As people around the world stand in solidarity with the slain free speech crusaders of Charlie Hebdo, circulating the hashtag #JeSuisCharlie on social media and passionately defending their right to publish any cartoon they damn well please, a new, decidedly dafter controversy has erupted over the bounds of artistic expression.
On Wednesday, the Australian singer-songwriter Sia dropped the music video for her latest single, “Elastic Heart,” off her bestselling Grammy-nominated album, 1000 Forms of Fear. The video is a spiritual sister to her mesmerizing viral clip for “Chandelier,” which featured 12-year-old dance prodigy Maddie Ziegler dressed in a flesh-colored leotard busting jerky, Black Swan-like interpretive dance moves. It was widely lauded as one of the best music videos in years and got more than 435 million YouTube views (and counting), a Grammy nod for Best Music Video, and even a late-night performance boasting a gyrating Lena Dunham.
The “Elastic Heart,” video, on the other hand, has had a decidedly more negative reception, with hordes of quasi-anonymous Twitter trolls claiming it promotes “pedophilia” and one unhinged stage parent from the reality show Dance Moms, where Ziegler cut her teeth, accusing it of being “vile” and near pedophilia.
For the uninitiated, the video for “Elastic Heart,” directed by Sia and Daniel Askill, depicts actor/plagiarist/performance artist Shia LaBeouf, who recently claimed he was a victim of rape, dressed in a flesh-colored loincloth, sporting hand wraps, and caked in dirt like a cage fighter. The 28-year-old faces off in a giant birdcage against 12-year-old Ziegler, once again serving as Sia’s miniature stand-in—blond bob, leotard, and all.The lopsided adversaries stalk the edges of the cage, sending feral dance-messages back and forth before slowly crawling on the ground toward each other. Then Ziegler tosses the buff LaBeouf around like a rag doll. She jumps on his back, mock-choking him and covering his eyes. At the throwdown’s midway point, they reach an impasse and let their respective guards down. LaBeouf approaches Ziegler, caressing her hair, before he’s scared off by her savage, hissing and roaring response. Later, they reenact a famous sequence from Dirty Dancing, with LaBeouf hoisting Ziegler up into the air by her hips before the mini-Sia lures him to the edge of the cage and exits—leaving her more robust foe stranded.
Late Wednesday, Sia addressed the “pedophilia” criticisms in a series of tweets, closing with: “I apologize to those who feel triggered by #ElasticHeart. My intention was to create some emotional content, not to upset anybody.”
In the video for “Elastic Heart,” which features very difficult interpretive dance moves courtesy of choreographer Ryan Heffington, Ziegler, like Dunham before her, is standing in for the notoriously press-averse Sia, who regularly performs with her back to live audiences. She even penned an “Anti-Fame Manifesto,” stating: “Imagine the stereotypical highly opinionated, completely uninformed mother-in-law character and apply it to every teenager with a computer in the entire world. Then add in all bored people, as well as people whose job it is to report on celebrities. Then, picture that creature, that force, criticizing you for an hour straight once a day, every day, day after day.”In the image that acommpanies the manifesto, Sia is depicted with a bag over her head—a look LaBeouf tried out just four months later on the red carpet at the Berlin Film Festival premiere of his movie Nymphomaniac, adorned with the message “I AM NOT FAMOUS ANYMORE.” He wore another bag at his L.A. art project #IAMSORRY, where he allowed visitors to sit across from him in a room and do whatever they pleased (our reporter removed the bag to reveal a weeping LaBeouf).
The two artists’ complex relationships with fame aside, the pitting of LaBeouf against a tiny adversary has added resonance for the actor, who had a famously troubled past. This is a young man who was raised by a hippie mother and whose father, a heroin addict, subjected him to regular verbal abuse, pressured him into smoking marijuana when he was 10, and even once pointed a gun at him during a Vietnam War flashback. Before LaBeouf reached his teens, he was performing stand-up comedy at clubs, he posed as his own manager over the phone, and he tricked an agent into representing him. The rest, as they say, is history. So in “Elastic Heart,” it’s not just Lil’ Sia battling her inner demons but also LaBeouf, frantically chasing after his lost youth.
The video is, most of all, a thing of ethereal beauty; a purely artistic expression and, some say, a commentary on Sia's father's life-long struggle with bipolar disorder that mirrored her own. As for those making claims of “pedophilia,” their panicked rush to project base motives onto an elegant, multifaceted dance routine says more about them than it does about the artists themselves. It’s like reading the surrogate father-daughter dynamic in The Professional—between another 12-year-old with bangs, played by Natalie Portman, and her assassin/protector (Jean Reno)—as “pedophilic” when it’s anything but.
This head-scratching imbroglio is, above all else, an assault on artistic license; a mind-set not unlike those critical of the satirical stylings of Seth Rogen’s The Interview or Charlie Hebdo. And that is the real travesty.