Please upgrade your browser for the best Refinery29 experience. Read more.

Saved! Access Favorites in your account profile. Removed from my favorites

Explaining The Rise And Rise Of Sia, Because She's The Greatest

Photo: Ollie Millington/Redferns/Getty Images.
What do you think was the biggest song this Summer sung by a solo female singer? Rihanna's trappy smash “Needed Me”? Ariana Grande’s sickly sweet banger “Into You”? Zara Larsson's pan-European hit “Lush Life”? Nope, nope and nope. It came from a 40-year-old bisexual vegan Australian with a nifty sideline in animal rights activism. It came from a wholly unlikely pop star: Sia.

Back in July, her track “Cheap Thrills” became the first song to top the US Billboard Hot 100 sung by a woman over 40 since Madonna's "Music" in 2000. Sia stands alone as a complete anomaly in the pop world as the only female singer of her age to currently get significant chart success or airplay both in the UK and US. "But what about Madonna, Kylie, Shakira, Jennifer Lopez?" I hear you cry. Forget it – none have had comparable chart success or airplay in years. Even at 35, the relatively youthful Alicia Keys is struggling to gain traction pretty much anywhere with her bang-on trend comeback single “In Common”.

So, what is it about Sia that enables her to buck this ageist curse? How is she at the top of her game so far into what has been a very long and winding career? In order to understand Sia better, we need to take it back to the beginning.

Sia first emerged in the UK in the year 2000 with quirky if largely forgotten track “Taken For Granted” – the one that sampled the same music as used in the opening of The Apprentice. The song is most notable for its video, which establishes themes that reoccur throughout Sia's career, namely gigantic wigs, sunglasses and general paraphernalia to obstruct viewers from being able to see her face. It charted at number 10 in the UK and quickly tumbled out the chart, looking to set Sia up as a briefly interesting one hit wonder doomed to never be heard from again.

This did not happen (obviously), but Sia's career would take time to re-reach the highs of the UK top 10. Her follow up single “Little Man” missed the top 75, but has endured somewhat via an amazing UK garage remix courtesy of Wookie. She noodled around a million mid-noughties Ibiza chill out compilations with her Zero 7 collaboration “Destiny” and she broke hearts worldwide sound tracking the Six Feet Under finale with her track “Breathe Me”, an iconic piece of television for those that saw it (just read the YouTube comments) and a song that I still believe to be her career peak.
Her next solo project, a track called “Buttons” featured potentially the most painful video I've ever seen passed through a censorship board. Despite her face being front and centre through the entire thing, it is attacked by vast swaths of washing line pegs, Sellotape and netting misshaping and disguising her features. Once again the viewer is unable to see what Sia really looks like. A common thread was starting to become evident, even in these small pockets of success; she was slowly cultivating a reasonably successful career as a singer barely with an image of her own. Voice aside, she was borderline anonymous.
After Buttons, Sia's solo career took a back seat for a while, as she focused predominantly on becoming a songwriter, writing smash after smash for the likes of Beyoncé, Christina Aguilera and Rihanna. During this period she started working with the living definition of the phrase “superstar DJ”, David Guetta, helping him write and demo a track intended for Mary J. Blige named “Titanium”. It went onto be a mega-hit and talent show staple (I could write an entirely different article on why this performance is wrong on so many different levels) but sadly not a hit for MJB da VIP. Sia's original demo version ended up being the official version, and was to be a commercially successful anthem of empowerment in pretty much every market it got released in.

Oddly enough, despite all these years in the industry, the explosion of “Titanium” felt like the moment when Sia's career truly started. The song’s chart stats speak for themselves. "Titanium" the single sold six million copies worldwide, far surpassing the sales of her previous four solo albums several times over. For most, this was the first time they’d ever heard of her. Her breakthrough moment followed foundations laid in her past, though; the “Titanium” video was a sort of proto-Stranger Things involving a child on a bicycle with telekinetic abilities, a video where once again Sia was only to be heard, not seen. She didn’t even feature on the single sleeve.
Fast forward to the present day and Sia's solo career is flourishing. We all know “Chandelier”, “Elastic Heart” and “Cheap Thrills”. We all know the iconic and sometimes controversial videos to these songs. The “Chandelier” video took the internet by surprise, placing young dance talent Maddie Ziegler of “Dance Moms” fame at front and centre. As did the divisive video for “Elastic Heart” – a song originally from the Hunger Games soundtrack – adding Shia Labeouf into the mix with Ziegler, leading corners of the internet to accuse Sia's video of paedophilic undertones – a claim swiftly denied by all involved.

As ever, Sia is nowhere to be seen in any of these videos. Even during live performances Sia has vanished, using the likes of Lena Dunham to perform her hits for her, while she hides at the back of the stage or underneath a ludicrous wig.
Why has she remained anonymous? Sia has explained that it’s because she’s not prepared to have her appearance scrutinised. As she told US chat show host Chris Connelly last year, “I don’t want to be famous or recognisable. I don’t want to be critiqued about the way that I look on the Internet.” Well, it’s worked: Ask anybody to tell you what Sia looks like you might get a shrug, a mumble about a blonde bob or somebody who thinks she is the 13–year–old dancer made famous in her music videos.

The fact that Sia has become the biggest female singer in the world (aside from Adele) yet is barely visible in her own career is enough to make you wonder whether the only way to commercial success as a woman of a certain age is to hide away and let the music do the talking. Especially when you look at Sia’s chart topping peers of the same age; Kanye West is 39, Pharrell is 43 and Usher is 37 – all male. The fact that Sia is the only woman over 40 consistently topping the pop charts right now suggests that there’s just not much space for women of her age up there in a male dominated pop industry.
Meanwhile: Sia shows no sign of stopping. Yesterday, she announced her new single “The Greatest”, the video for which once again features Maddie Ziegler. Not too far removed sonically from mega-hit "Cheap Thrills", "The Greatest" plays to Sia’s favourite themes: empowerment and rousing choruses, this time splicing man-of-the-moment Kendrick Lamar into the mix. It’s a track custom-made for success. I imagine “The Greatest” will have a decent debut in the Hot 100, eventually climbing to a top 20 or even top 10 position. Would I be predicting this had Madonna, Kylie or Jennifer Lopez released the same song with a more traditional visual package? I highly doubt it.

Ultimately, somehow, Sia has cracked the code to pop success, arguably aided by her slow rise to ascension. Her songwriting speaks for itself – she’s rapidly become one of the most in demand writers on the planet over the last decade (she wrote "Diamonds" by Rihanna FFS), her unique voice has proven to transcend genres over her substantial career and she's shown an instinct to shock and stimulate through her MOMA-worthy music videos – demonstrated all the way from her humble beginnings with “Taken For Granted” right to her latest turn with “The Greatest”. She’s unleashed performance art on the masses, with spectacular results.

Whatever the secret to her success, there is one thing I am sure of: The easiest way to pacify your office on a dreary Wednesday afternoon is to throw on a “Best of Sia” playlist on Spotify. Everybody seems to like her, from the gay guy that hogs the stereo trying to make Roisin Murphy happen, to the hip hop head that isn't interested if it isn't Drake or Odd Future. Perhaps that in itself tells us more about her bizarre journey to the unlikely biggest female pop star in the world (aside from Adele) than a 1500-word article recapping her career ever could. Mastering the art of mass appeal seems to work. Funny that.