Everything Sia does is remarkable.
That might seem obvious or hyperbolic, depending on your taste for pop stars who hide their faces behind campy costume wigs and who rely—perhaps over-rely—on a tried-and-true formula to mastermind chart-topping hits, both for herself and others.
Her latest soon-to-be hit continues that string of success, adding layers to her pattern of familiarity while also doing something completely rare: creating a tribute to tragedy that doesn’t seem insipid or saccharine, but actually vital and real.
“The Greatest” reteams Sia with Maddie Ziegler, her 13-year-old muse who has now appeared as Sia’s conduit in four different music videos.
The song itself has a wonderful familiarity, too, wooing us in with its melodic, rhythmic tinkles in understated, almost moody verses before exploding into an ecclesiastical chorus. It’s that same singer-songwriter booming into stadium rock formula that has worked so well on “Cheap Thrills,” “Chandelier,” and, well, most of Sia’s songs.
The song and video also are a haunting and emotional tribute to the victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando that killed 49 members of the local LGBT community.
Using Ziegler and 49 other preternaturally talented young dancers, representing those who lost their lives while dancing themselves at that club in June, the video also accomplishes the near-impossible feat of paying tribute with a song and video that is actually…well, good.
With music history littered with cloying, patronizing, emotionally manipulative, overly earnest, and hastily produced—although always well-intentioned—tributes to tragedy, the fact that “The Greatest” is so listenable and so emotionally effective is as unusual as it is remarkable. But then again, the same could be said about Sia’s success, in general.
How, for example, can one of the world’s biggest pop stars be both an enigma and ubiquitous?
In an age when accessibility and candor—one might even say oversharing—is practically a demand of our celebrities, Sia has made the conscious decision to conceal not just much of her personal life from the press, but also her face, taking full control of her image by literally withholding it.
It’s a gimmick that, in some respects, should be ruled insufferable, or self-indulgent. And yet we don’t just excuse it with Sia. We watch her stumble her way down the red carpet with that cartoonishly large wig and we respect it, and the parts of herself that she both literally and symbolically hides with it.
Yet for all of Sia’s so-called withholding, try and escape her right now. Her song, “Cheap Thrills,” is her first No. 1 single as a singer, having previously written a No. 1 hit for Rihanna. Speaking of things that are remarkable, she is also the first woman over 40 to top the Billboard 100 in 16 years.
Count other recent smashes from the performer, from “Chandelier” to “Alive” to her haunting cover of “Unforgettable” for the Finding Dory soundtrack, and she has an artistic output that’s nearly as successful as the hits she’s written for other artists: Rihanna (“Diamonds”), Beyoncé (“Pretty Hurts”), Ne-Yo (“Let Me Love You”), Britney Spears (“Perfume”), and Jessie J (“Flashlight”).
Not since Max Martin and Linda Perry traded status as pop’s most in-demand hit-makers throughout the 2000s, shaping the sounds of Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Kelly Clarkson, and Pink, has one songwriter defined so much of the pop landscape of a particular moment—especially when it comes to the sound of the dominant female artists.
“The Greatest” is Sia at her best—or maybe even better. For one, it’s a remarkable—there’s that word again—talent to keep doing what is veritably the exact same thing over and over again and not be boring.
Sia is executing a very specific recipe here, but it’s elevated beyond the point of pop-production factory that would have it derided as musical fast food. It’s exceptional enough to keep us returning for more, with enough complicated flavor to keep things interesting.
There’s something about the quality of Sia’s voice—a raw rasp that’s not quite as strained as, say, Kelly Clarkson or Pink’s, but that’s exposed and alive enough to make you slightly nervous as it ascends to the top registers—that gives even the more understated verses a sense of urgency and intensity.
“Uh-oh, running out of breath, but I / Oh, I, I got stamina…” she sings, pulsating her voice in a way that accelerates your heartbeat as much as the song’s driving beat does, quickening it to a point that when the chorus finally comes around and she belts ecstatically, “I’m free to be the greatest, I’m alive,” it fills you with the sort of emotional oxygen that she’s lyrically gasping for.
Formulaically, there’s not much that’s different here than in any other Sia ballads. But there’s something to be said to having a distinctive musical pattern.
The aesthetic of the “Greatest” music video is familiar, too. Here again is Maddie Ziegler in a Sia-esque wig, doing a herky-jerky contemporary dance in a dingy environment, contrasting the innocence of her youth with the grit and maturity of the choreography and the space in which she is performing it.
Slightly different this time: Ziegler trades in platinum blonde for an all-black wig, apparently in mourning over the Orlando shooting. As the video begins and ends and that ringing, deafening silence that happens when an explosion goes off near your ear drums—say, for example, gunfire—Ziegler is seen crying rainbow tears.
It’s a talent to pull-off that kind of imagery—so obviously LGBT, so visually arresting—without being heavy-handed. But that’s what the entire video does. It’s a punch to the heart to consistently see the 49 child stand-ins for the Pulse victims alternately reveling in dance throughout the video and, at times, seemingly running for their lives.
That the set so clearly resembles a prison is all the more horrifying. Whether celebrating in dance or desperately trying to escape, the club goers were trapped as they were hunted down. Symbolically, the gay club that was supposed to be the haven for a community became its death chamber.
At the end of the clip, the children all collapse en masse, evoking the carnage inside the nightclub following the shooting and an even more layered, painful image: the reminder that the deceased were all someone’s children, that there was an innocence in each of them—a right to be loved—that was taken away by someone’s violent hatred.
The song itself, aside from lyrics that thematically deal with triumph, overcoming adversity, and self-pride, doesn’t seem to directly or overtly acknowledge its status as a tribute song. That’s probably what makes it so effective.
Should the song become another chart-topper for Sia, she will continue what has, sadly, become an unlikely dominance: a performer in her 40s with rampant commercial success. Before Madonna’s No. 1 status in 2000 with “Music,” only Cher (1999), Bette Midler (1989), Aretha Franklin (1987), and Tina Turner (1984) can count themselves as women over 40 with a No. 1 single.
Not that success past a certain age isn’t possible. Barbra Streisand now has the No. 1 album in the country, Dolly Parton is selling out a national tour, and Jennifer Lopez continues to spellbind, in Vegas and anywhere else she performs. But to have this kind of radio and chart dominance is undeniably rare, even as our pop divas continue to be forces of nature for tenures of longer and longer length.
What should we read into how our society thinks about aging, women, and commercial viability that Sia is the first woman over 40 to have a No. 1 hit, but also that she does not show her face?
We’ll try not to depress ourselves in that manner.
But maybe, too, that’s what’s the most remarkable about Sia. She’s not giving a face to a song, or to a cause, or to women of a particular age in pop music, or even to a pop music movement. Instead, she’s given them a voice.