The Politics of Sia’s Face

In the megawatt haze of the recording industry’s biggest night, we tend to gravitate towards the most shocking, eccentric or bizarre displays of showmanship.

So it should come as no surprise that eyebrows were raised by singer/songwriter Sia’s three-foot platinum wig, which obscured her face on the Grammy red carpet. Later, to perform her hit song “Chandelier”on stage, she stood with her back to the audience, facing a wall, as Maddie Ziegler and Kristen Wiig (of all people) did an interpretive dance. According to Sia, her masked and hidden appearance served as a deliberate (and ongoing) reminder that attention should be paid to her work, not her face.

Sia Furler’s pre-“Chandelier” autobiography was marked by anxiety and performance-related stress, and included a period of alcohol and drug addiction that nearly led to suicide. During that period, she was also diagnosed with Graves’ disease, which kept her out of the public eye for several years as she dealt with bouts of extreme lethargy,  “shakes” and “nerves.”

Although she never hid her face when her 2001 album Healing is Difficult was released, nor after 2004’s Colour the Small One hit shelves, she always showed an aversion to the cult of celebrity. Indeed, back in 2010 she dressed “herself and her band in masks and black costumes so crowds couldn’t see their faces onstage.” But Sia wasn’t as famous then as she is now, so she wasn’t a target for public criticism in the same way she feels she is today.

But do we buy her explanation that this strategy is all in the name of self-protection and privacy?

Those in support of Sia’s stance argue that her aversion to public scrutiny—she says she doesn’t want to be “critiqued about the way that [she] looks on the Internet”—feels not gimmicky or performative, but art-affirming and sincere. When you take into consideration the way female artists are perpetually pitted against each other, examined and policed about their physical appearance, it’s refreshing to see a performer write her own definition of what it means to be a famous woman.

Sia’s also far from the first musician to hide her face from the public eye. Damon Albarn was the visible frontman of the Britpop band Blur before transitioning into the faceless, cartoon-pop outfit Gorillaz. Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo have remained unidentifiable beneath robot helmets as Daft Punk for decades. As Bangalter explained of his Daft Punk alter-ego, “The robots are part of the fiction and it’s not really interesting to see what’s behind it.”

But can’t we similarly buy into Sia’s fiction? Are we unwilling to let Sia don a “helmet” of her own because of a career she previously forged in the public eye, or because we think what she’s doing is just a branding stunt?

Some critics say Sia’s faceless protest shows that she’s falling prey to the sexist notion that women who don’t fit a certain standard of beauty shouldn’t be seen. Is she sending a message that a woman who looks a certain way must erase herself in order to be taken seriously as a musician? Or is Sia, by reclaiming her private identity, empowering herself?

I ask myself why it matters to physically see Sia’s face as she belts out the chorus to “Chandelier,” and then I remember why anyone buys tickets to see their favorite artists perform live: to feel connected to the musician, to make the link between their songs and their visible emotions.

Prior to “Chandelier,” Sia was best known for her heartbreaking single, “Breathe Me”—which served as the background music for the dramatic ending of the series Six Feet Under—and as a preeminent songwriting hit-maker in the pop music world. Since fame has been inevitable for Sia, her about-face to an industry that both lauds and makes her feel imprisoned has complicated the definition of what it means to be a public persona.

Though it’s increasingly rare in this voyeuristic age to find women musicians capable of maintaining any sense of privacy, it remains to be seen if Sia’s back-turning actually encourages us to question our own media consumption or if it simply increases our desire to see what she looks like behind the wig.

Perhaps the face we ought to be looking at with more scrutiny is our own. Audiences are often quick to silence complaints by celebrities about the toll of fame by saying that publicly displayed lives are the cross they bear for their riches. Does that mean Sia should have to submit to the crowd’s demands in order to be taken seriously as an artist? Is it possible for public figures to retain privacy on their own terms? Are we even willing to let them do so?

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Photo courtesy of Flickr user Tolbxela licensed under Creative Commons 2.0




Jenevieve Ting is a student at the University of Southern California and an editorial intern at Ms. She has written for The Hollywood Reporter, Next Magazine and Thought Catalog. Find out