You’re not supposed to know what a Sia video really means the first time you watch it, or even the fifth. She’s the pop star of inscrutable meaning but unmistakable emotion, of inspirational slogans applicable to nearly any situation, of wigs and flesh-toned leotards and cute everykids doing dance moves that resemble mundane life remixed in a dream. The first time I watched the video for her new song “The Greatest,” I didn’t know what it was about. I just knew it was wonderful, and heavy.
Other viewers, though, picked up on something pretty obvious: The video must be connected to the June massacre of 49 people at an Orlando gay bar during a Latin night. Sia herself hasn’t confirmed this interpretation, but some of the performers in the video have posted messages that made it clear. There are 49 young dancers on screen. Their leader, Maddie Ziegler, paints rainbows on her face. At the end, everyone falls down in what seems to be a nightclub, revealing what looks like a bullet-riddled wall.
Making pop about a specific tragedy is necessarily a tricky job. So it’s no crime that some of the other mainstream original songs memorializing Orlando have been as rote as issue-oriented singles are often stereotyped as being. Jennifer Lopez and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Love Makes the World Go Round” is an airing of strained cheer; Interscope Records’ “Hands”—featuring 24 musicians, including Britney Spears, Selena Gomez, and Imagine Dragons—grossly overextends the metaphor of its title as it aims for “We Are the World” wistfulness. Both songs are sincere, admirable, and philanthropic. Both are less about the victims than about how the rest of the world might move on, conquering an abstract idea of hate with an abstract idea of love. And both feel like side projects for the artists involved.
But “The Greatest” is very potent, a work of art, not charity (though one would hope the proceeds are going somewhere other than to music industry—Sia’s camp hasn’t said). There’s no break here from the rest of Sia’s catalogue about pain and release in everyday life: You hear a sad voice wailing about bucking up, very stark emotional peaks and valleys, and a danceable backing of explosive drums, toy-box melodies, and reggae grooves. Sia and Greg Kurstin may have written the song even before the massacre. But in the context of Orlando, the possible platitude of the chorus becomes gutting: “I’m free to be the greatest / I’m alive.” She’s pepping the listener up, but she’s also defining the value of life, marking the human potential that’s been lost.
The video is also an extension of her previous work, with the hugely talented young dancer Maddie Ziegler continuing in her role as Sia’s on-screen avatar, though this time she trades her blonde wig for a black one. The dingy settings resemble the dilapidated home of “Chandelier” and the grimy cage of “Elastic Heart.” And a lot of the dance moves, especially the most zany ones—hands used as eyeglasses, feet as telephones—have shown up in her previous clips.
There’s a clear, if abstract, narrative. Ziegler summons the kids from sleep and busts them from a jail cell—an obvious image of liberation. They dance in what resembles a flop house. And then, at the most ecstatic point, they’re in a room with disco lights, probably meant to be a nightclub. There are shots that evoke flirting, gossipy conversations, and going wild on the dance floor. Toward the the end everyone stands in a mass, bouncing up and down, tongues out: pure energy. Then they fall down.
Ryan Heffington’s choreography is maniacal but precise, with each of the 49 dancers on their own paths yet moving as a group, their individual actions often syncing up with the people around them during climactic points in the song. The video’s directors, Sia and Daniel Askill, use long tracking shots, peering around corners and swooping over the pack and zigzagging between the dancers. Whenever the camera settles it has a portrait-like effect, facing the revelers in a moment of unison.
Absent of any social context, it’s all striking and beautiful and ineffably sad. With the knowledge that it was inspired by queer youths and friends gunned down in the act of coming together and enjoying themselves, it becomes almost unbearably poignant. Sia keeps singing about having stamina; Kendrick Lamar’s verse, omitted from the video, is all about surviving adversity and haters. What’s so potent about the video—and so specifically awful about this massacre—is that its subjects do seem to have struggled and triumphed to find the freedom to flip out together, and they are still cut down. It’s bookended by Ziegler crying: As is appropriate, there’s no take-home moral to make what happened seem okay.
“The Greatest” recalls in message if not sound the only other really effective piece of Orlando-related music I’ve come across: the indie-rocker Sharon Van Etten’s “Not Myself,” which also seems to be about the unique tragedy of these victims. “Please, darling, believe in something,” Van Etten sings. “I want you to be yourself around me.” Sia’s shown us one vision of how glorious it can be for that sort of plea to go answered, and how deep a violation it is for the potential to answer to be taken away.