Early on New Year’s Day, after a moderate but enjoyable night of celebrating, I settled down in front of my computer to catch up on a couple of songs I had been meaning to download. One of them was Sia’s “Chandelier” – a song which I had heard snippets of here and there for a while but did not take real notice of until a short car ride a few weeks before. A week or so later, a video my sister shared with me made me realize that the really cool video I had briefly seen parts of during a sleepless night of jet lag overseas coupled with the song I had enjoyed in the car. So I decided I should go ahead and download this song.
The first thing I did, though, was look up the lyrics. And what I discovered sent me down such a delightful spiral of surprise. The song that I had admired for all of its classic pop-empowerment-ballad characteristics was, actually, incredibly sad.
In its most simple form, “Chandelier” is about alcoholism, and is, apparently, partially autobiographical. The lyrics tell the story of a typical night lost to acute intoxication (“one two three, one two three – drink, one two three, one two three – drink” make for a gripping chanting rhythm before Sia launches into the chorus), filled with both desperate grabs for glory and the harrowing fear of failing; or, in this case, the lyrics invoke the imagery of falling.
Yet the depth of “Chandlier,” I would argue, goes far beyond an exploration of a particular substance abuse problem. Indeed, it seems like the very trick the song pulls – the trick I fell for – is manipulating the celebratory sound of an explosive composition to actually reflect on the sadness most of us, in some point in our lives, try to run away from. Moreover, in writing a song about the possible consequences of non-stop partying, Sia’s song implicitly critiques the limitations of the kind of models most young women are offered for both feeling successful in their social life (the opening verse of the song has Sia talking about how everyone calls her to come out and party; “I feel the love, I feel the love,” she sings) and expressing themselves in the same sphere. As Sia explained, “I wrote the song because there’s so many party-girl anthems in pop. And I thought it’d be interesting to do a different take on that.”
There is a possibility, of course, that “Chandelier” could be read as also participating in some sort of shaming – I could imagine for example, a social conservative nodding in approval thinking, “see, this is what happens when young women drink too much.” Yet the source and subtlety of the song strongly suggest the opposite – when Sia sings of waking up in morning, “here comes the shame, here comes the shame,” there’s no reason to think at any moment that she’s suggesting that she, or anyone else, ought to feel shame. On the contrary, the entire structure of the song points to the hypocrisy of a culture which promises glory and appreciation to women if they appropriate the figure of the pop star, but just as eagerly shames them and belittles them when, as the lyrics put it, the “sun is up.”
And then, of course, there is the music video, which is in my opinion a masterpiece. The video features the dancing of one girl – Maddie Ziegler, a twelve year old professional dancer – in a barren, drably decorated apartment. Without knowledge of the subject of the song, the juxtaposition of its epic sound with the dour surroundings read to me as a testament to hope; to the strength of imagination and spirituality in even a less-than-inspiring context. With knowledge of the subject of the song, I can’t say that experience for me changed entirely, but it undoubtedly added another layer of sad, bittersweet irony to the performance. The fact that Ziegler wears a wig replicating the kind Sia always wears adds to this effect, suggesting both that, at the end of the day we are all still vulnerable children, and that in some sense, the young women of tomorrow already know what it’s store for them in trying to carve a path in a culture that often wraps up sexist condescension in a supposedly liberating rhetoric of empowerment.
To top it all off, I learned that since becoming famous in her own right – rather than merely being the behind the scenes brilliance of songs given to other pop stars – Sia has refused to be photographed, and when she does perform live, turns her back to the audience. While some view this as eccentric, Sia views it as an amusing and pragmatic response to a fame she never wanted. As she put it, “I thought it would be a funny joke that I’m getting away with. And it was, partly, I don’t wanna go out and sell my soul, my body, my peace of mind.”
So let’s sum up this analysis by returning to the story I started it with. I found this all out in the course of one hour, and ended up in one of those situations where you’re kind of stuck listening to a song over, and over, and over again – like it’s so good, and hits on something so basic, that it’s a drug you have to take multiple times before it starts to wear off. And, if it’s not obvious by now, I think both the song and the video are completely fucking awesome.
Because here’s the thing. The most subversive cultural intervention is not always the one that declares itself openly – that says, here I am, I am opposed to this, and I am rejecting it directly. Sometimes, art can find a way of exposing the flaws and fallacies of a form from within; by assuming the exterior appearance of such tropes to churn out something that, if you take even a moment to listen to it seriously, tells you something rather different. Moreover, by doing so such art does not take the position of shaming people for enjoying the culture they are used to consuming – I don’t think Sia or anyone else would laugh at me or shun me for originally assuming the song to be a typical ballad about self-empowerment. There’s something good to be said, a lot even, for ballads about self-empowerment. But in this culture – where consumerism has a sickeningly resilient relationship with sexism and exploitation of all types – there are also a lot of problems with them; a lot of sadness that gets left out of their narratives. To inject that sadness, those unseen stories, back into the story by mimicking it – well, all I can say is bravo.