Music Box: Sia's "This Is Acting" (2016)

This Is Acting might be one of this year’s best albums already, which is high praise for a “pop album”. Maybe it’s exaggerated and the thrills it provides are gone in a couple of months, but Sia’s previous album 1000 Forms of Fear hasn’t diminished on repeated listens and I don’t expect This Is Acting to do so. If the right female artist picks the right pop songs, I’m just sold and Sia does it again this time, producing songs that are irresistibly catchy without feeling bland. But what do they tell us? What messages does a successful pop album transport throughout the world? How much is this album “of its time”?

1. Bird Set Free

The album starts on a note of despair and misery, as the protagonist describes herself as a “broken thing”, being held down, unable to fly and speak. But this feeling is then generalized:

But there's a scream inside that we all try to hide

We hold on so tight, we cannot deny

It eats us alive, oh it eats us alive

There we get to the part that I always look for in popular songs, the description of feelings almost everyone in our culture can identify with. And while we defend our culture whenever we can, we don’t wonder about lines like this, basically just nodding along. Who would deny the truth in those words?

The song then becomes what its title promises, a hymn to freeing yourself from these feelings and restrains. And lines like

I don't care if I sing off-key

I find myself in my melodies

I sing for love, I sing for me

I'll shout it out like a bird set free

show a kind of defiance towards our norms and perfectionism. Or at least a very strong desire for change.

2. Alive

Alive tells the story of a life full of struggles, a life that teaches us to suffer and to accept that as normal.

I had a one-way ticket to a place where all the demons go

Where the wind don't change and nothing in the ground can ever grow

No hope, just lies, and you're taught to cry into your pillow

Again, this is the way our culture normally works and what we are supposed to accept. The last line sums this up perfectly as our culture still doesn’t welcome emotions in public. Pretense is always preferable.

I took and I took and I took what you gave

But you never noticed that I was in pain

I knew what I wanted, I went in and got it

Did all the things that you said that I wouldn't

I told you that I would never be forgotten

And all in spite of you

But like in Bird Set Free there is a way out. The last lines might hint at a bad relationship but this could also be related to a more general disdain for the culture represented by people who try to bring you down and hold you back. It is another freedom cry, which again signifies that there is a feeling of being imprisoned. 

5. Unstoppable

On the surface this song talks about feeling overly confident, as much as possible but if you look closer, you see some cracks.

I'll smile

I know what it takes to fool this town

Oh yeah, I'll tell you what you want to hear

Leave my sunglasses on while I shed a tear

It's never the right time

These are the first lines of the song, indicating that the narrator knows how to play others.

I put my armor on

Show you how strong I am

I put my armor on

I'll show you that I am

I'm unstoppable

I'm a Porsche with no brakes

I'm invincible

Yeah, I win every single game

Then it becomes this power hymn, enormously strong-willed and motivating, but how much of it is just surface?

I break down

Only alone I will cry out loud

You'll never see what's hiding out

Hiding out deep down

Because the “bad” feelings, the suffering, the loneliness, the misery, are still there. So, is the song about feeling unstoppable or about pretending to be unstoppable, as a kind of self-protection from the threatening world around us? Or maybe it is both? There is a fascinating ambiguity here, especially because the song seems to be so straightforward on first glance.

6. Cheap Thrills

This mega-hit is a party song and more so than Chandelier was, but nevertheless the chorus repeats

Baby, I don't need dollar bills to have fun tonight

I don't need no money

This is nothing revolutionary and it’d be too much to call it anti-capitalistic, but it is still a line that works against most party songs that dream of fame and champagne and cars and girls. And it is an infectiously catchy song.

7. Reaper

Broke down, thought that I would drown

Hope that I'd be found before I hit the ground

Some days out the corner of my eye

Saw you weeping, saw you creeping, saw you sneaking

In the shadows long, the fear so strong

Saw you out the corner of my eye

Combined with its title, the song is pretty clear on its message which is about DEATH, not the most common issue found in a pop song. It comes back to the idea of feeling vulnerable and miserable and conveys the hope to find some joy in life before it is over.

So come back when I'm good and old

I got drinks to drink and men to hold

I got good things to do with my life, yeah

Again, the idea that life is only good occasionally feels natural to us in our culture of suffering.

12. Space Between

The album ends with a relationship song but it is as bleak as most of the other tracks.

The never-ending symptoms in my head

We lay hollow in the emptiness

Sia is good at often pointing at our heads and showing that our psyche is responsible for many things and not external factors. But again, there is emptiness, later she speaks of a void and that is a feeling so many people can relate too. This idea of something lacking, a hole everyone’s trying to fill, in some cases with a relationship.

Oh, we don't bend or break

The space between is deafening

But what if it is a toxic relationship? What if it doesn’t work? Because we have a hard time relying on ourselves (because we are told from early on that we can’t trust our feelings), we look for bliss in others and when that doesn’t go well, we’re as desperate as possible because if The One doesn’t make us happy, what can?

In many ways, This Is Acting is lyrically not so different than most popular music (or indie music for that matter), but there are glimpses of something else that can be appreciated beyond the excellent voice and melodies themselves. It is an album for our time and the way we live because we can’t imagine anything else. There is some little doubt here, that shows us some of the cracks we don’t want to see and that cannot normally be found in standard pop music. There is some in that.