Sia – This Is Acting

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The role of songwriting is a long-winded debate in music communities. Do artists have to write their own songs to be talented? Do they have to mean what they say to be good? If a rapper writes a convincing song about robbin’ and killin’ and then it’s revealed he’s a cop, does it ruin the song?

This Is Acting somehow must be important to this debate, but I’m not sure how. It’s a collection of rejected songs Sia wrote for others. It’s supposed to reveal, perhaps, something about the singer and the songwriter. Imagine “Alive” if it was sung by Adele or “Space Between” if it was sung by Lana Del Rey.

I can’t imagine anything profound. All I can imagine is that these songs would be far more bearable if Sia didn’t sing them, especially “Space Between”. Sia’s main shtick is that she’s a ‘serious’ Pop star in an age full of Carly Rae Jepsen’s. She stretches her voice. She has huge arrangements and her tone is always grave. There are no “Call Me Maybe”‘s here.

Yes, there’s “Cheap Thrills” and “Sweet Design” but they still sound serious. Sia is that terrible of a singer. She may have technical chops, but like Adele she sucks out the life out of every song. She’s using every song as a vehicle to impress. It’s like a guitarist who can’t stick to a killer riff and has to shred over everything.

Some of it is not entirely Sia’s fault. She has an ugly, unbearable voice. Insulting a female voice as ‘muscular’ in the age where feminism is a hot topic must sound wrong, but there’s no better way to put it. It’s not ‘muscular’ in a way that makes it aggressive or tough or resilient. It’s ‘muscular’ in the fact it removes every sign of femininity. All that’s left are signs Sia had great vocal training and could hold notes.

You can still make a decent record with good hooks if you use your voice right. Sia is always sure she’s on American Idol and that she needs to sing it like the world depends on it. So you get “Move Your Body”, a song hilarious song that would’ve been a B-Side if Rihanna sang it. In the hands of Sia, it’s more serious than any ballad Adele sings.

Adele is an important point of comparison since both have the same annoying technique of being overly serious. At least Adele sings songs that are serious. She may overdo the vocal acrobatics but she has the right tone. Sia thinks songs like “Cheap Thrills” should be sung like they’re about stopping hunger and poverty. “Sweet Design” is the only song that’s somehow fun.

Sia has been terrible since “Titanium” but at least she sounded like she meant what she sung. She sounded like she really believed that the song is the most important thing to happen on earth since the Great Oxygenation Event. Here, it’s so obvious she’s acting.

In truth, authenticity doesn’t matter. Actors and authors write/act things they haven’t experienced all the time. The most important thing to do is to convince the listener you mean what you say. That’s why a lot of musicians can sound thoughtful while being horrible criminals.

Sia is a horrible actor. She’s so detached from the material. Instead of sounding like she believes in the importance, she only does it because the script says so. She follows the formula of a typical Sia song all the way, but the formula is too obvious to ignore. It’s not a grand concept that unites the songs. These are merely serious Pop songs about not being defeated.

If Sia believed in this material, maybe the overblown nature of the music could’ve had some charm. Dream Theater are often fun because they’re oblivious to how ridiculous they are. Sia doesn’t sound like it. She sounds like she knows what sells, that people will gobble it up because it’s more serious than Carly Rae Jepsen.

It can be interesting for a while to guess what song was meant for what artist. In the end, it’s just a collection of overly-serious ’empowering’ anthems. “Titanium” and “Diamonds” were crappy songs. Anthems are supposed to fun. They need a lightness to them. Sia sounds both overly serious and counting her money for all those who wanted copies of “Titanium”. Sia may reveal Pop music is all an act, but she also reveals she’s a horrible actor. I really don’t care if Rihanna doesn’t write her own songs. She’s convincing at least.

The chorus of “Reaper” is horrible. Sia sounds so moronic holding the note as if the world depends on it while the song doesn’t demand it. “Move Your Body” is so serious I can’t listen to it with a straight face. It’s appallingly bad. “Alive” is somehow decent.

1 chandeliers out of 5

Melanie Martinez – Cry Baby

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Melanie is late to the game. There has been a wave of Pop singers who sound like a response to the abundance of empowerment anthems. You know this style has been bled dry when Sia tries to write a vulnerable song about alcoholism and ends up ripping off “Titanium”.

Lana Del Rey was about the darker side of hedonism and hot bad guys. Tove Lo sang about the loneliness that finds even the sexiest women. Although they made great albums, Martinez feels like the true beating this genre needs. Tove Lo and Lana still sang like beautiful people. Melanie is the voice of the outcast.

Thematically, the album has more in common with Marilyn Manson and Nine Inch Nails. Its structure is similar to the famous album by these two. The songs don’t tell a story as much as they show a psychological journey of a character, who starts off as Cry Baby and ends up as Mad Hatter.

This is not the trouble of a beautiful girl who just needs to choose a different environment. Melanie’s protagonist is an outcast who finds rejection wherever she goes. On “Dollhouse”, she finds no warmth in a family that’s fine only on the surface. On “Carousel” and “Soap”, she’s rejected romantically. The former deserves special mention. It’s one of the few songs where the hopelessness of love is considered.

The rejection climaxes in “Pity Party” and “Tag, You’re It”. In the former, Cry Baby realizes she has nobody. On the latter, someone finally notices her and it’s a sexual predator. Eventually, she uses the same innocence and tenderness she had in the title track for rebellion. Poisoned “Milk and Cookies” get rid of the asshole. The ending is optimistic – she rejects society and its superficiality on “Mrs. Potato Head” and finds joy in “Mad Hatter”.

Superficiality is a big deal here, and in Pop music. How we look, in fact, is a plague that still infects women. Female musicians will still get praised more for their looks than men, as if it has any bearings on the quality. On Little Mix’s “Black Magic” music video, a change of clothes suddenly makes the guy interested.

Melanie is obsessed with how we use fancy covers to hide things. Almost every song here involves bad things having a nice cover, from the dollhouse that hides a dysfunctional family to the poisoned milk and cookies. That’s where Melanie’s childish aesthetic comes into play.

The whole album uses childish aesthetic to express dark themes. The music is the same. The melodies have a nursery rhyme-like quality. Nothing is actually aggressive or loud. “Worth It” is more abrasive musically, but then comes the chorus of “Milk and Cookies”.

While this aesthetic is often brilliant and Melanie sounds like a visionary, it also highlights how inexperienced she is. There’s a reason The Downward Spiral wasn’t Reznor’s first album. Melanie swings between being obvious and delivering just the right line. On “Dollhouse”, you get lines like “Pose with your brother, won’t you be a good sister?”. It’s brilliant in the way it creepily hints at sexual harassment. Then she bluntly states her Dad is having an affair.

She doesn’t stray from the concept, and that’s good. Only two songs feel slightly out-of-place. “Training Wheels” is a love song that’s great on its own but lacks the darkness that will connect it to the rest. “Pacify Her” is the sort of thing I’d expect from Lana Del Rey and Tove Lo. For a brief moment Cry Baby is an attractive girl that can steal others’ boyfriends?

“Mrs. Potato Head” has been already highlighted by many as the best song on the album. It should’ve spread like wildfire through Tumblr and become a meme. It’s an even better anti-beauty anthem than that Manson track. It has no subtly, it doesn’t need any. Someone need to sing “No one will love you if you’re unattractive”. It’s not about plastic surgery, but about our worship of beauty. We wouldn’t need plastic surgeries if we wouldn’t worship beauty like this. It’s also one of the softest songs on the album, and that only makes it cut deeper.

There will be weirder Pop albums, but Cry Baby is the one we need now the most. Its musical backdrop is unique, but not very attention grabbing. It exists to go along with Melanie’s ideas, but she doesn’t expand on them. The most attention-grabbing thing musically is the bass drop in “Soap”, which uses bubbling sounds. The album doesn’t need an overblown sound. Its smallness fits with the childish atmosphere.

The rough edges prevent it from being a classic, but it’s still a brilliant Pop album. It doesn’t even come close to being a “singles with filler” album. The singles are actually some of the weaker tracks. Melanie manages to create a persona of her own and not just create a collection of great songs, but a sequencing that works. It’s also another step forward from the bland empowerment we’ve been plagued with. I wonder what will replace Melanie’s brand of depressed Pop.

4 dollhouses out of 5