For the last two weekends at Coachella, Sia succeeded in flooring crowds — and critics, including Fuse's own — with a peerless vocal performance and stage presentation that throws everything we expect in a festival set for a loop. The two-weekend festival has seen its share of recent show-stopping moments, sure: The Tupac hologram, the kick-off event of Outkast’s hugely anticipated reunion tour, Daft Punk’s giant LED pyramid unveiled long before “Get Lucky” was permanently lodged in our brains—these are all events that have contributed to the FOMO complex we feel when we miss out on a major music festival and the once-in-a-lifetime experiences they cultivate. Sia gave Coachella—and will presumably give Boston Calling, Panorama and her other upcoming festival crowds—a similar experience, and she did so while keeping a guarded distance from her audience.
This makes Sia a bit of a festival unicorn: She flips the script on the communal experience and uses the high-impact arena of a major festival to create high art and render it a medium in its own right. The festival game has a fluid set of unspoken rules, and Sia basically crumpled them up and threw ‘em away before mounting a full-scale production of her set in Indio.
This wasn’t a surprise, as the first clue came about a month ago in the form of a “performance edit” video of “Cheap Thrills” that featured the notoriously stage-shy singer performing up against a sunset-hued backdrop, three dancers sporting identical black-and-white bobbed wigs leaping across the stage as she rolled through the strongest party anthem she’s released yet. This Is Acting, the follow-up to her 2014 breakout full-length 1000 Forms of Fear, has led to several excellent TV performances, just like its predecessor. She’s done SNL; she’s done The Tonight Show; she’s driven around L.A. with James Corden, singing the rallying “Alive, the somber “Bird Set Free” and the rambunctious, hooky-as-hell “Cheap Thrills.”
All of these performances incorporated either Maddie Ziegler, the Dance Moms alum that Sia’s collaborated with numerous times beginning with the now-iconic “Chandelier” video, or dancers carrying Maddie’s interpretive torch. Sia found a perfect visual foil to match her pensive pop and unconventional approach to staging it, and it was found in the unhinged expressions of the dancers she employs to lock eyes with her audience when she makes the active choice to avoid it. This isn’t to sleight Sia for her stage aversion or personal preferences: If anything, the fact that her live show and the televised play-out of This Is Acting are so can’t-look-away compelling only shows how powerful her music and the voice have become.
When her 2016 tour dates were announced, the (as of right now) scheduled dates in the States were few and heading to festivals only, with Coachella, its eastern counterpart Panorama, Boston Calling and Colorado’s SeriesFest rounding out her American itinerary before she heads overseas for the rest of the summer. This was a bit of a head-scratcher: Sia's become extremely popular and has a profile befitting a main stage set, but would the theatricality of her performances work on the same scale? Would the sincerity of Maddie and the dancers convey in an environment where stunts and attention-grabbing collaborations with massive stars reign supreme? Would fans get bored with a performance that so closely incorporated elements of the late-night television sets already delivered?
The short answer to the last question is a NOPE as big as the bow she wore above her nose-brushing fringe.
So many festivals, Coachella chief among them, rely so heavily on the element of surprise that it makes the big reveal of a celebrity cameo a constant instead of an invigorating jolt in the evening. It’s now an abnormality, a flaw on the festival’s part, if you don’t walk away from Coachella or Lollapalooza or any of these massive productions without something shocking to tweet about. Sia subverted both of these pillars of the festival experience in her own way: By presenting such a unique, ambitious performance in the format she did, she put on a full-scale theatrical production with a million moving parts and visual elements, but didn't reel in any of the showmanship and thought-provoking staging we’ve seen from her.
At this point, Sia is certainly 2016’s antidote for a predictable, lackluster headliner on this year’s festival circuit. Gorgeous sets worthy of a Broadway billing and a veritable crew of dance geniuses are less commonplace than high-profile cameos, but hopefully Sia’s dedication to her vision will inspire her colleagues to pursue more of the same.