Christopher Polk/Getty Images for Coachella and Angela Hsieh/NPR
It’s not enough to make list after list. The Turning the Tables project seeks to suggest alternatives to the traditional popular music canon, and to do more than that, too: to stimulate conversation about how hierarchies emerge and endure. This year, Turning the Tables considers how women and non-binary artists are shaping music in our moment, from the pop mainstream to the sinecures of jazz and contemporary classical music. Our list of the 200 Greatest Songs By Women+ offers a soundtrack to a new century. This series of essays takes on another task.
The 25 arguments writers make in these pieces challenge the usual definitions of influence. Some rethink the building legacies of popular artists; others celebrate those who create within subcultures, their innovations rippling outward over time. As always, women forge new pathways in sound; today, they also make waves under the surface of culture by confronting, in their music, the increased fluidity of “woman” itself. What is a woman? It’s a timeless question on the surface, but one deeply engaged with whatever historical moment in which it is asked. Our 25 Most Influential Women Musicians of the 21st Century illuminate its complexities. —Ann Powers
Sia‘s biggest solo hit,”Chandelier,” is best known for its now-iconic video, in which Dance Moms‘ Maddie Ziegler flings herself around an empty room. But what’s most interesting about “Chandelier” is not dance, but song — specifically, Sia Furler’s singular vocal. On the verses she trips across syllables like skipping stones and chews vowels like gum — an affectation that’s spawned no end of affectionate memes. On the pre-chorus, she switches to the sloshed gutters of her low register, Auto-Tune bubbling off the vocal like a Poliça record. On the chorus — a big one — she belts loud, but it’s not the immaculate belt of a Whitney Houston, but one with exertion and rasp, strain and push (in the spinto sense, pushing away air). Where traditional divas’ voices sound like centers of gravity, Sia sounds like she’s fighting against gravity itself. She’s singing about it, too; the chorus doesn’t end with a big high note, but an almost-mumbled oath: “holding on for dear life.” Vocal performance is perfectly matched to subject matter: a party-happy façade, an incoherent sloshedness, then determination summoned up, however briefly, from nothing. It’s less song than acting — indeed, Sia’s last album of songs she’d shopped around to others was called This Is Acting — or a singer-songwriter’s writing experiment. And it’s one of the most unusual vocals on a pop hit this decade; it seems like it should be unique.
But it’s not. Sia is also a prolific topline writer — a songwriter who writes and sings melodies and lyrics other artists might then record. While producers like Max Martin get most of the credit for shaping the sound of pop music, equal credit if not more belongs to topliners like Sia. As demo vocalists, they shape the sound of pop most directly; their bodies literally generate it. Pop singers often mimic these demo vocalists exactly, and no one notices (unless some enterprising leaker posts the demo to YouTube). But when that vocalist has a voice as distinctive as Sia’s, you notice. A 2008 New York Times review of solo album Some People Have Real Problems concluded that “Sia [was] still just learning to sound like herself.” Now, ten years on, everybody else has learned to sound like Sia.
Like most vocalists, Sia Kate Isobelle Furler grew up idolizing, and imitating, soul singers. But her voice, as we know it, is something different. It’s not the effortless sound of a Whitney or the throwback belt of an Adele. When she sang vocals for downtempo duo Zero 7, she was more often compared to artists like Lauryn Hill and Erykah Badu — quirkier, more conversational, resolutely themselves.
The cliche is that when artists go pop, they kill their quirks and homogenize their sound in one straight line from distinctive to bland. For Sia, that line’s more like a parabola. “Breathe Me,” her career-making 2004 single from the Six Feet Under soundtrack, is the smoothest she’s ever sounded; the same can’t be said for her debut with Australian act Crisp in the ’90s. On Crisp’s album Word and the Deal, she twists her voice around reggae and jazz-fusion and jazz-fusion rappers and other things not found on today’s charts, to striking effect. “She opened her voice, and we all kind of stopped in our tracks,” Crisp guitarist Jesse Flavell said in 2014.
Such a voice isn’t unusual for an act like Crisp, where her inflections register as jazz ad-libs. But it’s completely different from the gleaming, computer-processed voices that ruled pop for most of the 2000s. Her ad-libs, though plentiful, aren’t the melismatic, Mariah-Carey-on-“Emotions” kind, but “emoting” as in cartoon emoji: acting, not ornamentation. Sia uses Auto-Tune, but often to make sound things weirder, like the drunken pre-chorus of “Chandelier,” than more conventional.
This takes a deceptive amount of effort. Sia writes songs and melodies quickly, to much scorn by people who’d probably be horrified to learn their favorite bands’ working process. (“It took me 15 years to take 20 minutes [to write a song],” Sia told Rolling Stone this year.) But while she wrote Rihanna’s “Diamonds” in under 15 minutes, for Rihanna to replicate her demo took two days. The resulting vocal — keening upper register, charging-ahead belt — was close enough that producer Mikkel Eriksen had to open the file to prove to Sia it wasn’t her voice.
It isn’t just Rihanna, either. Britney Spears, whose throaty, Southern-fried voice was the sound to replicate in 2000, now sounds just like Sia on “Perfume.” Beyoncé, this decade’s inarguable queen diva, betrays Sia’s influence on “Pretty Hurts.” Even artists who don’t record Sia demos sound like her: You hear her voice in the splayed syllables of Alessia Cara, Halsey and Julia Michaels, or non-songwriters like Selena Gomez who imitate them. And the influence goes back far. In 2008, Sia told Rolling Stone about setting up a collaboration with Amy Winehouse, she of the hundreds of blue-eyed soul imitators. “No way,” Winehouse reportedly said. “I’m intimidated by you. I’ve been listening to you since I was a teenager.”
Sia has also carved a niche that’s increasingly rare in pop music: the Top 40 female singer-songwriter. Male singer-songwriters are famous and everywhere: Shawn Mendes, Charlie Puth, the cockroach-indestructible Ed Sheeran. Women are less so. In pop they do often-uncredited guest spots for producers who take top-billing. In R&B, they’re shut out decisively. Country has absorbed some of these songwriters — people like Kacey Musgraves, who’d be considered mainstream pop in another era — but country radio, as highlighted by the “Tomatogate” scandal, promotes as crossovers acts like Florida Georgia Line or Dan + Shay. Even adult contemporary, a folkie’s last refuge on radio, is more apt to exhume dinosaurs like (prepare to feel ancient) the Backstreet Boys.
Sia’s life story is about resilience — resilience that includes lasting through several cycles of this. In the ’90s, when she was with Crisp, Sarah McLachlan and her Lilith Fair festival were the visible front of a deep, though stylistically narrow vein of singer-songwriters. The festival arose, artists said, in defiance of radio programmers’ quotas of how many women to play in an hour (not many) or back to back (zero). But festival and airplay petered out at the turn of the millennium, and several programmers told Billboard‘s Marc Schiffman in 2001 that radio had become over-saturated with women. Like most complaints about women taking up too much space, this is massively overstated. To pick a random year: Shawn Colvin’s “Sunny Came Home” topped the Adult Top 40 chart in August of 1997, but she and Sheryl Crow (No. 5) were the only two women in the top 10 — a suffocating 20%. Pick another year, and you’ll find similar results.
Blame is spewed everywhere. Critics blame the boys’ club of radio programmers, or more recently streaming playlist programmers. Programmers usually blame listening stats and audience preferences. Artists blame them all. But one scapegoat common to them all is pop music. Singer-songwriters and pop have had a vague antagonism for decades — the disco backlash of the ’70s was in part a tantrum of angry male rockers, but folkies like Joni Mitchell joined in the criticism: “Disco is the biggest seller… but the players that play those notes hated that music. When it becomes dated, it’s really gonna sound weird.” Conventional wisdom says singer-songwriters were driven out of pop by bubblegum artists like Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, though the two scenes were hardly mutually exclusive — Spears started out as a Sheryl Crow devotee, and Aguilera played Lilith Fair. But songwriters still believe it, particularly the ones who jumped ship for pop. As Bonnie McKee told American Songwriter in 2011, during her heyday as a topliner for Katy Perry and Dr. Luke: “Kids these days don’t know or care about [Fiona Apple’s] Shadowboxer, or [Sarah McLachlan’s] Building a Mystery.” One detects more than a trace of rue.
But kids these days do care about these songs, and one major vehicle for these songs to reach them is prestige TV, with which Sia’s breakout hit “Breathe Me” shares a near-symbiotic relationship. TV, of course, has always commissioned music, but syncs as a business grew fast in the mid-2000s with the rise of “prestige TV” shows like The Sopranos and The Wire, or their kid-friendlier counterparts like Grey’s Anatomy, or The O.C. For singer-songwriters, TV syncs arguably supplanted radio; not only were they cheaper than huge pop stars, their lyrical, writerly material paired well well with TV storylines. Hundreds of shows commissioned thousands of songs for millions of viewers, but few were so singular as the Six Feet Under finale — the rare sync with its own oral history. It near-singlehandedly drove sales of the soundtrack and revived Sia’s career — plus those of everyone involved. As music supervisor Gary Calamar told New York magazine, “I jokingly say I’m going to have it playing out of my tombstone when I’m dead.”
Sia was well-positioned for such a breakout. She was a known quantity, but not too known — after low sales for her major-label debut Healing is Difficult, follow-up Colour the Small One came out on a much smaller imprint. (After “Breathe Me” took off, the album was re-released.) Being online helped. Social media like MySpace and a then-fledgling YouTube were beginning to mint actual stars, and for a time Sia’s “Buttons” was the second-most-viewed video on the whole site. Being Australian helped; she was part of wave of singer-songwriters like Missy Higgins and Sarah Blasko — a “wave that has now become a tsunami,” wrote singer-songwriter Jen Cloher, partner of tsunami-benefactor Courtney Barnett. And her proximity to a specific LA scene helped –the Hotel Café, which was to singer-songwriters in the ’00s what Lilith Fair was in the ’90s. The venue, once a coffee shop, grew in the 2000s to comprise a record label, a tour and a cadre of artists including Ingrid Michaelson, Colbie Caillat, Sara Bareilles and a pre-fame Katy Perry. It became known as a hangout for A&Rs and, especially, TV supervisors; when Sia performed there in January 2006, Six Feet Under‘s Calamar and his co-supervisor Thomas Golubic were in the audience.
For years, Sia thought of herself mostly in context of this scene. In an interview for her 2010 Lilith Fair appearance — now full circle — she said, “I like the idea of being the ‘secret squirrel.’ My favorite thing is to put songs in films, and I think the whole idea of performing is just kind of a bonus.” But her performing career quickly became much more than a bonus. Her 2013 Billboard cover story described this as “backfiring” — a plan to stay behind the scenes, only to find the back curtain yanked up — but it’s not without precedent. Before, she turned to electronic music when it was going out of fashion. The second time around, she set the fashion.
Dance acts have long swooped in to collect de-zeitgeisted singer-songwriters. Though their songs are set to beats, not to acoustic guitar, the toplines could stand without those; the versions of pop songs heard on MTV Unplugged or NPR’s own Tiny Desk concerts are often how those songs were originally conceived. In the ’90s Sia was joined by Sarah McLachlan with Delerium, or Rose Chronicles’ Kristy Thirsk with Sleepthief, or the dance reinvention by former folkies Everything But the Girl. This kept going even when the zeitgeist moved on; a 2009 review in The New York Times of WKTU’s Beatstock festival is like a snapshot of “club music” at the exact moment before it became synonymous with Top 40 — Cascada’s “Evacuate the Dancefloor” is cited as a minor hit, almost immediately before it became major — and leads with a set by former Lilith Fair folkie Kim Sozzi.
Here, too, Sia was at the front. She actually presaged the trend; We Are Born‘s “The Fight” and “You’ve Changed” anticipated 2010s neo-disco by several years. Even so, industry folks were skeptical. “I didn’t know she could write pop songs, because she’s such a quirky artist,” said Jonathan Daniel, who took over as Sia’s manager. As dance-pop, though, those songs have nothing on David Guetta’s strobing, unsubtle “Titanium,” which Sia wrote as an Alicia Keys demo and was surprised to hear herself on the final release. “I was really upset by it,” Sia told The New York Times, “because electronic dance music is not my kind of music.” (With characteristic candor, she also said it was the only track Guetta sent that she actually liked.) But the formula was winning; she went on to collaborate with Guetta several more times, did songs with Flo Rida and Calvin Harris, and finally claimed the model for herself on “Chandelier.”
So while Sia was penning an “anti-fame manifesto,” fame was coming to her fast — a kind of fame that became the model for everyone. Sia’s manager, Jonathan Daniel, recently got his own imprint with Warner, largely on the strength of Sia’s comeback; one of his recent major clients is Lorde. The Chainsmokers’ entire career consists of providing light background beats to singer-songwriters like Halsey, Emily Warren and Rozes, all of whom sound like Sia. Artists like Lady Gaga and Kesha, both of whom used to write for Britney and others, have reinvented themselves as rootsy folkie types with Joanne and Rainbow. Bebe Rexha’s recent “I’m a Mess” bleeds vulnerability and interpolates Meredith Brooks’ “B****.” Alessia Cara began her career with introversion jam “Here,” set to a trip-hop sample, then colorful, inspirational pop — basically a speed-run of Sia’s entire career. The success of “Chandelier” paved the way for other songwriters and producers stepping out — and succeeding — as solo artists. Some are U.S. or LA-based, like Michaels and Warren; others are fellow Australians, like Sarah Aarons (Zedd and Maren Morris’s “The Middle”) and Nat Dunn (Marshmello and Anne-Marie’s “Friends”). When Sia sang “phone’s blowing up, ringing my doorbell” in “Chandelier,” it was a bitter joke. But in the music world, it’s just reality.
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