2016 saw the bloodiest mass shooting in American history. In the early hours of June 11th, the Pulse nightclub in Orlando was full of unsuspecting, energetic LGBT+ clubgoers. The last call for alcohol was heard around 2 am, mere minutes before a lone gunman began firing. Claiming 49 victims’ lives, the act brought controversy and uproar about the LGBT+ community, gun rights, and terrorism into the front and center of American politics. Nationwide mourning commenced once the smoke settled and the true devastation came to light.
People of various ethnicities, genders, and sexualities have since come forward to memorialize those lost to such a tragedy. The latest of these to give tribute happens to be the prominent musical artist Sia. The depth of her intensity presents itself once again through the amazing acting talent of her muse, Maddie Ziegler, and the choreographic talent of Ryan Heffington, who both assisted in Sia’s 2014 hit single “Chandelier." The haunting imagery and awe-inspiring vocals of “The Greatest” leave even an uninformed listener with a sense of longing and heartache. The video is an ocean of details, and if you aren’t one of the current 42 million views (as of September 14th) on Sia’s VEVO channel, I highly encourage you to watch the masterpiece below for yourself.
Many of the meaningful components of “The Greatest” occur so quickly or with such subtlety that a once-over is not near enough to take it all in. I must admit that in the past week since the single was dropped, I have played it on a constant loop on my phone. I may have even heard it more times than Sia by now! (This is no joke, as I legitimately began counting how many plays I could fit in between school and work and home.) In viewing it over and over so many times, many easily-missed bits caught my eye. Here are some of the most important:
1. The Wig
In the initial image for the entire video, something seems a bit off...Sia's iconic two-toned hairpiece is now a singular, solid black. It's almost as if the wig itself- a symbol of Sia's entire stage identity- is in mourning.
2. The Jail Cell
As the video begins, we see Maddie's character wake the performers from a sleep-like state into one of agitated convulsion and speed...right? Personally, I took the beginning to mean something slightly different. Maddie is not waking them up so much as raising them from the dead. Having been freed from their prison, the dancers stand in place of the victims' voices. Sia figuratively brings them back to life- if only for a few minutes- so their message can be heard in the remainder of the video.
3. "Go go go!"
As seen above, Maddie's character frantically motions to fleeing performers to run to a (presumably) safer place. In the aftermath of the Pulse shooting, it was revealed that many survivors held similar places of authority in trying to get others to safety in office spaces and one of the bathrooms.
4. The White Splatter
Although seemingly coincidental, the scenery surrounding Maddie's character is anything but. When the camera gives her a close-up in the part above, there is a distinct white splatter of paint directly behind the actress's head. Getting a bit gory here, it does replicate the blood splatter one might see after someone is shot point blank. The use of white as opposed to red clearly points to the theme of innocence the video conveys in other ways as well, such as the use of children.
5. "I'm Not Sorry"
In one section of the video, Maddie motions as if to wipe away nonexistent tears and crank a smile onto her face. Directly following this she mouths the words, "I'm not sorry!" This definitely connects to an overarching idea of being yourself no matter what society thinks. Too many people put a mask over parts of themselves they should be proud to call their own, and this is a prominent issue many LGBT members relate to.
6. The Environment
With the smoke and dim lighting, the grime and grit slathered on performers, the setting of "The Greatest" is definitely not the greatest. The dismal, dirty atmosphere mimics the scene of Pulse's violent events in this aspect, though. The ringing featured in the beginning and end of the video can be compared to the symptoms and disorientation experienced after hearing loud noises (like gunshots), and Maddie's distressed crying only reinforces this.
7. Snare Hits or Gunshots?
In the same vein as number six, the sound of syncopated snare hits come from silence in the beginning of the song. Jarring and abrupt, they are comparable to a gunshot ringing out. Do these represent more than just the backbone of Sia's rhythm?
8. Screaming at The Shoe
One of the devastating results of the Pulse shooting was the number of friends and family members desperately trying to contact their loved ones in Miami. If you blink for a mere second in the music video, you'll miss it; the girl seen above is quite obviously distressed and screaming into her inanimate shoe as though it is a cell phone.
9. Disco Lights
While you may be busy, captivated by the bizarre dance moves of the music video's final scene, take note of the flashing lights surrounding the performers. This room isn't meant to be some dilapidated shack - It's a club.
10. Tracking Shots
The "tracking shot" is a commonly used element of cinematography, where the camera follows its subject and action is added to the medium. We see the whole scene unfold as if we are there with Maddie and the other dancers. This is key in drawing the audience into the events, making it personal, and hopefully invoking a greater sense of empathy. This act of appealing to the viewers' senses appears consistently through other aspects like the use of off-lighting and pops of color (like rainbow and red), but actually drawing our perspective onto the same level as theirs is extremely powerful.
11. The Audience's Role
Are we merely meant to enjoy the visuals and snap our fingers to the beat? Of course not! As this video was clearly created to give tribute to those lost souls, one must ask themselves why the deliberate camera placements exist. Why are actions meant to directly engage the viewer- such as the many times Maddie stares directly into the camera- mostly quiet? The true power of this piece comes from the message it promotes: will we simply accept this senseless violence, or will we do the right thing and assess our own individual prejudices? A call for America to wake up and never forget those who were lost is at the base of "The Greatest."
12. The Dance Moves
While eerily emphatic and avant-garde, featuring such actions like screaming and convulsing, the choreography not only mimics other popular Sia music videos but also stands for various aspects along the lines of surviving an event such as the Pulse shooting. Take the following, for example:
At one point, many of the dancers take a fighting stance, literally "putting up their dukes."
Soon following this, Maddie's character is seen trying in vain to lift people off the ground. This imitates and represents the survivors attempting to keep other victims calm and collected even as they faced death. Remaining strong until help arrived was no easy task, but a brave few stood up for those around them when they were needed most.
The most revealing bit of it all comes when all 49 dancers- significant for its relation to the number of shooting victims- collapse in a massive heap on the dance floor. Ghastly bullet holes of light back their setting as they lie motionless.
13. The Real Meaning
If you have by now become so engrossed in the idea that this video was solely made for the purpose of remembering the Pulse attack, I would have to disagree. Perhaps one of the most amazing abilities of this song is its adaptivity. We all face tribulations, and having heard only the lyrics without viewing the accompanying music video, it would be understandable for one to think the song was simply about perseverance. The victims in Orlando had already taken on the hardships associated with the LGBT community. They had the stamina to endure immense societal rejection of their identities. They had the potential to do with their lives what they could make of them- and then had them ripped away. Sia's words undoubtedly reflect the idea that because we are still alive, every single human being has the opportunity to be something great. The victims will go on living in our hearts and minds forever, martyrs whose faces are forever intertwined with our country's history.