Greatest Expectations: Sia’s “The Greatest”

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maxresdefaultThere are two things about Sia’s music videos: 1) they are a voyeur’s delight and 2) they are made to be projected upon. These two ideas intersect fairly often, so it’s curious that such a perspective should be at once reinforced as well as negated for her most recent track and video, “The Greatest”, which, the artist says, was made in dedication of the victims of the Orlando massacre in June. Such an assignation of purpose is a little frustrating, honestly.

That Sia’s videos are so nondescript is, to some degree, a strength of her artistry. Her public persona, extended through these videos, is a bit of a blank slate, at least since she achieved more international fame a few years ago, in spite of being in the music industry for well over a decade. But her videos, from the last few years, beginning with Chandelier in May 2014, bask in their unflashiness, aided only by dancer Maddie Ziegler. They are music video meets Tanztheater, the marriage of dance and theater that originated in Weimar Germany, inspired by the likes of Bertolt Brecht, and would be further developed by modernist dancer and choreographer Pina Bausch.

Because the clarity of Sia’s videos is so intentionally elusive to general audiences and those unfamiliar with dance criticism (including myself), they’re a little more open to interpretation. There are fewer signifiers, to me, in these videos, with certain exceptions (“Elastic Heart”’s behemoth of a birdcage, for instance).

For “The Greatest”, however, Sia explicitly tells us that this is for the victims of Orlando. In a hashtag, no less: “#weareyourchildren”. It appears on the screen for a second, before the opening shot of the video: a dark hallway of what looks like a crumbling apartment, not dissimilar to the place in “Chandelier”.  At the end of the hallway is a barred door, bodies on the ground behind it. It cuts to another hallway, more young bodies strewn along the way. The camera lurches forward slowly. It cuts to another room, children standing, but folding into one another like a cone, dressed in charcoal grey, only illuminated by the soft, pale lighting from the left.

And then we cut to Maddie, in front of a grey wall, silently weeping. She drags her fingers down her cheeks and leaves the impression of a rainbow. We cut to her swinging her arms in a fit. An unsettling idle hum that began at the first shot transitions into the opening of the song. And then to the bodies on the ground, that get up. They wag their heads back, biting at the air like hungry dogs. Maddie kicks the door open.

As Sia continually sings, “I got stamina”, the kids run through the hallways. And for most of the video, it resembles her other ones in form. Most of the time, Maddie dares not look into the camera aside from one of the aforementioned opening shots. Instead, everyone seems to be looking past the camera, and, in turn, it feels like the camera is observing them at, if not a distance proximity wise, at least intellectually and spiritually.

These movements in tight hallways and claustrophobic rooms, of equal or greater abandon, are ostensibly to suggest the “don’t give up” part of Sia’s track. They look like they’re running or climbing or trying to get over some hurdle. It leads them to a large space, just as decrepit as the former rooms, but lit marginally by neon and dance lights. The implication is it’s a gay club, or at least a dance floor, ruined literally. Light pours through tiny holes in the wall, nodding to bullet holes.

This cluster of young people dance together, on their feet and on the ground, the camera sometimes weaving in and out of the crowd, until they suddenly drop. The hum from before overtakes the speakers. We return to shots of other fallen children, and to Ziegler, standing before a red wall, silently weeping.

Lyrically, there’s not much to suggest anything queer about this. It is rather generic, a very gung ho empowerment song, even lacking the specificity of something like Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” or Madonna’s “Express Yourself”. Its lyrical blandness is fine. Its videographic nondescriptness is sort of fine. But, there’s something very weird about being told what this video and this song are supposed to be about.

It feels more like an obligation to embrace it than anything truthful or authentic. You can’t see yourself in it because everyone is in it, which normally not really be an issue. But dedicating it to a particular group of people and then not bothering to consider any kind of focus or detail seems a  bit half-assed, frustratingly so. I like Sia, and I like her music. But this is uncharacteristically broad. It reaches to be a part of something, but forgets that identifiers are important and reaching in a particular direction is important, so left there is a hand flailing, not unlike Ziegler’s body.

It makes it feel a little more disingenuous or exploitative, because so little of it actually wants to denote queer specificity. As a song, it ends up straddling that awkward area of too broad to be comfortably universal and not specific enough to really apply to the event it ostensibly wants to be about. It could quite easily be about anything. Which would not be a bad thing if it didn’t feel a little bit exploitative. Its tactility feels soulless. 

Given that the POV of these videos’ camera is very often observational and very rarely interferent, it feels especially unsettling watch a large group of people fall to their death as an artistic metaphor for, more literally, the Orlando massacre, and more figuratively, the deaths of many queer people from the past. If one is to read the distance of the camera, and its lack of intervention, as an indictment on an apathetic audience, I question how well that works, given that there’s little else to support that reading. You could argue the state of the building could be an allusion to LGBTQ homelessness, but it’s not inconsistent with Sia’s aesthetic in general, and that reading doesn’t really carry over to her other videos.

This feels especially frustrating because I think it fails as an act of collective mourning. It’s hard to articulate the complexity of mourning, queer mourning in particular, and there’s a rawness to the events that happened as a form of memory and trauma that doesn’t exist in the video. Which is not to say that art can’t be made after tragedy as catharsis or whatnot, but that this piece of art in particular is not very good.

“The Greatest” struggles to be a call and a cry, and so it just looks and feels very odd and discomforting, and not in the interesting way. Ziegler, an excellent dancer in any case, pantomimes a kind of throng of communal celebration, mixed in with some choreography pulled from Sia’s past work. But in its most important moments, it’s either too blank to support the allegation that it’s about Orlando, or its provocations seem unequal with the rest of the video, and thus a little tasteless. More to the point, except for the rainbows on Ziegler’s cheeks, there’s nothing queer about it. The iconography of rainbows and an empty club aren’t enough. The hashtag says “we are your children”, but the video doesn’t bother identifying who “we” are in any meaningful way.

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