Sia. Red Rocks. 06.22.16
The term ‘wardrobe malfunction’ is never one a popstar wants associated with their name, and although it wasn’t used to describe what happened to Sia last night, it very well could have been. Heavy gusts of wind wreaked havoc on Red Rocks the entire evening, before one such gust attacked the giant bow attached to the singer’s iconic wig. Threatening to take flight during “Cheap Thrills”, the bow was removed before it could fly off into the night, but not before it exposed Sia’s most initmate part – her face. The platinum blonde bangs shielding her features shot straight up in the air like the Aqua Net 80’s, before settling back down in their original two-tone form. The whole thing happened in a split second, but it was enough to achieve national headlines this morning. It was just one unfortunate mishap in a night plagued with them, but like the delayed start times, shitty weather, and slight confusion on the part of an audience who didn’t realize they were at a SeriesFest conference kick-off, it did nothing to tarnish what will likely be one of the most moving performances the venue will see this season.
Red Rocks was under a barrage of horizontal rain early in the evening. Spectators crowded on top of each other in the back of the amphitheater (where the only reasonably priced seats existed), while rows and rows of wet benches sat empty. It was a dark, damp, and slightly uncomfortable scene. Huddled masses could be found in the visitor center, where the lines for merchandise (particularly ponchos) were much longer than those for the bar. Hosts from SeriesFest did their best to rouse excitement from the sparse (but growing) crowd, but even they were struggling against the elements. Alastair Fothergill and Huw Cordey (“The Blue Planet”, “Planet Earth”, “Frozen Planet”) were visibly excited to present the premiere of their latest series, “The Hunt”, but there was no denying the fact that conditions were not ideal for watching a documentary; especially when many of those in attendance had won tickets to see Sia and didn’t necessarily care about a new BBC television series. The first episode, “The Hardest Challenge”, was a beautiful and sometimes shocking display of modern film technique and animal-on-animal violence, but there was a chasm between the television buffs and the Sia fans. The cheers for various prey (and gasps when they lost their battle in the game of life) added to the excitement of the film, but those bursts of crowd participation weren’t enough to stifle the naysayers from talking (and complaining) among themselves under sheets of rain. When the presentation finally came to an end (just before 10:00pm), the thundering cheers were in expectation of Sia, rather than for the premiere itself.
The crowd started to get restless as the rain gave way to clear skies. The television people were rightfully aggravated by the lack of respect shown to “The Hunt”, while the concert-goers were rightfully annoyed that Sia had yet to appear. When the SeriesFest hosts came back out to try to explain the delay, they were unfairly mocked (as if they could have controlled the weather) by fanboys in matching wigs. The whole night was on the verge of catastrophe. But then Sia materialized like a savior in a white dress. Her very presence seemed to suck all the hostility out of the air. For the next hour or so, nothing existed outside of the world being created on the stage. And oh what an intensely emotional and stunning world it was.
The gown that wasn’t a gown moved in contrast to the ways of the wind, before revealing itself as a troupe of dancers all dressed in white. As they removed themselves from the scene, a curled up Maddie Ziegler was revealed at the base of Sia’s podium. The teenage dancer in the nude leotard glided across the platform with impossible finesse, before grace morphed into a form of controlled chaos as Sia’s signature singing voice gave way to her signature scream. “I’m still breathing, I’m still breathing, I’m alive!” Without physical movement of any kind, she was able to convey her emotions through voice and a surrogate dancer. Having seen the late night performances, music videos, and festival streams, nothing prepared me for how in sync those two were with each other. It was literally like they were a single entity on the stage. It would have been disturbing if it weren’t so powerful and beautiful at the same time. There was one point where Maddie gnashed her teeth and acted as if she were going to attack (and possible consume) Sia. Instead of being taken aback by the potential violence of the whole thing, it made me feel more alive than I had the entire night.
The performance continued in that manner. “Diamonds” found a human disco ball projecting a million rays of light from his hands. Two other dancers joined Maddie for some unhinged choreography during “Cheap Thrills”. And once Sia got her wardrobe under control, we were treated to “Big Girls Cry”. Maddie sat at a table practicing a little facial contortion, before being attacked and choked from behind. The scene was very similar to the video that accompanies the track (in fact, the video was playing on the side screen), but seeing the live rendition compete with David Fincher when it comes to suspense made me curious about what kind of relationships Sia has been in.
The majority of the set was made up of selections from This is Acting (a collection of songs rejected by Rihanna, Adele, Beyoncé, Shakira, and others). Sia channeled those divas on each track, but there was no doubting her ownership of each one. “Bird Set Free” stood out in particular. I can’t claim to understand everything I saw last night, nor have I studied Sia’s lyrics, but hearing her belt out “I don’t care if I sing off key, I found myself in my melodies, I sing for love, I sing for me,” made me realize how unique she really is as pop star. Take away the wig, the projecting of emotions through third-party dancers, and the overall mystery associated with her, and what you’re left with is her voice. And although she can impersonate her peers quite well (see “Diamonds”), Sia doesn’t follow the rules often associated with pop music. Self-described as ‘indie’, she has been known to refer to her own songs as ‘cheesy’. As reluctant as she may be, pop music is where she belongs. Not only as a songwriter, but as a voice. Her vocals are so incredible that it doesn’t even matter if she sings off key. A perfect example came during the non-EDM, piano-driven version of “Titanium”. As a panda and a pig were beating each other with a gigantic inflated hammer, Sia’s voice broke. It rose up, hit a ceiling, cracked into a million pieces, and came raining back down like falling stars. It was a highlight of the night. I don’t think it was on purpose, and if it would have happened at an Adele show it would have been disastrous, but there was something sublime about the way it happened to Sia. It’s hard to put into words, but if I had a recording of that moment, I would never stop listening to it.
There was nothing conventional about the performance. It is hard for me to even refer to it as a concert. There was no band. No instruments were played. There was a singer, but she stood completely still the entire time and tried to hide her face throughout the show. A 13-year-old dancer played as big a role as Sia herself. There were videos (with names such as Paul Dano and Kristen Wiig) on a side screen that almost, but not exactly, matched what was happening on the stage. At one point I thought it was live footage, only to realize that the Sia on the screen was still wearing the bow she had removed ten minutes earlier. At times I was watching a girl perform with a umbrella while listening to “One Million Bullets”, then I’d be watching Maddie take out some aggression on a Shia LaBeouf stand-in during “Elastic Heart”. A dancer with oversized jeans would be joined by other dancers for “Unstoppable”, then Maddie would slither/slide out like a half-snake/half-dolphin hybrid to console the man with an inexplicable weight on his shoulders. The Shakira tribute, “Move Your Body”, was the only performance that seemed out of place (with its straw skirts and fluorescent colors), but by the time “Chandelier” closed the night with a pulsating light mimicking a heartbeat (while Maddie appeared in a different pose with each flash), there was nothing negative on anyone’s mind.
“Thank you so much, thank you.” With those words, the show was over. The whole performance had only lasted an hour, so an encore would have been nice, but it was almost midnight on a Wednesday night, so it wasn’t expected. When the lights came on, they did so on an audience in awe. Everything that had happened earlier in the night had been washed away. I think it is safe to say there was a universal feeling of euphoria mixed with fatigue. Not only had most of us been at Red Rocks for over five hours by that point, but the performance was as emotionally draining as it was revitalizing. Sia might be a reluctant pop star, but the whole industry is lucky to have her. I don’t completely understand her art, but I know it has a depth and honesty rarely seen in pop music. In a shallow world where ‘wardrobe malfunctions’ are front-page news, I’ll take the enigmatic layers of a Sia performance over a traditional pop concert any night of the week…even on a rainy, windy Wednesday in Morrison, Colorado.
Big Girls Cry
Bird Set Free
One Million Bullets
Move Your Body