Australian singer and songwriter Sia owes her success to her decision to play into the peculiar. Her growing collection of songs is created through a manipulation of raw emotion. Like with most performers of the time, a variety of visual art accompanies Sia’s music. The Sia brand includes her boxy platinum blonde hair, a variety of veils that cover her face, and most notably, a series of bizarre music videos. Released in October of 2013 as a part of the “Catching Fire” soundtrack, the track “Elastic Heart” was quick to tug at the heartstrings of listeners.
In early January, Sia released a music video for the song, starring actor Shia LaBeouf and the 12-year-old dancer Maddie Ziegler. Ziegler appeared in Sia’s previous music video for “Chandelier,” so it was no surprise when she appeared in the dance piece, sporting the same nude suit and Sia wig. Ziegler’s familiar face did not stop the video from shocking viewers. Sia’s video, consisting of a cage match themed interpretive dance between LaBeouf and Ziegler, has actually left fans and critics alike rather disturbed. The video, intended to simply interpret the lyrics of “Elastic Heart,” has received a plethora of pedophilia complaints. Complaints have even arisen from Ziegler’s costars on the show “Dance Moms.” Guest star coach Cathy Nesbitt-Stein declared the video to be “vile,” claiming that she “nearly threw up” when she watched it. The complaints have piled high enough to elicit an apology from Sia.
Sia’s apology was unnecessary, as were the complaints. If you’ve seen the video, I’m sure some question marks were planted in your mind, but why are we acting as if this is a new phenomenon? This is the very nature of art. Sia, like all artists, aims to communicate the human experience. Unless your life is an episode of Barney, the 80 or so years you’re around are messy and raw. Art, stemming from the subject matter of life itself, deserves to be equally untidy; it should provoke thoughts and questions. “Elastic Heart,” aimed at the experience of heartbreak and rebound, deserves a video that can grasp the very emotions that accompany that part of life.
The trend of questioning art which breaks from the norm or makes us comfortable, is far from new. I don’t know if you’ve heard of that dude Picasso, but audiences were initially pretty freaked out by his stuff. I’m not claiming Sia belongs alongside the ranks of the great modernist writers or painters, but maybe we should hold off on dubbing her work ‘pedophilic.’
Maybe viewers are simply shocked to see what Shia LaBeouf has been up to ever since he got out of that juvenile detention center where he was forced to dig holes in search of treasure. Regardless, I think the video was a gripping embodiment of Sia’s mindset. First of all, the video blatantly calls for an abstract interpretation. Most notably, the video is a continuation of Sia’s “Chandelier” video in which Ziegler performs similar avant-garde choreography. The animalistic choreography removes the sense that this is supposed to be a depiction of human action. It’s rather a personification of human emotion. We’re not witnessing a relationship unfold between LaBeouf and Ziegler; we’re watching Sia’s dichotomized states of feeling. The lyrics say “And another one bites the dust. Oh why can I not conquer love?” The cage match is simply mirroring this trial and error period of feeling secure, and then again experiencing failure. The choice to use a grown man and a young girl was simply to emphasize the stark difference between these phases of security and failure.
In Sia’s apologetic tweets she said, “All I can say is Maddie and Shia are two of the only actors I felt could play these two warring ‘sia’ states…my intention was to create some emotional content.” Ziegler’s only complaint was that LaBeouf had poor hygiene. In an interview with ET she confessed that Shia’s smell led her to say, “I’m sorry, but you’re kind of dirty.” The 12-year-old went on to defend the content of the video, explaining, “It wasn’t like we were actually dancing together because we were fighting each other. We were battling.”
Sia appeared on the Jan. 17 episode of Saturday Night Live, singing alongside a live performance of the video. She remained still with her face veiled, as the choreography was the focus of attention. Sia made the interesting choice of replacing the absent Shia LaBeouf with a slender, older female. This was a clever move on Sia’s part; the gender of the dancer doesn’t necessarily matter, as they are simply representing a genderless idea. LaBeouf was simply the strongest choice to represent an opposition to the state of being personified by Ziegler.
Artists are always going to push boundaries, and audiences will therefore continue to be forced to look at the human condition. Sia is just another interesting example of someone trying to desensitize viewers. We eventually accepted the Lady Gaga phenomenon and we even got over Miley Cyrus’ twerking (sort of). Modern artists are simply reinterpreting the “wow factor” that artists have always wielded.