply COULD be successful if it were released by someone that the public already affirmatively wanted to like.
Madonna’s real problem is only indirectly her age. Her real problem is that she is no longer capable of generating real controversy. She expertly deployed her sexuality in the 1980s and 1990s to generate controversy and to keep the media fire stoked. She was beautiful, and extremely intelligent and talented at manipulating people, and that gave her opportunities which she expertly exploited. Now, the public is no longer enthralled with her beauty, and the world has moved beyond her many versions of controversy, after being completely desensitized by Lady Gaga’s meat dresses, giant eggs and diamond tears.
Madonna had enough vocal talent to pass. She had enough for her team to work with. But her real talent was never in her vocal talent or her songwriting talent. Her real strength was always in dealing with people. She expertly crafted her public image. She expertly pulled talented people into her team and motivated them to impress her.
Madonna’s skills took her very far indeed, but she really is getting old now. She is tired. Her magnetism is fading. Her labels are no longer willing to invest in her the way they once did. Her music is no longer young and fresh.
The real money for her is in touring, now. She can still sell hundreds of millions of dollars worth of tickets to her tours, and make the same salary as Adele or Beyonce. Hoping for hit singles, if she still does, is probably just an ego trip for her at this point, because it is pretty much completely irrelevant to her paycheck.
Sia, on the other hand, appears to be at the sunrise of her career. And, even though she had to hide her face to do it, even though her stunt is probably not replicable by nearly any other artist, from a feminist perspective, that is like a breathe of fresh air.