What the Hell Is Going On in Sia’s ‘Music’?
Go back and watch the music video for Sia’s “Chandelier” if you haven’t seen it in a while. The Australian singer-songwriter’s hit about using the word “party” as a verb to feel momentarily free (“One two three/One two three/Drink”), followed by the next-day comedown (“Here comes the shame, here comes the shame”), is a complicated tune if you know her history. The clip, however, is simple, really: 11-year-old Maddie Ziegler dances in a spare apartment. That’s it, but it’s a lot. She’s wearing a blond-bob wig, similar to the two-tone, visage-obscuring one that Sia started using in performances. The kid kicks her legs, twitches her arms, throws herself around, widens her eyes, peeks out from curtains. Ziegler runs around the room and through a hallway, a tiny dervish in a leotard, endlessly curtsying into infinity with a slightly unnerving smile on her face. The concept has nothing to do with the song’s content yet somehow seems perfectly attuned to its feel. As of this writing, the video has more than two billion views on YouTube. Given how instantly iconic it was, and how compelling and endlessly rewatchable it still is, this seems like a smaller number than you’d expect.
Co-directed by Sia, “Chandelier” was the first time she’d worked with Ziegler. The teen quickly became a sort of stand-in for the musician — the face of an artist who preferred to hide her own. Ziegler danced onstage and at awards shows with Sia, interpreting her music through movement and acting as a go-to screen counterpart. They made more music videos together, all of them memorable, almost all of them great. Binge as many of these as you can right now (although the “Elastic Heart” one is a bit tough, given who Ziegler’s co-star is).
If you only have time for one, however, go straight to “Thunderclouds.” It’s from Sia’s side project/supergroup LSD — the L is for Labrinth, the D for Diplo — and it features Ziegler in both Tank Girl cosplay and rocking a big, bright-blue bow, yet another stylistic touch she’s borrowed from her pop-song partner in crime. Sia herself shows up via a marionette substitute. Labrinth hangs out on a cloud. Diplo, once again radiating a strong David-Spade-only-seedier vibe, drives a decked-out van through a day-glo sky. There’s a lightning storm at 36,000 feet, which does not stop Ziegler from dancing on top of Diplo’s flying Mystery Machine. Nothing could stop Ziegler from dancing in a Sia video.
Now, imagine that the singer and the dancer made a whole host of other candy-colored videos very much like that the “Thunderclouds” one, with bits and pieces of their other collaborations sprinkled in. And they have connected them all via a story of a nonverbal, autistic young woman who sees the world as pastel dance daydreams, one part Busby Berkeley, one part Daft Punk’s “Around the World” clip, and one part Yo Gabba Gabba. Occasionally, Kate Hudson and Leslie Odom Jr. drop by to join in the fun.
Yes, that was our reaction, too. Hopefully, you’ve picked your jaw up off the floor as well.
You have to admire any attempt by an artist to widen their horizons, try something new, swing so committedly and passionately for the fences. But Music, Sia’s feature directorial debut, is the type of curio in which the gap between its intentions and the end result is Grand Canyon-esque. Controversial from the get-go due to her decision to cast a neurotypical actor in the lead, this blend of gritty, streetwise drama and outrageous, fantastical musical sequences has been a labor of love for the singer — a stab at translating the sensibility displayed in her bruised-empowerment lyrics, her mastery of intimate yet epic pop-bombast, and her video collaborations into something grander. Instead, it is a grave mistake that’s recognizable as an extension of a voice yet hits all the wrong notes. It leaves you not with insight into what someone was thinking, but wondering, “What the hell were they thinking?”
Music, we should note, is also the name of Ziegler’s character, who filters an overwhelming world through her headphones. Her grandmother (Mary Kay Place), along with a network of neighborhood folks, keep an eye on Music as she goes from downtown apartment to newspaper kiosk to street vendor to the library. Meanwhile, her older sister Kazu (Hudson) — Zu for short — has sorta, kinda gone through a drug-rehab stint, and is looking for a place to crash. Some new clients for her continuing side hustle selling pills would be nice as well.
She’s still a mess, in other words: immature, unrepentant, stuck in the junkie-survivalist mode of seeing everything as a potential steal or a score. Not the kind of person who could take care of a special-needs sibling, and yet circumstances force her to step into the role of Music’s primary guardian. Luckily, she has help in the form of Ebo (Odom Jr.), an immigrant who was once a local boxing champ and now runs a gym for underage pugilists-to-be. And she’s aided, in her own way, by Music’s vibrant inner life, which takes the form of those bright, shiny musical numbers in which she lets Ebo, and eventually Zu, into her private world.
Those numbers are, unsurprisingly, the moments where you see the person who wrote “Titanium” and “Cheap Thrills” — who sang “I am small and needy/Wake me up and breathe me,” who looked at a giant black-and-white wig and saw an alternate identity — shine through. Scored by Sia and featuring Hudson and Odom sharing some of the vocal duties, they remind you of why her music is such a pure rush, and how the lyrics of something like “Insecure” play against the uplift of the groove. That number plays out against a purple background, with Hudson and Ziegler flapping their hands while trading cartoonish grins. Others, like a version of “Music” that takes place in a patterned wonderland and involves Beto Calvillo’s reclusive would-be dancer riding around on a bike, are minor conceptual miracles. (Tracy Dishman’s production design stands out particularly strong here.) The climactic “Together” hoedown is an explosion in a rainbow factory. Out of context, these pieces might seem bold, inventive, exhilarating. All the things a great four-minute clip of sound and vision is, in other words, and what makes a music video not an advertisement but art.
But they are indeed shackled to a narrative, one that turns its heroine into a sort of neurodivergent equivalent of a Magical Negro, and therein lies the tragedy. There are issues of representation at stake here, and if you understand the bond between Sia and Ziegler, you can glean why the former may have wanted the latter for the role. This was one more project together, one more way to further develop a fertile creative relationship. It probably didn’t even occur to Sia to cast someone from within that community. Whether the musician-filmmaker had cast an autistic performer to play Music or not, that performer would still have to navigate the movie that she and her co-writer, Dallas Clayton, had cooked up, however. Ziegler herself seems to treat the condition as an extension of her dancing, so that her physical tics and facial expressions come off as choreographed physical mimicry rather than a characteristic of autism, or a person. It’s an abstract interpretation of autism, a routine among many. Watching the scenes in which she interacts with her orbiting co-stars in the non-fantasy world, you find yourself praying that it will cut to a musical number soon, please, any second now.
(As for the rightfully called-out scenes of Music being physically restrained, in which Odom and Hudson “crush [her] with their love” while she freaks out, Sia has apologized and promised to remove them on the day Music was nominated for several Golden Globes — one of the more questionable calls of this year’s nominee lineup, though still not within the top 1,000 blunders the Hollywood Foreign Press Association has made in conjunction with the awards ceremony. The damage, however, has been done.)
Music is, at best, a delivery vehicle for a batch of songs, and a series of isolated OMG spectacles, that give you the briefest glimpse of a pop-songwriting savant’s wish to make a statement about “finding your voice and creating your own family.” At worst, it’s a perma-cringe–inducing mark against its creators, a simplistic Holy Fool fable on anabolic steroids and a Skittles sugar high. There will be some licking of wounds, you hope, and regrouping, and lessons learned for Sia. It will hopefully not impede what has been a stellar career, or a genuinely exciting creative duo’s work. All we can do is nod, move on, understand the need to be better, and click back on that “Chandelier” video. Ninety minutes of watching that video, and that music might be able to get this Music erased from our memory.