These Are Sia’s Breaks: on vocal technique & queering feminine resilience
Sia, famous first as a songwriter and second as a vocalist, never eschews authorial voice. However, her signature as a pop star, the thing that stands out as her ‘brand’ in the way cupcake bras might for Katy Perry or the gilded left glove did for Michael Jackson, is her personal anonymity: whether live or in video, she generally obscures her face from the audience. This visual rhetoric disarticulates the musical structures that conventionally express post-feminist resilience from her femme subjectivity. Her singing voice might perform sonic resilience, but Sia doesn’t.
Obscuring her face makes it more difficult for audiences to interpret her songs’ musical expression as personal expression of her person or persona. If regular arguments with my students are any indication here, pop audiences commonly interpret vocal expression as the immediate expression of singers’ emotions, not as practiced and calculated matters of musical technique. By making it impossible to read her facial expressions or other body language (for example, for her SNL performance she stood still at the mic, about as physically expressive as a drum corps marcher), Sia interrupts that interpretive habit: without gestural data from her, we have to focus on her musical technique.
This is Acting. The title of her 2015 album underscores the point that this is all technique. All the songs on TIA were originally written by Sia and collaborators for other singers: they were never intended to express anything about corporate-person/pop star Sia. Singing them, Sia embodies the songs as an actor does a character in a script. She uses musical techniques to evoke emotional responses in listeners, but they’re not really pop star Sia’s or person Sia Furler’s emotions that she’s communicating. For example, “Alive,” the lead single on the album was written with and for Adele, from Adele’s perspective.
“Alive” prominently features specific technique she uses to convey a particular script: the technique is overblowing her vocal break, and the script is feminine resilience. Resilience means turning noise into signal, damage into profit/human capital. Aesthetically, resilience co-opts formerly resistant strategies, like cutting or going into the red (two practices Tricia Rose identifies as central to hip hop aesthetics), transforming them from destabilizing practices into ones that reinforce the stability of the status quo. This is what Sia does with her overblown break: she turns her break into an ornament, transforming what is conventionally a flub into a feature. In the way Fetty Wap uses mordant-like turns or Mariah used to use melisma, Sia uses the break in her voice as an ornament. Blowing through her break as we hear her voice crack, Sia recalls ‘Trane overblowing his sax. For example, in the build up to the first big hit on “Alive” she switches between a descending glissando and an overblown break to ornament “breathing”: on the first and third measures, she uses the former, on the second and fourth, the latter. The hook does the same thing: the first two repetitions she ornaments “i” in “alive” with some descending sixteenth notes, the third repetition she replaces that with an overblown break, and in the final repetition she combines the two. So clearly Sia uses this overblown break as an ornament, a kind of intensification of pitch-centric ornaments. And it’s not just in “Alive,” or even on TIA: it features somewhat prominently in “Chandelier” too.
Lyrically, “Alive” is all about resilience, about surviving struggle and trauma. We hear sonic resilience, but we don’t have a woman pop star to attribute it to. It’s not scripting a persona’s or performer’s personal subjectivity. Just like Iggy Azalea’s rap accent abstracts sounds from the cultural traditions and lived experiences that they otherwise communicate, Sia’s overblown break abstracts the sound of resilience from the discourse that supports it and gives it broad intelligibility. She stays within the musical conventions of post-feminist pop, but creates a distance between those sounds and her identity. This interrupts the pedagogical function of soars and drops, abstracts the structure of feeling away from the structure of resilient post-feminist subjectivity and this helps us disassociate the pleasure we feel in listening to her sing this way from the structure of feeling–resilience–that we feel at least ambivalent if not bad about. Or, the pleasure we might feel in listening is not the feminine and feminizing pleasure that the performance of resilience produces. This pleasure asks us to experience our bodies in terms outside compulsory femininity. When we enjoy singing and/or hearing it, we’re going off script. In this sense, then, Sia’s overblown breaks produce pleasures that queer neoliberal white femininity.
(This isn’t the first time Sia has experimented with sonic resilience and written it off-script. She wrote “Diamonds,” the Rihanna song that I use as my definitive example of sonic melancholy in the R&M book. “Diamonds” has an undercut soar, a soar that never intensifies, a soar that never comes through with the overcoming of sonic damage soars usually produce.)