No Context: Sia and the Big Rainbow Bus
by Zach Baron
Apple Store SoHo
January 9th, 4pm
Virgin Megastore Union Square
January 9th, 7pm
If you are a recording artist in 2008, there will inevitably come a day where you will have to sit down with whoever is manufacturing your new record and decide how to convince people to buy it. You’ve invested time and they’ve invested money; neither of you wants to return to the coffee shop from which you came. But, as a matter of fact, maybe someone will say, maybe you do want to go back to the coffee shop. Starbucks is now as big a music retailer as they come. Your bassist may chime in, at this point, and note that there are still a few scrappy music shops holding on—maybe he’s even been a clerk in one or two of them—and they, too, still retain a bit of muscle. Like, say, the Virgin Megastore. At this point the obvious will dawn—most people buy their music, if they do so at all, from iTunes—and someone will write Apple Store on the back of a napkin, and this is how you will find yourself on a gigantic rainbow-colored bus, driving through lower Manhattan on a targeted search for your consumer.
Nothing against Sia here, the Australian-via-the-UK journeyman singer who's already taken her lumps riding every doomed trend from the last decade of pop music: late nineties acid jazz; early oughts white girl R&B; lusty adult contempo; trip-hop about eight years too late. And, most recently, one-hit fame the new industry way: a big television moment on the soundtrack to the finale of Six Feet Under. If this is your career, and a man in a suit comes to you and tells you to get on the rainbow bus, you get on the rainbow bus.
Her promotional slate in service of Some People Have Real Problems—out this past Tuesday—yesterday included Starbucks at noon (Astor Place), the Apple Store at 4pm (SoHo), and a finale on a Virgin Megastore stage at 7pm (Union Square). Not having anything at stake, myself, I caught the latter two—although I did glimpse the bus in Astor Place on my way in to work. In each case, she and her band performed mere feet from the merchandise. After each performance, she sat for an autograph line. In Union Square, I saw a couple of fans with their faces painted in a decent replication of her new album cover, waiting anxiously in line. The Megastore took the opportunity to rip through her album once more on the overhead speakers, what with the sympathetic audience and all.
Let’s be reasonable. Sia’s jazz-honk voice, which is actually so powerful it survived three shows and what her doctor apparently diagnosed between the latter two as the flu, would overpower anything but a soundtrack. At the Apple Store, where her band was denied their drum set, her voice shot out like water from a firehouse wielded by a 12-year-old girl, spraying an unsuspecting consumer tableau worse than their drummer ever could have. With such a formless talent, no wonder she’s been at the mercy of every lousy trend in demand of a female vocal. I do not know if she writes her own songs, but it would be hard to tell if she did. Two, in particular – “Little Black Sandals,” an extended metaphor about leaving a man you know you should leave even when your heart is trying to stop you, and “Academia,” which sports the couplet “You're a difficult equation with a knack for heart evasion/Will you listen to my proof or will you add another page on?”—have the distinct ring of something banged out by an anonymous songwriter on the plane ride over to the studio. But again, for all I know, they’re hers.
I’m not sure if you’re meant, as a fan, to go to one or all three. Certainly songs got recycled. And she reprised the trick of asking an audience member in the front row his name, and then dedicating a song to him—once in SoHo, twice in Union Square. But let’s not make too much of this, on a jaunt that was so nakedly about massaging an audience. Fact is, what would you do? It finally occurred, while waiting their second (actually, third) round out, that they were waiting it out too.