How Sia’s Video Trilogy Re-Wrote the Rules of Pop

Sia's controversial and deeply unusual album campaign comes to a close, it begs the question: can you be a pop star without the stardom?

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Apr 2 2015, 5:34pm

Sia's now released the final part of her trilogy of videos made with Maddie Ziegler, the 12-year-old dance prodigy. It is perhaps the most arresting video of the series, entirely comprised of an emotionally disturbed Ziegler being strangled by disembodied hands, presumably her mentor Sia’s. It completes what has been a controversial and deeply-unusual album campaign which at various points she’s been called “creepy,” “subsumed by external influences and validation," and has been forced to apologize after being accused of peadophilia .

That which is unusual has always bristled with institutionalized critics, especially at a time when people think they have seen everything in pop before. But Sia’s album campaign—the videos, the performances, the responses and the counter-responses—has in itself been one of the most spectacular pieces of contemporary populist art, personally revealing, visually sensational, and entirely functional, as it served, at least in the first place, as a way for Sia to disguise her own face. It is the sort of thing the great new wave artists were capable of—X-Ray Spex or New Order perhaps. In our "brand everything" age where you can't even buy a pack of condoms without staring directly into the eyes of someone from JLS, it's completely out of place.

It’s been a year and a half since Sia’s famous Billboard cover where she appeared with a paper bag on her head. In an authored piece inside, she makes it clear that if she’s to continue releasing music under her own name, it will be without doing interviews or appearing in videos. “If anyone besides famous people knew what it was like to be a famous person, they would never want to be famous” she says. In an interview, she talks about having suffered for years with addiction to painkillers and alcoholism, and references a suicide attempt. She refuses to add the stresses of fame to her life. Her new record contract promised that she would not have to appear in the press or promote the record.

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Those are the unusual parameters in which she began the campaign for 1000 Forms of Fear, how to be a popstar without the stardom. There are, of course, plenty of musicians who choose to remain anonymous—but the likes of Deadmau5 and Daft Punk are producers, disconnected from their lyrics, who rely on other, fully-personified singers to deliver any emotional blows. They are also men, who have always come under less scrutiny from a gossip-hungry media. If Sia was to pull this off, she would be the first female pop singer of the TMZ-age to do so.

The answer to her unusual problem came from the weirdest possible source, the Lifetime reality show Dance Moms, a pushy-parents fly-on-the-wall affair about young contemporary and urban dancers. Sia was a fan, and so sent an innocuous tweet to one of its stars: “Hey, Maddie, would you like to be in my new video for my new song Chandelier.”

“Chandelier” is a song about depression which sounds like a song about partying. It’s about living like there’s no tomorrow, and how awful and restrictive that can be. It takes the tropes and cliches of we-in-da-club Pitbull pop and unpicks them so fragiley that every declaration of late-night excess becomes a pained cry for help.

In a single shot piece of choreography, Ziegler lived the songs conflictions, even better than the song did. Her manic, demonical movement able to portray the ups and downs of being a party girl in a single head flick. She is an impressive dancer, but it was seeing a young child, who has presumably yet to be sullied with the crushing self-doubt that arrives at 6am on a Sunday morning when you’re forcing another beer down, enact those emotions that made it feel especially honest, even more so than if Sia herself had sung it. The result has now been viewed 642 million times.

The video also opened all kinds of interpretations to the performance, some leftfield and surreal, as when comedians Lena Dunham and Kristen Wiig gave their take on the choreography, the latter even more pointedly focusing on the claustrophobic nature of insecurity. Others pushed the songs raw moment of reveal, such as this stripped back take on SNL.

Sia got an incredible amount of mileage out of a single song, as Ziegler became a lived version of the torment on her record. She had to use her once more in the “Elastic Heart” video, where she was joined by Shia Labeouf in a powerful, almost embryonic fight over a single personality. I mean really, who the fuck thought lengthy pieces of single scene modern dance would be the most affecting way to make pop videos? But “Elastic Heart” was so powerful that people started accusing it of triggering upsetting memories from their past, for which Sia later apologized.

This brings us to 2015 and “Big Girls Cry,” in which Ziegler demonstrates accentuated distress, while trying to force her face, with her hands, into smiles. It is incredibly disturbing to watch, even more so as Sia’s hands reach out to strangle the living conscience she created. Ziegler, chosen for her childlike blank slate a year and a half ago, looks pale and sick with hurt. It’s hard to watch, but there could be no better three minute representation of Sia’s own real life torture.

At a time when many pop videos are basically live photoshoots—four fashion-led “looks,” only mildly connected to the music—this has been one of the most successful, recognizable and artistically validated campaigns in modern pop. For Sia, she achieved what she set out to do. She is now infinitely more famous than when she gave that Billboard interview, yet she is probably less recognisable. Considering the fragile mental state of many of today’s popstars, you wonder how many more will be fighting for a no-appearance clause in their contract.

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