21 Ways to Avoid Becoming a Celebrity
"I'm getting a bit famous now," Sia Furler told Australian magazine The Age back in 2011. "And I'm very anxious." Things would get worse for the Australian singer/songwriter before they got better on that front, as she continued to write and sing on hits for the likes of Rihanna, Flo Rida and David Guetta, eventually even rebooting her own dormant solo career. By 2013, she was writing anti-fame manifestos for Billboard, appearing on the mag's cover with a paper bag on her head. And yet, her fame level continues to rise, with recent single "Chandelier" becoming her first ever solo top 40 hit and new album 1000 Forms of Fear sure to give her further exposure still.
What is Sia doing wrong? What critical lessons is she failing to heed from her musical predecessors? We put together a list of the 21 most effective ways to successfully torpedo one's celebrity as a pop star. By following these examples, even too-famous artists like Sia can be rollerblading topless through Starbucks without earning even a passing mention on TMZ.
21 Ways to Avoid Becoming a Celebrity
Make a Weird Album That Alienates Your Fans
Notable Examples: Lou Reed, MGMT, Radiohead, Stevie Wonder, Nirvana, Neil Young
This is Avoiding Fame 101: The shortest path back from the mainstream to the underground is to get weird early and often. Of the countless artists who have played this gambit, the purest example is probably the late Reed, who followed up his first US Top 10 album (Sally Can't Dance) with a two-LP collection of anti-melodic noise recordings (Metal Machine Music), allegedly once saying about the album that "anyone who gets to the end of side four is dumber than I am." He never had a Top 10 album again.
Burn Out on Drugs
Notable Examples: Todd Rundgren, Beach Boys, Happy Mondays, Syd Barrett
Drugs are an essential ingredient in many rock and pop creation myths, but when the drugs go bad (or a little too good) they can be just as essential in those artists' undoing. In the early '70s, Rundgren was a teetotaler, calling the behavior of his stoned musician peers "somewhat questionable." A couple years of superstardom and a whole lot of hallucinogens later, Rundgren's own "somewhat questionable" behavior included albums like A Wizard, A True Star and concerts focused on an experimental noise technology called "signal analysis." The drugs' effect lasted longer than the superstardom.
Mature a Little Too Uncomfortably
Notable Examples: Willow Smith, New Kids on the Block, Justin Bieber
Adorable kiddie stars tend to become less adorable when they grow into sullen teenagers (Smith), delinquent post-adolescents (Bieber) or raunchy adults (NKOTB), disturbing their younger fans while failing to win any potential older ones. It's natural and often inevitable, but most of the time, we like you better cute.
Mature a Little Too Comfortably
Notable Examples: Hanson, Debbie Gibson, Jordy
These one-time pop stars didn't have any huge meltdowns, didn't go through sudden personality about-faces, didn't even have any naked photos leak — at least until Gibson posed for Playboy in 2005. They just grew older, and that was still reason enough for us to lose interest in them: poor Jordy was already on his way to one-hit-wonderdom before he even turned five. The lesson: No pop stars have an easier time ridding themselves of fame than underage ones.
Change Your Name to an Unpronounceable Symbol
Notable Examples: Prince
In a 1993 response to his stifling record deal with Warner Bros., Prince Rogers Nelson legally changed his name to a blend of the symbols for male and female, which had no official pronunciation. The name change (and The Artist's subsequent deluge of contractually obligated LP releases) marked the end of The Purple One's pop reign. He changed back to Prince at the end of his contract in 2000, but he never hit the Top 40 again.
Hide Behind Obfuscating and Ridiculously Long Album Titles
Notable Examples: Coheed & Cambria, Fiona Apple, Kid Cudi
For the most part, the domain of the ridiculously long album title falls primarily within the oft-difficult prog-rock set. But in 1999, singer/songwriter Fiona Apple set new standards for album-title difficulty when she titled her follow-up to 1996's triple-platinum breakthrough Tidal with a 90-word poem that even her most devoted fans probably rolled their eyes at. The album established Apple as a cult artist and critical darling, but ensured her days of MTV stardom were over.
Notable Examples: Daft Punk, Slipknot, Deadmau5, Sia
One way to make sure you can still go to the Gap without getting mobbed, even if your song is playing over the loudspeakers, is to never let people know what you look like in the first place. Even as Daft Punk picked up statue after statue at last year's Grammys, they stayed in robo-uniform; when pics of the human-after-all duo playing champagne pong leaked a few months later, it was like dance music's nuclear codes had been stolen. We'll see soon enough whether Sia shares their level of dedication to facelessness.
Notable Examples: KISS, The Weeknd
Conversely, sometimes when you lift up the veil and let everyone see that smilin' face, people will decide they preferred you hidden. KISS bought themselves some publicity in the early '80s by taking off their makeup for the first time, but, after a lukewarm reception, they returned to full warpaint for their '96 reunion. Meanwhile, the Weeknd gained a career's worth of mystery and excitement by keeping his face and identity anonymous through his first few mixtapes, then lost it right back after revealing himself as a schlubby dude with hair that borders on the Duritzian.
Notable Examples: John Lennon, Alanis Morissette, Madonna
Going nude may be one of the quickest ways for an ordinary person to become a celebrity, but if you're already famous the practice can have more mixed results. In 1998, Alanis was coming off one of the biggest albums of the decade, but once America caught sight of her sitting naked on the L.A. subway in the "Thank U" video, her audience quickly dwindled. Even an artist whose image is as inextricably intertwined with sex as Madonna's isn't immune to naked backlash — especially when the nudity prominently involves Vanilla Ice.
Notable Examples: Limp Bizkit
In 2005, Limp Bizkit attempted to worm their way further into the mainstream by going all the way back to the underground. The Undisputed Truth, which received no advertising and featured no singles, was intended to build their audience back up through word of mouth, but instead was simply ignored outright, peaking at No. 24 on the charts and guaranteeing the band was never relevant again. "It was definitely self-sabotage," former guitarist Wes Borland would bluntly relate to MTV of the innovatively ineffective promotional strategy.
Screw Up Your Lip Synching
Notable Examples: Milli Vanilli, Ashlee Simpson, New Kids on the Block
Milli Vanilli went from the biggest duo of the late '80s to a national punchline when a disastrous MTV performance led to them being outed as full-time lip syncers, while a similar mishap for Ashlee Simpson on SNL ensured that her legacy would be a goofy jig and an increase in acid reflux awareness. Of course, Beyonce was outed as an Inauguration lip syncher and recovered from that OK, so maybe you have to be a little inherently ridiculous in the first place for people to care about this.
Make a Scene at the Super Bowl
Notable Examples: Janet Jackson, M.I.A.
No better way to say "not interested" to America's loving embrace than by getting on the country's bad side during the year's largest TV event. Noted rabble-rouser M.I.A. found this out when she flipped off the camera during Madonna's halftime set at Super Bowl XLVI, inspiring outrage and a multi-million-dollar lawsuit. Janet Jackson's national alienation was less intentional but more pronounced: Two months after her infamous Super Bowl XXXVI "wardrobe malfunction," Janet's Damita Jo album was released to underwhelming sales and zero Top 40 hits.
Decry a Sacred Cow to Your Audience
Notable Examples: Sinead O'Connor, Dixie Chicks
Unless you're the Beatles, forcing your audience to choose between you and a figure of worship usually turns out to be a losing proposition. O'Connor and the Dixies both certainly knew the joys of watching people who once called themselves fans steamrolling their CDs en masse, after daring to speak out against the Pope and the President, respectively. The only act since the Fab Four to survive such a gaffe is their greatest acolyte, Noel Gallagher, who once dared to ask the rhetorical question "Has God played Knebworth?" without consequence.
Dis a Beloved Singer at an Award Show
Notable Examples: Charlie Rich, Kanye West
The country megastar Rich saw his commercial fortunes quickly dry up after drunkenly lighting on fire the card holding the winner for Entertainer of the Year at the 1975 CMAs, before bitterly announcing the winner as "My friend, Mr. John Denver." Three decades later, Kanye nearly met a similar fate after he dared question the legitimacy of Taylor Swift's claim to the 2009 VMA for Best Female Video, the backlash to which forced him to go into hiding for a year. If Rich's next album had been as good as My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, maybe he'd have come out on top, too.
Beef Above Your Weight Class
Notable Examples: Ja Rule, Benzino, most rappers who feuded with LL Cool J
Feuding up is a time-honored tradition in hip-hop, but it does require you to know your place in the universe. Ja Rule was ill-advised to engage in battle with 50 Cent, a rapper who achieved similar popularity to Ja without resorting to credibility-debasing puppy-love duets with Ashanti and J. Lo. At least Ja had a career to lose, though, as opposed to Source-co-owner-slash-MC Benzino, whose ridiculously overmatched back-and-forth with Eminem ensured he would never be taken seriously as a recording artist.
Burn Countless Bridges Before Even Releasing Your Debut Album
Notable Examples: Azealia Banks
There are plenty of established artists who could earn a lifetime's worth of bad karma in the space of about a year, sending negative vibes to everyone from Pharrell to Baauer to Perez Hilton, and live to tell the tale. When you're an artist like Azealia Banks, already a couple years late to releasing your commercial debut, it's a pretty great way to ensure that as few people as possible will care once you actually get around to doing so.
Sue Your Own Fans
Notable Examples: Metallica
Metallica aren't the only artists to take legal action against their own fans; the exceedingly protective Prince took bootlegging disciples of his to court just this very year. But nobody suffered the consequences for it quite like Lars Ulrich and Co., who helped end the first golden age of filesharing with their lawsuit against Napster, turning themselves into the most widely mocked group of the early 21st century. Their catalogue eventually outlasted the controversy, but any remaining claim to "Band of the People" status was long lost.
Publicly Out Yourself in Humiliating Fashion
Notable Examples: George Michael
By the late '90s, being outed as gay wasn't necessarily a commercial kiss of death, but being outed as gay via getting caught "engaging in a lewd act" with an undercover cop in a pubic restroom was bound to have a dampening effect. George Michael was wise to play off the incident for laughs in his minorly successful video for comeback single "Outside," but he never had a hit in the U.S. again.
Have a Total Public Meltdown
Notable Examples: Britney Spears, Mariah Carey, Michael Jackson, Amy Winehouse, Whitney Houston
A certain amount of craziness is expected from most of our biggest pop stars — hell, it's practically a prerequisite. Crossing the line from "amusingly eccentric" to "unnervingly unhinged," however, can be job-threatening, as a post-TRL breakdown Mariah Carey and a newly bald and umbrella-wielding Britney Spears found out when they suffered through their greatest career lulls during their biggest periods of mental instability. Those two eventually recovered; others were not so lucky.
Pretend To Be a Completely Different Artist
Notabe Examples: Garth Brooks / Chris Gaines
Six diamond-selling albums into the '90s, country megastar Garth Brooks apparently decided he'd gone as far as he could as Garth Brooks, and released his next album as the alt-rocker Chris Gaines, planned with an accompanying film and promoted via an in-character SNL hosting gig. Unsurprisingly, it turned out that people liked Garth Brooks just fine as Garth Brooks, and the Gaines project flopped, taking a good deal of Brooks' career momentum along with it. Brooks has recorded just a single new LP under any name since.
Check Out Entirely
Notable Examples: D'Angelo, Lauryn Hill, Sly Stone
Sometimes, the only way to make damn sure that you can avoid fame is just to avoid everything and everyone altogether. Stop making music, disappear from the public eye, maybe let your appearance and weight fluctuate a little bit — just get yourself good and gone. Pop up again once or twice a decade, make a live performance with rumored promise of a new album, but slip back into the shadows at the first opportunity. If this one doesn't work, then maybe you're just destined to be famous and successful forever. Our condolences.