Note: This is the third part of a three-part discussion on the role that artist biography plays in our consumption of art. Find Part 1, ‘Art and the Artist,’ here. Find Part 2, ‘In Defense of Robin Thicke,’ here.
You know her voice. I promise that you’ve heard it. Even if you’re not a fan of Sia’s indie solo work, her voice has been on the finale of Six Feet Under, on dance tracks by David Guetta–“She Wolf” and “Titanium”— and “Wild Ones” by Flo Rida. Sia is also the brains behind many of the biggest pop hits by other vocalists over the last little bit. In addition to writing the lyrics for the club bangers above, she’s also written songs for Rhianna, Beyonce, and Britney Spears.
Her new pop single, “Chandelier” is almost impossible to escape, being featured on daytime talk shows, late night talk shows, and in glowing articles like this one from Slate.
The music video for “Chandelier” has been called one of the best of the year, which isn’t saying much. We live in an age in which the only incentive for an artist to create a music video is that people may find it on YouTube. We’re a long way from the glory days of “Thriller” and even the brief surge of the medium in the mid to late 90s due to MTV’s Total Request Live.
But “Chandelier” is a good music video for a number of reasons. First, the song is a very good pop song. Lyrically, it requires a little more unpacking than other songs it shares the radio with. Second, the content of the video itself is interesting. There is no twerking, and it’s not impossible to analyze due to visual non-sequiturs. The video features Maddie Ziegler, 11-year-old star of Dance Moms. The video also features a choreographed dance, performed by Ziegler, that meshes traditional and contemporary styles. There is a definite message in the video and in the dance, and it isn’t impossible to figure out.
Maddie wears a blonde wig, puts on a crazy face, and does this sometimes graceful and sometimes erratic dance in a dilapidated house that is poorly decorated. There is no sign of a parental figure. At times, she seems robotic–she’s going through the motions. At others, she suggests a suffocation–her head is swallowed up by curtains that close on her like rising water.
Through analysis of the video, we can posit that the story is about a girl who is unhappy with life. She doesn’t necessarily know how to fix it, maybe, but she definitely feels surrounded by chaos. Now, add the lyrics into this and things get a bit more complicated. Here is a sampling:
Party girls don’t get hurt…
I’m the one, ‘for a good time call’…
1, 2, 3, drink…
I’m going to swing from the chandelier…
I’m going to live like tomorrow doesn’t exist….
Lyrically, the song is about a very adult lifestyle. It’s about partying and drinking and all sorts of other carpe diem shenanigans.
So what do the two–the song and the video–have to do with one another? How are they related?
We could take a few wild stabs at it, and we might hit on it. Maybe it only matters what we think about it, anyway. Maybe the audience is supposed to decide what it all means. That’s what I’ve been saying for several weeks now. And I think that Sia agrees with me. She is not an artist who hogs the spotlight. According to an interview with Howard Stern, she doesn’t want her name on a lot of the pop songs where her vocals appear; she doesn’t go on tour very often; and when she does perform on television, she hides in the corner with her back to the camera.
But if you do read her story, and you do hear her talk about her art, you realize that her art is enriched by knowledge of the artist. You’ll find that she wrote “Chandelier” about her drinking and partying and how those things took her to the brink of death. You’ll find that she cast a young child in the video to represent the innocence that was being killed in her–the youth that she was losing.
In the past few weeks, we discussed how Roland Barthes announced the arrival of the author’s death. We’ve also decided that Robin Thicke needs to shut up and write music. But now I wonder if the “less is more” rule is universal? Maybe some artists deserve to live.
On the other hand, now that we have her intended meaning in front of us, does it make the song harder to internalize?
Now, what do you think? Should we leave the artist out of our consumption of art? Or should they be there?
Does that biography help or hinder your enjoyment?