If it’s possible for our culture to sift through the bin of radio flash hits and other current pop-pourri to find the glorious anthem for the millennial generation, we should not be surprised to find Sia’s “Chandelier” in everyone’s hands. With its club-appropriate rhythm and soaring melody line, the song seals itself into the current trend like a wax impress. Yet, it is not for its depiction of the carefree, YOLO-drunk culture that endures the via dolorosa of the work week for the olympic burn of the weekend that makes “Chandelier” such a manifesto. I contend that it is Sia’s painfully bleak and somber delivery of the song’s keynote theme – that, to quote Millay, when the candle burns at both ends, it tends not to last the night – which makes the song such a puncturing truth in the already scabbing wounds of a fallen world.
Sia begins her lyric with a declaration of attempted anhedonia (“Party girls don’t get hurt / Can’t feel anything”), a brandishing of makeshift shields to combat the fierce intensity of loneliness, vulnerability, and pain that tend to accompany the frenetic worldly life. No, Sia says, party girls don’t get hurt; they are too tough for that. Yet, the underlying caution that sits beneath the “tough-girl” image is the temptation to become so tough you become scaly. Like the boy Eustace who has been dragoned in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, there is a toughness that is fearfully impenetrable; the bars of a prison door are tough and the bricks of Helm’s Deep are tough, but they are tough in such a way as to cage and to enclose. The human frame was not built for such safeguarding. Sia’s party girl tries to claim a toughness that is unfit for human living. Typically, when nothing can get in, nothing can get out. When a party girl “can’t feel anything,” she may be saving herself from false hope, rejection, or emotional distress, but the odds are that she is equally hiding herself from the sacrificial nature of true love, trust, joy, and other pleasures that require a deal of risk. As C.S. Lewis remarked concerning the nature of love:
“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”
And yet, when faced with trial, fear, rejection, abuse, we “push it down.”
This tale of the “good time” girl is further poured over in irony as Sia claims to “feel the love” of all those committed Christian knights of chivalry who noticed her cries of need and distress inked on the tile of a restroom wall. What a sadness when the damsel appropriately located at a great height (a dual image meant to highlight the lady’s dignity, worthiness, and elevated status of respect and courtship on the one hand along with the gentleman’s need to prove his worth in bridging the distance through strength, perseverance, and courage) has taken the elevator to the basement to scrape out any breathing male with the right jeans and beard to go home with.
The countdown (“1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3, drink”) intensifies the frantic blur of our culture’s worldview, namely that our lives are ceaseless shot clocks, and the only way to beat the buzzer is to get buzzed. We all drink, on three. Then, press repeat. Drink, sleep, repeat. I am reminded of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s warning: “First, you take a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes you.”
As a lead into the chorus, we are collectively baptized into the river of wine, begging for it to be changed into Lethean waters (“Throw ’em back ’til I lose count”). Perhaps forgetfulness and oblivion are the answers to our struggles, we believe. It would seem our culture wishes to counteract the crystal clear Word of the Lord with an indiscriminate blare of a trumpet in which no one is called to arms (I Cor. 14:8). Be gone with the precision of orbiting planets, the order of the stars, we raise high the banner of Haze and Ambiguity (kind of…I think…I don’t really remember, you know?)!
In the crescendo, we are called to swing on the chandeliers, to adventure ourselves to death. While there is certainly an allure to wildness and celebrations of life (carpe diem), this Gatsby-ing is halted by the second line: “I want to live like tomorrow doesn’t exist.” While the sentiment of living-this-day-like-it’s-your-last is not new by any means, this statement hearkens back to the drink-til-I-fade-out of the pre-chorus. If tomorrow doesn’t exist, neither will I. Yet, such a reality does not lend a heavy emphasis to making today count (without a tomorrow, whatever is done today doesn’t really count. I’ve seen Groundhog Day, too.). If tomorrow doesn’t exist, we cease to exist, which may be the point. If this is life – the numb, lonely party girl – maybe cessation is a blessing…
However, Sia clings to the promise of glory and hope, picturing the inebriated chandelier-swinger releasing her grip and becoming a bird in flight (“I’m gonna fly like a bird in the night, feel my tears as they dry”). Here we have the mythic phoenix, rising from ashes. Perhaps if I burn out, I can be reborn. Yet, the chorus concludes with our bird-in-flight re-caged and re-perched on her glowing pendulum, clipped wings and all. “Here comes the shame, here comes the shame…”
The mantra of the song is Sia’s devastatingly desperate “holding on for dear life,” a powerful phrase to describe the plight of our current generation. We are not living for dear life; we are just trying to hold on as it soars along.
Holding on to a glass of vodka like your frail fingers are pinched around the rubber grip of a handlebar as the motorcycle of your weekends rockets at a hundred down the freeway.
Holding on to your high school years like sleeping in pajamas and a letter jacket.
Holding on to an unrequited love like a businessman jabbering away on a call that was dropped three tunnels ago.
This is the sad reality and potency of “Chandelier.” Our culture is longing for meaning, purpose, wild beauty, and eternally-secure and satisfying truth, only to howl in one accord of dismay when the places they look seem only to offer cigarette butts, drops of gin, and phone numbers in Sharpie.