You’re not supposed to know what a Sia video really means the first time you watch it, or even the fifth. She’s the pop star of inscrutable meaning but unmistakable emotion, of inspirational slogans applicable to nearly any situation, of wigs and flesh-toned leotards and cute everykids doing dance moves that resemble mundane life remixed in a dream. The first time I watched the video for her new song “The Greatest,” I didn’t know what it was about. I just knew it was wonderful, and heavy.
Other viewers, though, picked up on something pretty obvious: The video must be connected to the June massacre of 49 people at an Orlando gay bar during a Latin night. Sia herself hasn’t confirmed this interpretation, but some of the performers in the video have posted messages that made it clear. There are 49 young dancers on screen. Their leader, Maddie Ziegler, paints rainbows on her face. At the end, everyone falls down in what seems to be a nightclub, revealing what looks like a bullet-riddled wall.
Making pop about a specific tragedy is necessarily a tricky job. So it’s no crime that some of the other mainstream original songs memorializing Orlando have been as rote as issue-oriented singles are often stereotyped as being. Jennifer Lopez and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Love Makes the World Go Round” is an airing of strained cheer; Interscope Records’ “Hands”—featuring 24 musicians, including Britney Spears, Selena Gomez, and Imagine Dragons—grossly overextends the metaphor of its title as it aims for “We Are the World” wistfulness. Both songs are sincere, admirable, and philanthropic. Both are less about the victims than about how the rest of the world might move on, conquering an abstract idea of hate with an abstract idea of love. And both feel like side projects for the artists involved.