About the cheap thrills of life

Solace can come to our lives in the strangest ways. For the most typical reason on the book (breakup), I was feeling sad and disappointed. It’s not like I wanted to cry or be isolated from the rest of the world. I was fine. But I didn’t feel like smiling.

This is why I was more observing than participating in my friends’ heated conversations last week during Dutch class’ break. They were talking about – hell, who knows. I wasn’t actually listening, although I appreciated the noise and their unintentional companionship.

At some point, probably in an effort to include me in the conversation, one of my friends offered me potato chips. I usually don’t eat them because they’re too “industrial” (junk food, basically) and, indeed, I refused the first time she offered them. I refused the second time too. Then, as if guided by some unseen force, my hand picked one random chip the third time she put the bag within reach. I idly studied what I had taken from the bag before eating and, surprise, surprise: I had taken a perfectly heart-shaped potato chip.

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the by now famous heart-shaped potato chip

It broke my heart, but in a positive way. For the first time that week, I smiled like a loon and a bubbling laugh emerged. My friends were quite puzzled by my reaction, but I didn’t care; life had sent a message: everything would be fine. There was love in my life, and as long as I remembered this, I would be ok.

The moment also reminded me of a song that had been in my head for a few weeks: “Cheap Thrills”, one of the songs in Sia’s new album, This is Acting (released January 29th, 2016). What struck me the most when I heard it the first time was the rhythm; the impossible-to-resist call to surrender yourself to the beat in a way that’s almost sexual. Then I heard the lyrics.

Now bear with me while I give you some context: not too long ago I had a sort of heated discussion with someone who couldn’t understand why I didn’t want to be rich. Well, I mean – it’s not like I avoid it. I just don’t… pursuit it. It’s not an ambition in my life. Don’t get me wrong, I like the luxuries that money can buy and wouldn’t complain to have them in my everyday life. But the things that truly make me happy are cheap thrills.

The warmth of the sun in a cold day. The smile of a child when life seems too confusing. The sound of the rain tapping at the windows when I can’t sleep. The feminine ritual of getting ready to a party. The comfort of writing. The fun of being with friends, laughing over the hardships of life as if they were silly things. The everyday acts of love. The euphoria of dancing to loud music. The serendipity of finding a heart-shaped potato chip when I am feeling broken-hearted.

Sia sings about getting ready for a party (and she does it exactly like me, by the way: do the hair, put make up on, wear high heels). Then she exemplifies my philosophy of life by describing the act of dancing in a nightclub: “I don’t need dollar bills to have fun tonight / I don’t need no money as long as I can feel the beat / I don’t need no money as long as I keep dancing.” The chorus shouting “I love cheap thrills!” in the background is almost an anthem.

It may seem a superficial set of lyrics in the beginning, but as I understand it, what she is saying is that what matters, deep down, is not how much money you’ve got, but how capable you are of enjoying what can’t be bought. What she is implying is that when you can find happiness in something as simple as music, no amount of money matters.

That was what I was feeling when I stood there holding the heart-shaped potato chip in my hands. It didn’t matter in the least whether I had money in my wallet or not, if I was going to be able to pay the rent or travel do Tahiti in the summer; it didn’t even matter if I had enough cash to go back home. In that single, particular moment that I was holding the potato chip in my hand, the only thing that mattered was that I felt comforted by something that hadn’t cost me anything. I felt content because of such a small, almost imperceptible cheap thrill.

I suppose I don’t need to say that, after this episode, the song immediately became my favorite one. It was a constant reminder of how important it is to appreciate the little things – the ones that don’t cost anything. They are the ones that make you feel strong enough to face the hard parts of life.

Sia’s new album, though (since we are already on the subject), is more than just one song. This is Acting turned into an obsession in my life faster than the time Sia is capable of holding a note. She supposedly wrote the lyrics for other artists, who ended up refusing her work for reasons that don’t really matter. What does (matter, I mean) is that she decided to take these rejected songs and turn them into an album of her own, more of less to prove that they had value.

But I don’t believe in this superficiality she tries to convey. Maybe she really was thinking about someone else when she wrote the words, but there’s no way she doesn’t relate to the lyrics to some degree.

She reportedly writes hundreds of songs every week, which doesn’t mean they have nothing of her in them. The feelings expressed in each track are universal; everyone felt them one day or another, at some point of their lives. And the topics addressed in the songs are very deep to have been written without any connection to her own life.

“Unstoppable”, for example. The person is hurt, but can’t let it show because she’s supposed to be strong. It also speaks, though, in a subtler way, of the expectations cast upon all of us. We’re supposed to be unstoppable, strong and confident, not insecure and scared and hurt. It breaks my heart when she says: “All smiles, I know what it takes to fool this town / I’ll do it ‘til the sun goes down and all through the night time.” This is the song of a desperate person, holding on to illusions as long as they can, but inevitably bound to break at some point – more or less the idea behind “Chandelier”, from her previous album, 1000 Forms of Fear, in which she talks about her addiction to alcohol.

Then there’s “Bird Set Free”. Man, this song is so much what I feel about writing that often when I am listening to it, I change “sing” for “write”. It tells the classic tale of a repressed artist who finally breaks free from outside judgment and turns to herself to create art. The chorus is my current anthem: “And I don’t care if I sing off key / I found myself in my melodies / I sing for love / I sing for me / I’ll shout it out like a bird set free”. It is exactly how I feel towards my writing: I don’t care if I write crappy texts; I found myself in my stories. I write for love, I write for me, and I publish whatever I want – like a bird set free. Thank you, Sia, for translating such an important part of my life so beautifully.

I can safely assume this is more about her than she lets on. Right? Maybe not. As the album title states, this is acting (singing is also acting), and maybe she is so good at faking it that she fooled me. But I prefer to believe that the acting part is an analogy for life – you act so well in life, in front of society, that you become the character you portray. Not that this is necessarily wrong; there is beauty in acting too.

I love this album and feel that she talked about so many aspects of life that are worth thinking about. It’s supposed to be superficial, but it’s deep and thought-provoking (by the way, when you listen to it, pay special attention to “Broken Glass” – its beat reminds me very much of emotionally gut-wrenching 90s movies, which is kind of cheesy, but impactful when you hear it). I recommend that you listen to the album while reading the lyrics, though, because, let’s be honest: Sia’s voice is incredible, but her accent is impossible to understand.

That Sia is talented we all know. For me, personally, what surprised me the most was how lightly and respectfully she touched hard subjects and made them beautiful. And, of course, her ability to reach and sustain high notes for what seems like forever made it all the more memorable and worth listening to.

Very well done indeed, Sia.

Here’s Alive, the first single, in case you haven’t heard it yet:

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