Back in 2003 when I was living in Atlanta and working for CNN, I managed to catch Zero 7 live. If you want to make yourself crazy, try explaining to somebody who's never heard Zero 7 just what their sound is. They're not quite jazz, not quite neo-soul, not quite trip-hop and they definitely can't be roped in under the relatively recent catch-all EDM genre. In their earliest downtempo incarnation, the group, anchored by British producers Henry Binns and Sam Hardaker, made music that somehow felt simultaneously like cool water and a warm blanket. It was lush and luxurious and dreamy and sensual, a positively intoxicating amalgam of organic instrumentation and layered electronics. While many know In the Waiting Line from the Garden State soundtrack, to this day the first single from Zero 7's debut full-length album Simple Things -- the breathtakingly beautiful Destiny -- just might be my favorite song ever.
The voice on that 14-year-old track is frequent Zero 7 collaborator Sia Furler, who these days goes only by her first name. You almost certainly know Sia. She's the pop music savant who's not only written for Rihanna, Beyoncé and Katie Perry but has written and recorded with David Guetta and Flo Rida and is now officially a massive solo artist in her own right. She was the musical guest on SNL just this past weekend and it's there that new entrants to the Sia fold were able to see maybe the most noteworthy thing about her, other than her ability to record hits like Chandelier, Elastic Heart and the devastating Breathe Me. I'm speaking, of course, of the fact that Sia refuses to show her face when she performs live. She definitely sings live, she just always manages to make sure her face is somehow obscured, either by turning her back to the audience, as she did during an appearance on Ellen, or through more bizarre and kind of ridiculous means, as she did on SNL, where she wore a visor that made her look like she was in the witness protection program.
What makes Sia's conscious effort to try to render herself anonymous so odd is that she's not anonymous. This isn't some young artist nobody on earth has ever heard of; she's a 40-year-old woman who's had a lengthy career and whose face is as far away as her Wikipedia page. To the best of my knowledge she wasn't involved in an accident with a truck full of hydrochloric acid that rendered her horribly disfigured. While her red carpet appearances are rare, they do happen and Sia looks every bit as normal as she did when I saw her perform live with Zero 7 12 years ago, when she smiled broadly, chatted gregariously and tossed lollipops to the audience, and when she performed at SxSW in 2007. In other words, she doesn't seem to have contracted a case of debilitating stage fright. While the new gimmick can be seen as an artistic choice, allowing her music to be communicated through onstage proxies like 12-year-old human supernova Maddie Ziegler, there's no practical reason for it. For years she didn't seem to mind people seeing her perform her music, so why now? What changed? Is it that her compositions became more personal for her? Or is it simply that the spotlight started to become too bright?
Well, according to an article Sia wrote for Billboard in October of 2013, it's the latter explanation. The short column, titled "My Anti-Fame Manifesto," likens the demands of fame and the all-access-obsessed public that drives it to a prying mother-in-law. "She questions everything there is to question," she writes. "Even things I had never thought to question. Things I had never dreamed of feeling insecure about prior to meeting her." It's a good little piece and one that comes off as a bold, more than a little feminist stance against the wringer we tend to put female celebrities in particular through. Sia has decided that if she can't exactly have none of it, she can at least somewhat control her likeness in a world where that's been rendered all but impossible. The thing is, though, by shunning fame and doing it publicly -- writing a manifesto in one of the most widely read publications in the recording industry -- isn't she really inviting the very scrutiny she's supposedly decrying?
Early last year, writer Andy Langer penned a quick piece for Esquire in which he bemoaned the new anonymity of rock stars. Unlike in years past where, as he says, pop music and mythology were inextricably linked, some of the frontmen from today's biggest bands could easily move through a crowded auditorium at their own show unnoticed, so unremarkable are they. Part of this is because we've gotten used to the new model of fame in which stars share everything via social media -- which Sia still participates in, incidentally -- making them really no different than any one of us who do the exact same thing day after day. Langer references the antidote to this, which a friend of his has put into practice. "He doesn’t follow the bands on Twitter, read their blogs, or watch their videos," he writes. "He doesn’t want to know anything that would ruin the album for him. He wants to build his own mythology... We want great songs. That’s why we love music. But we want a little bit of mystery, too." If Sia's manifesto is to be believed, she doesn't have the audience in mind when she steps out onto a stage on national television and has a mime do the communicating for her. She's doing it only for her. But mystery is still a natural byproduct, and maybe that's good for us.
It's a strange thing these days to see a pop star, someone responsible for dozens of hugely successful songs, deciding far into her career to try to disappear from view, at least while onstage. It doesn't make a damn bit of sense; on the contrary, it's a little ridiculous and it's easy to call into question the stated motive behind it. But maybe it's the fact that Sia has been around so long that makes this feel less like shtick and more like a genuine act of artistic defiance. She's not a kid trying to get you to wonder what's behind the mask because it makes her intriguing. One could argue she had all the money, respect and prominence she could ever have wanted long before she decided to literally turn her back on the world. So as silly as it might seem, maybe her desire to "remove" herself publicly from the proceedings and let the music speak for itself is genuine and laudable.
Although it's still easy to get hung up on the fact that her occasional disappearing act draws more attention to her than simply singing live, then walking offstage and going about her life. Maybe it would be nice if Sia trusted us to see past her to what she can create. Then again, maybe it's wrong to blame her. We've failed so many before.