Elastic Art: Maddie Ziegler and the Sia Videos

Overview

The music video for Sia’s Chandelier dropped on May 6th, 2014, and it immediately invited controversy due to 11-year-old dancer Maddie Ziegler’s flesh-tone leotard which, in a certain light, makes her appear to be nude.  Soon after, the video went viral, becoming the seventh most-watched video clip of 2014 on YouTube; it has since amassed over 450 million hits there.  The controversy mostly abated, however, when the video received widespread critical acclaim, with Time magazine’s Nolan Feenay praising Ziegler for the best dance performance of 2014.  It went on to be nominated for both Video of the Year and Best Choreography at the 2014 MTV Video Music Awards, winning the latter.  It was also nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Music Video.

Despite the controversy—or maybe because of it—the video, directed by Daniel Askill and Sia herself, made its mark, inspiring parodies by the likes of Jimmy Kimmel (he and fellow Jimmy Kimmel Live! cast member Guillermo Rodriquez were even assisted in learning the moves by Maddie herself) and Jim Carrey and Kate McKinnon on Saturday Night Live.  Maddie—wearing shorts beneath her famous skin-tone leotard—would recreate the video on the Ellen DeGeneres Show, but as is often the case when censorious tinkering of this type occurs, the addition of the shorts oddly seems to make the young dancer look more provocative rather than less.  The sleek, fully nude outfit gives Maddie an almost alien appearance, leaving no doubt as to the artistic intent of the video’s creators, whereas on Ellen’s show, particularly in the dim lighting, the girl looks to be wearing a pair of pale blue panties and nothing else, giving the performance a slightly tawdrier tone.  A note of interest here: when Sia stands offside in the shadows, with her back turned to the audience, she is effectively saying, “This is not about my surface, the side of me that is seen during a performance.”  We will better understand why that is relevant soon.

But the controversial nature of Chandelier pales in comparison to that generated by its follow-up, Elastic Heart, which was released on January 7th, 2015 and again features Miss Ziegler in the faux-nude getup, along with adult actor Shia LaBeouf (similarly attired), with the two stuck in a giant birdcage together and reacting to one another in a gritty and intense performance.  The negative reaction to the video has been so strong that Sia apologized to victims of sexual abuse over the potentially “triggering” imagery.  Of course, thus far no one has pointed out that one possible interpretation of the video is as a symbolic commentary on sexual abuse, though that is one of many.  Thus, we shall do a scene-by-scene dissection of both videos, with a particular focus on Elastic Heart, to better understand why these are indeed art, and why Sia should not have to apologize for them.

Chandelier

Initially the camera pans around what appears to be an empty, grungy apartment that has clearly seen better days.  As the camera offers us a quick look at the various rooms in the apartment, we get the sense that we are peering into a dormant place.

Sia, Daniel Askill - Still from 'Chandelier' (2014) (1)

Sia, Daniel Askill – Still from ‘Chandelier’ (2014) (1)

The first time we meet the sole human being who appears in the video (Maddie, of course), she is braced inside a doorway a couple of feet off the floor.  In terms of semiotics, doors and doorways are quite interesting.  As Claus Seligmann points out in this article on architectural semiotics, “For if architecture is at root a system of barriers that distinguish inside from out, this place from that, or place from nonplace, then the door is in our society […] the culturally mandated means of penetrating the barrier.”  That is to say, doors are transitional, a means of moving between two separate spaces, or two separate conditions, or even two separate realities.  That the dancer begins here is noteworthy, for we are being invited into an intimate space.  When she drops to the floor, we know we are thoroughly immersed in her reality.

But who is she, and why does she appear to be nude?  Well, the key to understanding who the child is lies in the wig she wears, which closely mimics the golden blond locks of Sia herself.  So this is Sia—not literally but metaphorically.  As for her implied nudity, we can view it is the ultimate form of vulnerability, a condition amplified by the infantine state of the figure.  But let’s not make the mistake of assuming our young Sia stand-in is perfectly innocent; after all, she is not meant to be an actual child but rather a metaphorical one.  This is an important point, because once we understand that child-Sia is symbolic, we must then try to determine what she is a symbol for.  Well, as this Sia stand-in is the only figure in the video, we could reasonably assume that we are seeing the inner life of Sia.  With that as our starting point, we now know that when the dancer drops onto the floor of this seedy apartment, we are effectively “dropping” into Sia’s mental/emotional world with her.  It’s a raw, murky, and somewhat bedraggled place, the place where Sia is most vulnerable because it is here that she is most herself.  This omni-personal identity, which is something like a kernel from which a great tree grows because it is our core identity, is sometimes aptly referred to as an inner child, hence our little dancer.

You’ll recall back when I pointed out how the apartment was a dormant place?  In that context, we can consider Maddie’s position bracketed in the doorway as something like suspended animation, or even a kind of sleep.  As the child hits the floor, she instantly comes alive, and we are mesmerized by her, this strange pseudo-nude little girl who dances her beautifully bizarre dance.  And as I said before, there is something almost alien about her, with her bright artificial hair and her teased nakedness, not only because she calls to mind iconic science fiction characters like Leeloo from The Fifth Element and (to a lesser extent) Pris from Blade Runner, but because she seems to be neutered, like a humanoid robot or some sexless being from another world.  Yes, our dancer’s world is at once familiar territory and exotic alternate reality.  Doesn’t that perfectly exemplify the realm of the subconscious?

Sia, Daniel Askill - Still from 'Chandelier' (2014) (2)

Sia, Daniel Askill – Still from ‘Chandelier’ (2014) (2)

As if to reinforce this point, in the first of only two extreme closeups of Maddie, staring out placidly at the camera, she appears to wind something into the wall and then immediately falls forward like she has been depowered, a robot turning herself off with an invisible key.  But then she pulls herself aright again.  Her hands are dirty, stained with pink chalk (makeup?), and we get the impression that she is burned out.  This is Sia remarking on the nature of her stardom, the fact that sometimes she is like an automaton going through the motions.  Her art, endlessly repeated night after night, and more importantly the requisite partying that comes with the job, have become a chore to her.  It’s a feeling I’m sure many celebrities have experienced.  This robot needs to recharge her batteries, and she does.

Suddenly, it’s as if she has reawakened, becoming something like a human again.  It’s a new day, literally and metaphorically.  The lyrics reinforce this.  We see her yawn and stretch, walking around the room as she rubs her belly in hunger.  She does the splits, perhaps as part of her morning exercises.  She is pushing herself, stretching her limits.  She is coming to life again, nearly—but not quite—ready to swing from the titular chandelier.

Sia, Daniel Askill - Still from 'Chandelier' (2014) (3)

Sia, Daniel Askill – Still from ‘Chandelier’ (2014) (3)

And then she really lets loose, going through a series of particularly lively motions—flips, tumbles, running through the apartment—and we know our inner Sia is juiced now, running on full speed, re-embracing and reinvigorating her art, and through her art, her life.

Sia, Daniel Askill - Still from 'Chandelier' (2014) (4)

Sia, Daniel Askill – Still from ‘Chandelier’ (2014) (4)

Sia, Daniel Askill - Still from 'Chandelier' (2014) (5)

Sia, Daniel Askill – Still from ‘Chandelier’ (2014) (5)

In the second close-up of the video, Maddie stands behind curtains.  The suggestion is of a performer looking out on her audience with mixed emotions.  And, perhaps it is just me, but there is a point in this sequence at which, just before she leaves the curtains behind, Maddie almost seems to be channeling the spirit of Marilyn Monroe.

Sia, Daniel Askill - Still from 'Chandelier' (2014) (6)

Sia, Daniel Askill – Still from ‘Chandelier’ (2014) (6)

At last, as the video reaches it’s end, Maddie/Sia is again framed by a doorway, but this time she is on one side of it while the viewer is on the other.  Maddie affects a stage bow here, referencing Sia’s identity as a performer.  This is goodbye for us—we are leaving Sia’s unconscious now, for our visit is over, and the little nude dancer in her head is seeing us off at the door.

Sia, Daniel Askill - Still from 'Chandelier' (2014) (7)

Sia, Daniel Askill – Still from ‘Chandelier’ (2014) (7)

Elastic Heart

Based on the resounding success of the Chandelier video, it only makes sense that there would be a follow-up video featuring Miss Ziegler, though few could have foreseen the inclusion of actor Shia LaBeouf in the same.  And yet, strangely, it works.  But what’s it about, exactly?  We have only gotten a hint from Sia herself, who has suggested that these figures are two separate states of herself, sometimes simpatico and other times at complete odds.  This makes sense (and reinforces our interpretation of the first video as a representation of Sia’s inner life), and so we already have a pretty good idea about what part of Sia that Maddie represents: she is the vulnerable, emotional part.  LaBeouf, then, is something else entirely, perhaps a need to control the emotional aspects of herself to function normally in her career.  Or maybe he is a predatory instinct born of show business, a moral flaw that Sia must fight to remain human in an inherently humanity-destroying job.  Another possibility here is that he is the untamed (wild) part of Sia, the part that only her heart can quell.

Whatever the case, the beauty of good art is that it is often open to interpretation, its meaning elastic and malleable to whatever the experiencer of the art brings to the table.  And with all of the controversy that has arisen over this video, with accusations that the video somehow encourages or promotes “pedophilia”, I would like to offer another possible interpretation: the video may, in fact, be taken as a condemnation of sexual abuse, wherein the characters are symbolic of the mental interior of an abuse victim.  Let’s consider the semiotics here.

First off, we see that both the child and the adult are trapped in an immense birdcage, facing off against each other.  Through our established theme, this can be seen as symbolic in a couple of ways.  First, the victim may be literally trapped with her abuser—this is often the case with sexual abuse victims, given that most abuse is intrafamilial and occurs in the home.  Such a child is under the complete control of her abuser, since he has custody and legal power over her.  Immediately we can see that the two are out of breath and in a heightened emotional state—they have been at each other’s throats for awhile, it seems.  The girl appears to be fending off the advances of the male, almost like a feral cat fighting off a wolf.  When she attacks, the wound is struck where?  Square in LaBeouf’s heart.

Sia, Daniel Askill - Still from 'Elastic Heart' (2015) (1)

Sia, Daniel Askill – Still from ‘Elastic Heart’ (2015) (1)

But after Maddie’s verbal assault hits its mark and she unleashes on him again (having found a weapon that works), she soon loses her voice.  Consider how there is power in a child’s voice—her ability to speak of her abuse may be the only thing that can truly end it—and child abusers often silence their victims with threats.  But there’s also a musical analogy here, as singers sometimes quite literally lose their voice for a brief time.  There is one point where the sexual abuse metaphor becomes most apt: as the two crawl on the floor like animals, Maddie suddenly flips onto her back, knees up and slightly apart; it seems she is inviting her abuser to take her, but as we soon realize, this is only a ploy to get him close enough so that she might attack him again.  Having gotten the upper hand again in their face-off, she grabs LaBeouf and tosses him against the wall of their shared cage.

Sia, Daniel Askill - Still from 'Elastic Heart' (2015) (2)

Sia, Daniel Askill – Still from ‘Elastic Heart’ (2015) (2)

Not long after this, LaBeouf climbs up the side of the cage and is suspended directly above Maddie for a second.  Here the abuser again uses his power and privilege over the girl (as a parent or foster parent) to his advantage.  This type of shot is often called a bird’s-eye-view in photography and cinema.  Resoundingly appropriate for a video set in a giant birdcage, no?  Moreover, it is largely agreed upon by critics that such shots in visual semiotics establishes a sense of vulnerability for those who lie at the distal end of the shot.

While LaBeouf hangs above her, Maddie seems to sleep, perhaps resting after the long battle.  Or maybe she is pretending to sleep, something long-term abuse victims have been known to do, though her surprise when LaBeouf drops down and intimately touches her face seems genuine enough that I take the first point as more accurate.

Sia, Daniel Askill - Still from 'Elastic Heart' (2015) (3)

Sia, Daniel Askill – Still from ‘Elastic Heart’ (2015) (3)

Maddie is once more on the defensive, but LaBeouf tries another ploy: he seems to offer her something in his hand, and Maddie sniffs at it.  What is he offering her?  My hunch is food, not only because of the way she sniffs it but also because of what occurs directly after.  With Maddie’s back turned to him, her defenses down, LaBeouf moves in.  But the little girl snaps at his hand, and thus quite literally (within a metaphorical context) bites the hand that feeds her, and for good reason.  This scene, I think, is the crux of the entire video.

Sia, Daniel Askill - Still from 'Elastic Heart' (2015) (4)

Sia, Daniel Askill – Still from ‘Elastic Heart’ (2015) (4)

Sia, Daniel Askill - Still from 'Elastic Heart' (2015) (5)

Sia, Daniel Askill – Still from ‘Elastic Heart’ (2015) (5)

Their ongoing war resumes, going on for a bit; however, something is different this time.  Maddie manages to find her way out of the cage.  The fact that she can fit through the bars while her abuser cannot is significant.  Likely we are seeing the victim growing up and moving away from home, while the abuser is still there.  But more importantly, the victim is now educated and aware, and she knows she can destroy him with a word.  The abuser is still obsessed with the victim, reaching for her through the bars, but she is out of reach.  Ergo, he is trapped in another way: his obsession with the girl has become something like an addiction.  He goes through a series of emotions here—sorrow, fear, rage.  Maddie, meanwhile, also appears to be torn.  She flashes him a false smile, but she is a bit confused by her own feelings.  Perhaps she has not entirely escaped after all.

Sia, Daniel Askill - Still from 'Elastic Heart' (2015) (6)

Sia, Daniel Askill – Still from ‘Elastic Heart’ (2015) (6)

Sia, Daniel Askill - Still from 'Elastic Heart' (2015) (7)

Sia, Daniel Askill – Still from ‘Elastic Heart’ (2015) (7)

In the end, seeing the man saddened and cowed before her, she slips back into the cage willingly and returns to him in what becomes one of the most poignant scenes in the video.  Maddie flips her legs over LaBeouf’s shoulders, and he walks around with her on his back; she is now his burden.  She expresses genuine care and concern for him here, though she also manipulates him, pounding on his forehead to force him to go through a series of face changes (masks?) for her own entertainment, and then toying with his face directly.

Sia, Daniel Askill - Still from 'Elastic Heart' (2015) (8)

Sia, Daniel Askill – Still from ‘Elastic Heart’ (2015) (8)

Sia, Daniel Askill - Still from 'Elastic Heart' (2015) (9)

Sia, Daniel Askill – Still from ‘Elastic Heart’ (2015) (9)

It is the girl who is clearly in control now, or so it seems.  She has forgiven her abuser, or at least made peace with him.  She even leads him to the edge of the cage and attempts to pull him out with her, to rescue him from the very prison he created for them, but this is where things become most complicated.  The scene plays out for a while, even after the music dies away, and it soon becomes difficult to discern whether she is still trying to pull him out or he is trying to pull her in.  Most likely it is both.

That is the complex nature of abusive parent-child relationships.  The child may escape the situation physically, but that doesn’t mean she is entirely free of it psychologically.  And she may still love the parent, perhaps understanding him better than he understands himself, and the nature of his obsession with her.  In the end, both abuser and victim are likely irreparably scarred by their unhealthy relationship.  That pretty well sums up what occurs in a much of the long-term intrafamilial abuse I have read about, where severing emotional ties becomes a lot more difficult than if the abuser had simply been an acquaintance.  The camera fades away with the two still engaged in this strange tug-of-war, leaving the viewer uncertain about the fate of man and girl.

Sia, Daniel Askill - Still from 'Elastic Heart' (2015) (10)

Sia, Daniel Askill – Still from ‘Elastic Heart’ (2015) (10)

That’s it.  That is one of my interpretations of the video, and I think I make a pretty strong case for it.  This does not, of course, mean that this was what Sia or Askill intended the video to be about.  Nor does it mean that this is my only interpretation of the video (it isn’t).  The reason I spent a good deal of time examining the video from this perspective is that I wanted to demonstrate something about the nature of good art: it’s meaning is malleable and is often viewed through our own filters.  As has been mentioned here before, those who tend to see obscenity in nude artworks of children are often the ones with the dirty minds, not the artists themselves.  Likewise, I am inclined to believe that we should look askance upon those who offer only the tone-deaf interpretation of the Elastic Heart video as a casual promotion of adult-child sex.

As for me, I see precisely the opposite in it.  In fact, this need not even be a metaphor for sexual abuse–any sort of abuse will do.  As for the discomfort the video may cause, so what?  If the video is indeed a symbolic look at sexual abuse, then it should make us uncomfortable.  Would anyone dare suggest that a film like, say, Bastard out of Carolina shouldn’t have been made because the graphic rape scene at the end is utterly disturbing (which it is—it may be the most graphically depicted child rape scene ever filmed)?  I certainly wouldn’t.  If art is to have any impact on us, it must challenge us.  I am also more than a touch concerned about the current trend of putting up “trigger warnings” on everything that might be even remotely offensive to someone–personally, I find it insulting to myself and to humanity as a whole this notion that we must necessarily be shielded against our own feelings, as if we were all emotional infants who must always be cooed to and comforted by the world around us.

Nevertheless, I will accept it if I must.  If you require a warning label on your art, I can look past it.  After all, controversy has rarely ever hurt sales when it comes to art, and if anything tends to encourage them.  What I will not accept is external pressure to change, destroy or even apologize for art that challenges viewers because some people are bothered by it.  In my estimation, Sia has absolutely nothing to apologize for.  She clearly did not exploit Maddie Ziegler to make her art, which is the only real consideration that should be given when it comes to featuring children in provocative art.  These videos have beautiful purpose, and that is its own moral defense.

Note: In addition to the Sia videos, Maddie Ziegler has appeared in videos for Todrick Hall’s Freaks Like Me and Alexx Calise’s Cry.

Tumblr: Sia (official site)

Wikipedia: Sia (musician)

Daniel Askill (official site)

Wikipedia: Daniel Askill

Maddie & Mackenzie Ziegler (official site)

Wikipedia: Maddie Ziegler