If Sia’s Elastic Heart Offends You, You Don’t Understand Art

Elastic Heart

This week the official video to Sia’s Electric Heart was released, featuring a beautiful, brutal interpretive dance from Shia LaBeouf and Maddie Ziegler.  The only problem is, LaBeouf is a 28-year-old male whereas Ziegler is a 12-year-old female, which proved too much for some people: the political correctness brigade was soon in full force, shouting ‘paedophilia’ from the rooftops.

Before we go any further, if you haven’t already you should now take 5 minutes out of your day to watch this gorgeous piece of art:

Yes, it is an animalistic, intimate and affecting dance.  Yes, both dancers wear skin-tight and flesh-coloured garments (by the way, dancers of all ages throughout the ages have worn exactly the same when performing – because the point of dance is to be able to see the beauty of the human form as it moves).  Yes, both dancers touch each other, but not in a sexual way.

What makes the outcry against the video even more bizarre is that the ridiculously talented dancer Ziegler has already represented a young or inner Sia in the video to her hit song Chandelier, where she dances in much the same frenzied way (in both instances she wears a wig representative of the singer’s own signature short blonde bob).

If you don’t read paedophilia into Ziegler’s emotive and beautiful dance to Chandelier then you shouldn’t read it into the duet performance for Elastic Heart either.  Simply adding an adult male dancer into the equation does not equate with sexual deviancy, or sexuality in any form.  The video runs the gamut of emotions, but sexuality is not one that features.  How telling it is of our society that it’s so refreshing to see the near-naked human body presented in a way devoid of any sexual tones at all, but still appreciated for its beauty, its composition of pure energy and emotion.  How telling that so many people have jumped to perceived paedophilia as their first complaint, because it’s almost inconceivable that a music video be produced without sexuality in it somewhere – thus we start looking feverishly for sex in the shadows, in places where it has no right or need or to be.

As Salon puts it: would it have helped if Sia had run a massive ‘IT’S A METAPHOR’ banner across the bottom of the video?

When I first saw the routine, what it depicted for me was the relationship between father and daughter (some have speculated that the video is indeed representative of Sia’s own unconventional bond with her father).  The dancers, enclosed in a massive metal cage, play-fight through their relationship and corresponding passions with nothing more than their bodies, their hands, their faces.  They are absolutely electric with emotion, jumping from rage to fear to amusement to pure hysteria for hysteria’s sake.  And of course, that beautiful tenderness displayed in the video’s powerful end.  What is clear is that these characters, whatever they may represent or depict, have a deep emotional connection and simultaneously love and are driven mad by each other.  You can read that as a father/daughter relationship, or, as is suggested by Sia herself, the interplay between the two warring sides of the self.

The singer tweeted after the video’s debut:

Ziegler and LaBeouf represent two sides of Sia: the young, excitable, hopeful, manic inner child and the older, tougher, more guarded exterior constructed around the child.  If you’re into Freud, it’s the id and the ego personified.  To me, the song’s repeated main refrain encapsulates the dichotomy: “I’ve got thick skin and an elastic heart”.

The dancers embody this thick skin and elastic heart.  LaBeouf is the Thick Skin, the strong walls built up over time to guard the emotions inside.  Ziegler is the Elastic Heart, springy and rebounding, full of a million different feelings that she ricochets between endlessly.  The whole self is continually at war as these two opposing forces fight through their conflicting beliefs and reactions.  Both has power over the other: both want to reconcile with the other.  They can’t live with each other, and they can’t live without each other.  They’re a paradox: they are “fighting for peace”.

By the end of the video, a truce has been reached, and it becomes clear the deep affection that the characters feel for each other.  The Heart, so young and free, can slip through the bars of the cage they are trapped within entirely.  She wants to bring the Skin with her, but she cannot.  We have seen earlier in the video that his entire body can indeed fit through the bars, but he cannot or will not allow himself to leave, perhaps because unlike the Heart he has left behind his childish sense of freedom and imagination.  So the video concludes with nearly a full minute of silence after the end of the song, as Ziegler tries hysterically but fruitlessly to free LaBeouf from his prison.

It’s a meaningful, distressing, poignant, lovingly created work of art.

After the uproar against the video on social media, Sia took to Twitter to apologise to anybody who had been upset by it:

Her defenders have themselves got upset that Sia felt the need to apologise at all.  While it was considerate of her to do so, I agree that no artist should feel they have to make apologies for their art.  What’s important to note, however, is that Sia has not apologised to everybody that took needless umbrage with the video: she is saying sorry only to those who have been triggered by the content, presumably due to upsetting events in their own past.  In this way I think Sia has struck exactly the right balance with her apology.

If paedophilia is the first thing you think of when you see the video then, as many others have aptly noted, you probably either have paedophilic tendencies yourself or have suffered such terrible acts at the hands of another.  And if it is the latter, then I too, like Sia, am genuinely sorry that the video recalled that pain back into your life.  But I hope the video doesn’t offend you, per se.  Perhaps it makes you feel sad or upset or pained.  I hope that you can appreciate that the pain it makes you feel is exactly why the video is great, and exactly why art is great: because it makes us feel, deeply, whether those emotions are good or bad, and all of us draw on our own deeply personal memories and feelings when we experience art.  Such is its appeal and danger.  A sufferer of childhood sexual abuse might feel upset at the Elastic Heart video, but they might also feel the same way if they read literary classic Lolita.  But does that mean we should stop making art which might at any time remind certain people of their own similar awful experiences?  Of course not.  That is the beauty of art: its deeply cathartic nature, and its ability to recall, address and even heal the past.

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