Hidden talents: Sia Furler and her formulaic approach to creativity
Christina Aguilera’s sixth album, 2010’s Bionic, is not widely considered a pop landmark. Anticipation had been high for its release: over her previous two campaigns, Aguilera had gone to great lengths to successfully establish a post-teen pop narrative for herself as a serious artist with a serious vision, in the game for the long haul. News of intriguing collaborations with left-field indie names – M.I.A., Le Tigre, Peaches, Santigold – was trailed in advance, as was Aguilera’s interest in electronic experimentation.
Yet when it arrived, Bionic turned out to be a wind egg: an incoherent mess of an album whose few highlights seemed to have occurred more by accident than design. Critical reaction was muted; in comparison to the multi-platinum performances Aguilera was accustomed to, its sales figures plummeted off a cliff (even taking into account overall record industry trends). It was a career-changer, but not in the good way for Aguilera: since Bionic, her inability to score a solo critical or commercial hit has continued.
Behind the scenes, though, Bionic had been the unlikely engine to kick-start another artist’s career into a new, unimaginably successful phase. The Australian singer-songwriter Sia Furler had released, to modest acclaim, four albums of trip-hop-influenced pop to date, most notable for her offbeat lyrical imagery in tackling subjects such as drugs, depression and the trauma she suffered following the death of her boyfriend in a car accident. In the UK, where she lived between 1997 and 2005, she was still best known for being the laconic voice of downtempo production duo Zero 7.
In the US, where she moved after becoming frustrated with her British label’s failure to promote her solo career, it was the use of her song Breathe Me on the hit TV series Six Feet Under that had gained her some renown – and the attention of major labels scouting for songwriters. Furler’s five credits on Bionic include the closest the album came to spawning a legitimate hit, the sparse and uncharacteristically restrained ballad You Lost Me. Thus, one of this decade’s seemingly unstoppable pop forces was reborn.
Within the industry, one often overhears Furler’s name spoken with hushed reverence: her Midas touch when it comes to penning hits has made her one of the most bankable, in-demand back-room names. “This artist is responsible for over 12m track sales,” gushed an October 2013 Billboard front cover breathlessly. Furler’s portfolio of clients stretches across genres to encompass almost every type of current chart act: megastars Beyoncé, Rihanna and Britney Spears; brash EDM producer David Guetta; confessional rapper Angel Haze; emergent post-Disney starlet Lea Michele; cheap ’n’ cheerful club MC Flo Rida; even churning out this year’s World Cup song for Pitbull and Jennifer Lopez.
Yet Furler is no chameleon. The writing style that she’s built her reputation on is consistent and immediately recognisable, whether the backing track is a vulnerable piano ballad or a pumped-up dancefloor anthem.
It’s also incredibly simple: Furler tends to take a single word or phrase as a foundational, nebulously “inspirational” image, hammers it home via gigantic, blustery hooks and fills in the rest of the song around it as an afterthought. Thus, Cannonball for Michele and Titanium for Guetta as metaphors for empowerment; Diamonds for Rihanna to signify romance and Radioactive for professional Rihanna understudy Rita Ora to convey lust.
Furler rarely bothers to flesh out the language she employs, which can lead to unfortunate results at times: on Spears’s 2013 single Perfume, the singer wound up intoning lyrics that made her resemble a urinating dog: “I want it all over you, I’m gonna mark my territory.”
It’s not an approach that allows for much subtlety or nuance, and Furler has freely admitted the simplicity of her formula. A recent New York Times profile revealed that she had written Titanium in 40 minutes and Diamonds in just 14 minutes. In neither case is this surprising: both are pop at its most basic, the nuts and bolts of craftsmanship reduced to mere efficiency and left showing because it would take too much effort to hide them. And, of course, because listeners don’t care: those two songs combined have sold more than 10m records worldwide. No wonder Furler cleaves so faithfully to her conveyor belt churn: is there any motivation for her to do otherwise?
The release of 1000 Forms of Fear [Amazon.com; Amazon.co.uk], her sixth solo album and first since 2010 – the year she got her big break as a pop songwriter – may provide some clues. Over the past four years, Furler has carefully cultivated a kind of anti-image: she refuses to be photographed for profile pieces, takes pains to hide or disguise her face during her promotional campaigns and reiterates her distaste for fame and recognisability whenever a journalist waves a tape recorder in her vicinity. It’s certainly an effective means of piquing public interest: if actively desiring celebrity is seen as gauche and air-headed, then rejecting it must indicate depth and intelligence.
Such logic might be commonplace, but it’s as reductive as any of Furler’s metaphors. More intriguing is the question of why, despite her antipathy to the limelight, Furler feels the need to re-embark on a career in her own right, creating the need for a promotional campaign and cover features in the first place. It’s tempting to think that her formulaic professional career has left her creatively unfulfilled: after all, the material she’s provided for others is unrecognisable from the off-kilter songwriting of her own early career, such as the flatly mechanistic depiction of addiction on 2002’s Drink to Get Drunk.
These notions are immediately dispelled. 1000 Forms of Fear opens with Chandelier, on which – yes – the title word is put to use as a heavy-handed metaphor for a party girl whose hedonism disguises her secret sadness. Chandeliers are glittery and pretty, but also brittle: do you see?
On it, Furler sounds uncannily like Rihanna. The similarity may be backwards – it’s more likely that on some of Rihanna’s biggest hits, she imitated the guide vocal originally laid down by Furler – but it still comes across like a ballad that the Bajan superstar rejected.
Moreover, Chandelier – along with Big Girls Cry, Straight for the Knife and Cellophane – is structurally indistinguishable from the material Furler pens for others: so much for holding back her more personal, experimental or meaningful material. Fair Game finds her briefly abandoning power-ballads for a subtler, more rococo arrangement, rather like Fiona Apple circa Extraordinary Machine – although with roughly one-hundredth the vocabulary.
Furler’s songwriting often feels as though it’s come together in a corporate board meeting; after a while, all one visualises is the whiteboard with her chosen word in the centre of a spider diagram. Time and again, melodic climaxes land on clichéd phrases – “beautiful pain”, “a chosen one” – and for all her quirky reputation, Furler doesn’t really do twists or surprises. Her songwriting imagination mostly extends to spending the entire running length finding ways to reiterate a basic theme rather than forming a narrative; the arrangements thud with heavily signposted emotion and ponderous piano.
And she’s not above a sneaky lift or two: Burn the Pages exhumes a section of Furler’s 2008 album track Lullaby for its hook, and crosses its fingers that by turning up the volume no one will notice. Elsewhere, the melodic similarity between Fire and Gasoline and Beyoncé’s 2008 hit Halo is impossible to ignore.
Furler’s forte these days is blunt force – and in pop, blunt force can eventually strike gold. On Free the Animal, she turns up the drama and displays real ferocity as two contrasting vocal lines spark off each other before fragmenting into stutters. The closer Dressed in Black is appropriately, and successfully, epic. But for the most part, 1000 Forms of Fear feels like being bludgeoned around the head with bombast.
Thematically, it scans as a confessional album. But despite Furler’s biography – her history of addiction and trauma – she never quite manages to convey vulnerability, or convince that she’s exorcising any demons. Her vocal timbre is as implacable as granite, despite her general distaste for diction (a tic throughout her career taken to self-parodic lengths here); Furler is one of the few singers out there capable of simultaneously slurring and blaring. Meanwhile, her songs are so functionally sturdy – you may be able to see where everything’s soldered together, where the top line and the bridge and the hook all meet, but these structures can probably withstand earthquakes – that they don’t allow for any cracks in the armour.
Ultimately, this is why latter-day Furler has hit the jackpot behind the scenes. A great pop song can be a work of genius, but this doesn’t mean that all successful pop songs are works of genius. (It’s also worth noting that a closer look at Furler’s writing credits reveals a larger number of flop singles than one would presume of a writer so lauded.) From Diane Warren to Ryan Tedder, the music industry has always had its share of hacks who trade on professionalism, efficiency and a couple of functional tricks they deploy repeatedly. Sia Furler is one of them. A gifted performer who can frame her work in the right way – as Beyoncé did with last year’s Pretty Hurts and its raw, timely video – is able to sell it beyond the clichés. On 1000 Forms of Fear, Furler finds herself unable to transcend the hollow formulae she’s trapped herself in.
Alex Macpherson is a regular contributor to The Review.