The album further underscores the misalignment between Sia's intent and the resulting material.

By Hilary Hughes
February 11, 2021 at 12:00 PM EST
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Credit: Merrick Morton

Music, the debut feature film from pop singer Sia, was mired in controversy before anyone even saw the trailer, let alone heard the 13 songs she wrote and performed for its soundtrack. The plot follows Zu (Kate Hudson), a recovering addict, whose life changes when her estranged grandmother dies and she's entrusted with the care of a girl named Music, her non-verbal, autistic half-sister (frequent Sia collaborator Maddie Ziegler). Autism activists and the community at large criticized Music for several reasons, the first being that Sia, who is neurotypical, appeared to be operating from a position of ableist privilege — one that dips into appropriation and misrepresentation — by telling a story that wasn't hers to tell (the pop singer directed and co-wrote the film). Sia strongly defended Music on Twitter, along with her decision to cast Ziegler instead of an autistic actor, by explaining how her "awesome" intentions came from a place of compassion, informed by her personal experiences with a "neuro atypical friend" and his mother. But when it was revealed that Music featured controversial scenes showing Ziegler's character being physically restrained, Sia apologized for their inclusion and had them removed from the final version a week before its release; the film now begins with a warning label for viewers. She also insisted she was now "listening" to the input she received from the autism community before deleting her Twitter account. Days later, Music scored two nods at the 2021 Golden Globe Awards.

Though it doesn't directly refer to the plot or characters, the film's soundtrack, Music: Songs From and Inspired by the Motion Picture, is almost impossible to divorce from the conversation surrounding the project — especially when its songs were inspired by its subject matter. While Sia, Queen of the Motivational Banger, has long since proven her skill at penning inspirational anthems, Music has layers of prescribed meaning to it that her previous work does not — and the process of peeling them back echoes her critics' concerns. Music has moments that are ravishing in their stunning arrangements and orchestral grandeur (the title track, the brooding "Beautiful Things Can Happen," the massive "Lie to Me," the powerful "Courage to Change"), and the bulk of the album is very much in line with "The Greatest," "Unstoppable," "Titanium," and the rest of Sia's rousing, transformative hits. Yet the lyrical content is largely uniform, in that she keeps going back to motivational language to the point where many of the refrains — "my turmoil has taught me" ("Beautiful Things Can Happen"); "feel it all, just let it go and start crying" ("Eye to Eye"), "Remember it's okay/We're all floating through space ("Floating Through Space," feat. David Guetta) — are interchangeable, flying dangerously close to being inspiration porn.

Siloed from Music's narrative, these songs are harmless enough — who can find fault with a universal, uplifting track about love, loss, frustration, perseverance, or all of the above? — but things change under the dynamics of the film, as does Sia's agency within them as its director, co-writer, and musical voice. It's one thing for her to write a song from a place of empathy and draw from her own experiences, but another when she projects them — and her assumptions — onto a character living with a disability, or their loved ones, when she herself is able-bodied. A somber tune like "Saved My Life" not only sounds like it was explicitly written for a montage, but requires further scrutiny under Music's lens: when Sia sings "someone sent you here to save my life," who is she singing as, and who is she singing to? It's a vague lyric that borders on cliché, but in the framework of Music, it introduces the possibility that Ziegler's character needed to be "saved" by her sister, or that she served as a vehicle for her sister's own enlightenment. Either way, it's problematic, and it further underscores the misalignment between Sia's intent and the resulting material. As one of the most prolific songwriters in the game, a wildly creative and multifaceted performer, and a powerhouse singer to boot, Sia's previous triumphs have set a high standard, one that Music doesn't meet. Her "awesome" intentions aside, the album's messages of affirmation and encouragement may be well-meaning, but ultimately fall short while underlining Music's broader, damaging issues. C

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