Sia v. Madonna: Contrasting Two Female Artists Over 40

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.


“This Is Acting” Album Review

There is a reason that Sia Furler is the genius behind a substantial number of the biggest pop hits of the past half-decade. There is a reason that fame dragged her unwilling, wigged blonde main out of the shadows, first as the essentially anonymous lead female vocalist on David Guetta’s “Titanium,” and later in the global smash that has become “Chandelier” (whose music video is a member of the tiny and exclusive billion-view club (with a B)). Sia is both a prolific songwriter and an incredibly talented vocalist. Both talents shine through in the pile of shining gems that she had not YET managed to sell to the likes of Adele and Rihanna when she decided to record This is Acting.

Billboard issued a scathing review of Sia’s latest album,titled, “Sia Struggles to Find Herself on This is Acting.” I completely disagree.

Sia is a professional song-writer. She literally writes disingenuous, radio-friendly pop singles for other artists as a living. By opening up the sausage-making process to allow the public to gaze in, Sia presents the truest version of herself conceivable. Certainly, she presents a truer version of herself on this album than does the hypothetical other popstar who performs one of her custom hits as though its simple and crafted lyrics emanated directly from the depths of a shallow soul.

Billboard closes by saying, “That isn’t acting — it’s just affectation.” But that is precisely the point. Sia is revealing her truth, ugly and beautiful, and at the same time exposing the true actors in the industry for the frauds they are.

The album is an amalgamation of carefully crafted lyrics paired with soaring, emotional vocals and varied background instrumentation.

Each individual song stands on its own– one might almost listen to the entire album straight without getting bored, a rare feat for those of us under the age of 30.

Billboard’s high-minded critic actually attacks the lack of boring, downbeat songs without compelling choruses or catchy beats–that could never be singles. You know what I call such songs? Fillers. I say kudos to Sia for not tossing a bunch of songs at us that really just sound like a continuation of one ridiculously long song. Maybe it’s just my millennial impatience, or my millennial disdain for the outdated practice of actually shelling out change for an “album” as an independent piece of artistry that will actually be listened to straight through, but if I am going to buy an album, I kindof want to get 12 DIFFERENT songs at least most of which are actually worth listening to.

Oh yeah. What was it that Billboard said when Taylor Swift released an album of nothing bit hit singles? That’s right. Nothing… Except praise. Seriously massive heaps of praise. I think they called her something like “Glorified and Almighty Savior of the Music Industry in it’s Most Dire Straits of Peril.”

“Bird Set Free” and lead single “Alive” sound like something that could have been on 1000 Forms of Fear. “Cheap Thrills” sounds more playful, like some of Sia’s pre-“Chandelier” releases. Sia migrates through a range of vocal and sonic stylings while expressing a range of emotions.

If this is the kind of work that Sia produces off-the-cuff, then my vote is for her to drop an album every year. 

Sia’s album is basically sonic bliss, at least in parts. It isn’t perfect. I obviously like some of the songs more than others. And, there are songs that I absolutely loved on 1000 Forms of Fear (see, e.g., “Cellophane”) that don’t have an equivalent here. But, I really think there is something here for just about anyone. Sia pulls through with a lead single featuring the massive vocal display that we all expected after “Chandelier,” and she drops a load of other interesting and generally well-crafted songs.

The worst I can say is that some of the songs sound almost unfinished, almost as though they were made to be revamped by an end-artist. But it is this aspect of the album–the peak into the sausage-making process that it affords–that is one of the biggest draws. One can’t help but imagine what might have been had the songs been finished and released by other artists.

In the end, of course, we have the limited perspective we are born with, and we take This is Acting with the understanding that we are buying Sia as-is, straight from the sausage factory.

What did you think about This is Acting on your first listen? Do you agree with Billboard? Or are your expectations for Sia satisfied?