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Friday, April 7, 2017

Sia’s Song “Chandelier” Delivers a Powerful Message

Think of what it means for a whole generation of young people to hear this song. It must cut very deeply.

Folks, we’ve got a serious issue. The young generation has a genuinely dangerous substance abuse problem, particularly as it pertains to alcohol. No, this article is not a moralizing lecture. I’ve written before that this problem, which is egregious, is directly connected to the reality of legal prohibition. The strict drinking age regulation is not working. Government is not fixing the problem; it is making it worse.

Then starts the abuse, and it is nothing like people of an older generation have ever seen.Think of what you imagine to be true of the interwar years of Prohibition in the US: the bathtub gin, abuse, corruption, criminality, and the strange way in which the creation of a forbidden fruit drove a whole generation to indulge as never before. Well, that situation persists today for all young people. Obtaining and drinking alcohol consumes an insanely disproportionately high place in their life priorities, exactly at the time they are supposed to be learning to be adults.

Binge, Barf, Black Out

Kids leave the home at the age of 18 and arrive in a new world consisting entirely of their peer group, some of whom are old enough legally to acquire alcohol. These people become the supplier for the entire social group. But it can’t be consumed in public, at a civilized bar where the court of taste and manners provides some measure of discipline. Instead, it must be consumed in secret: dorm rooms, frat houses, rented party houses, and other hideaways.

Then starts the abuse, and it is like nothing people of an older generation have ever seen. They gradually adopt habits that fall along a continuum of abuse: pre-gaming, binging, blacking out, barfing, waking up in strange places, wondering what happened. You feel shame and shock but then bury the pain with more alcohol, a palliative for the emerging despair and depression that comes with living this way. The disease is the cure is the disease is the cure.

For many young people, it takes years to unravel the damage. Your only solace is that so many others have the same experience, so you come to believe that this is not abnormal. It’s the way life works. And it continues for four years and comes to be mixed with other drugs, and you barely remember what regular life is like. After you graduate, you have a problem. You have never learned temperance, discipline, or structured habits, and this eats away at your professional functioning. For many people, it takes years to unravel the damage.

What can be done about this? Above all else, the law needs to be changed, if only to save a generation. And while there seems to be some movement in this direction, it is not happening fast enough. Then there are public-interest advertisements that warn against alcoholism, which do not work. In fact, they only enhance the forbidden-fruit effect. Then there are parents, but please: the whole point of a kid’s life at this stage is to defy the parents. The age and wisdom of parents have nothing to do with the current generation’s sense of things.

Enter Sia

As you have surely noticed, the pop singer/songwriter Sia is topping the charts these days with one hit after another. This is giving new airtime for a remarkable song that she sang that came out in 2014.

But hold on, you say. Pop music is not a solution. It is a problem. Kids are learning all the wrong things from this music. It’s all sex, drugs, decadence, abandon, irresponsibility, not like the music when I was a kid. But there’s a slight problem: the same criticism has been made about pop music since the 1950s. Wait, the 1920s. Wait, since the 1490s! It’s been going on a very, very long time.

Every parental generation believes the music of the young people is a corrupt departure from the virtue of the music of their own youth.

She wonders “when will I learn?” She won’t and can’t. Into this long trajectory, you can find the exceptions. And the song “Chandelier” by Sia is a fantastic example. It is a devastating and effective warning against alcohol abuse. It is painfully realistic for a reason: the singer/songwriter actually lived it. She knows of what she speaks.

You can tell it in the song. The pounding beat, the over-the-top performance which suggests complete abandon of caution, the longing for astonishing experiences backed by the emotion of unhinged exuberance – it all suggests the madness of alcohol abuse. She captures it in a song, just perfectly. She looks up at the dazzling lights of the chandelier and knows for sure that she can and will swing from it, because “party girls don’t get hurt” and “she can’t feel anything.”

Why is she doing this? Does she know that there is another side? Somewhere inside, she does know. But she can’t act on her knowledge. She wonders “when will I learn?” She won’t and can’t. As for her reservations: “I push it down, push it down.” She consumes drink after drink: “Throw em back, till I lose count.” Drunk enough, she doesn’t see the downside, and doesn’t even think about the future:

I’m gonna live like tomorrow doesn’t exist, Like it doesn’t exist.
I’m gonna fly like a bird through the night, feel my tears as they dry
I’m gonna swing from the chandelier, from the chandelier
And I’m holding on for dear life, won’t look down won’t open my eyes
Keep my glass full until morning light, ’cause I’m just holding on for tonight

That all sounds awesome, right? Her voice is loud, confident, penetrating, recklessly determined, right in the moment.

And yet, time passes. The clock won’t stand still. The future arrives. And the reveal is devastating:

Sun is up, I’m a mess
Gotta get out now, gotta run from this
Here comes the shame, here comes the shame

The shame! That’s the perfect word, and in the context of the song, it feels like a sword in the gut. The elation of drink lasts only for a time and it must come to an end. You are left only with the desire to run and the internal horror that comes with having lost your head and done things you can only regret. You must hide.

Finally she lets out a plea: “Help me, I’m holding on for dear life.”

What the liquor has done is create an impossible-to-sustain fake state of mind. What it leaves you with is a deepening sadness and despair.

The Technique

Sia uses her vocal mastery to great effect in this piece. Every voice has a break between the full voice and what is called the head tone, sometimes called the falsetto in the male voice. It is more difficult to discover and manipulate in the female voice. But Sia knows exactly where her break is. And she deploys it at just the right moment. She performs a descending glissando on the word “swing” before she ascends on the words “from the chandelier,” and then carries the note higher and higher into her head tone voice.

The swing is the room spinning you feel when drunk. In the full arch of the phrase, you experience the sense of an implausible and floating high after having emerged from below  – replicating the mental state of maximum inebriation. The swing is the room spinning you feel when drunk. The two-against-three patterns of undulating triplets, with the voice moving differently from the underlying pulse, signal detachment from reality. 

This is nothing short of artistic mastery, the mirroring of the psychological state she wants to convey in the performance of the song itself.

The struggle of the actor in the song is intensely personal, the discovery of despair coming entirely from within in response to meeting the real world in ways you keep trying to push away. Here is a tribute to an undeniable truth. No external method of control, whether prohibition or scolding, can ultimately control us. Self-discipline must always come from the self, from within.

Think of what it means for a whole generation of young people to hear this song. It must cut very deeply. Maybe it can help people rethink what they are doing to themselves. In the end, the only way to fix this problem comes down to decisions that people make on their own. It is a choice, and something has to inspire people to make it. And few things can inspire like great art.