Following its surprise nomination at this year’s Golden Globes, the reviews dropped for Music and they were, to put it mildly, atrocious. The directorial debut of singer Sia arrived amid a flurry of controversy, mostly thanks to Sia’s own repeated ignorance over ableism and her lack of knowledge on issues of autism. She offered an apology for this, but not before the film got its Globe nominations and Sia had ignored the pleas and advice of many fans and skeptics on social media.
The film focuses on a non-verbal autistic teenage girl who comes to live with her drug dealer older half-sister and features a variety of musical numbers. Critics have candidly detailed the movie’s oft-embarrassing depictions of autism and the myriad ways that Sia stumbled with her presumably noble intentions. Regarding the cast of the title role (yes, the protagonist is called Music), Sia initially claimed that she had initially ‘tried working with a beautiful young girl nonverbal on the spectrum’ but, because the character was too demanding for the person in question, she changed her plans and cast Maddie Ziegler. Sia has worked with the adolescent dancer for many years now. She is regularly featured in her music videos, alongside her on the red carpet, and in stage performances. Ziegler is a neurotypical young woman who, at the time, had little acting experience. Sia later said that the casting decision ‘wasn’t ableism — I mean, it is ableism, I guess, as well — but it’s actually nepotism, because I can’t do a project without her, I don’t want to. I wouldn’t make art if it didn’t include her.’ Sia also said that Ziegler ‘cried on the first day of rehearsals’ because she didn’t ‘want anyone to think I’m making fun of them.’
Sia is 45 years old. Ziegler is now 18. At the time of making Music, she was 14. Sia also said that Ziegler ‘cried on the first day of rehearsals’ because she didn’t ‘want anyone to think I’m making fun of them.’ Her use of a child star as her muse and public face for her secretive persona has raised more than a few eyebrows. Now, following the mess that is Music, it’s tough to ignore the strange power dynamics at play here.
Ziegler came to prominence through the reality TV show Dance Moms, a veritable trainwreck of a series that deserves thousands of words of scorn thrown in its direction. Sia reached out to Ziegler over Twitter in 2014 to ask her to star in the music video for her song ‘Chandelier.’ The video went viral in a big way, with Ziegler’s dancing praised as the ideal accompaniment to Sia’s emotional wail. From there, their collaborations grew more prominent. When Sia sang on stage, be it at an awards ceremony or on a talk show, her face would be obscured while Ziegler became the audience’s focus. In interviews, Sia would turn away from the camera or have her face hidden under a giant wig (Ziegler would wear a matching wig that did not hide her identity.) This is certainly her prerogative, although it was a curious development in her career given that people already knew what she looked like and she’d done various interviews as herself for years prior to ‘Chandelier.’
In a 2015 interview, In an interview, Sia explained her decision to cover her face as a way for her ‘to have some control over my image’ and maintain her privacy. She also said that she did it because she didn’t want to be famous. Her proxy for fame, therefore, became a pre-teen girl. Her face was on show where Sia’s was not. They would dress identically on the red carpet. Ziegler performed with her on her tour. The next few years of her music videos would be almost exclusively focused on Ziegler, including the controversial one for the single ‘Elastic Heart.’ There, the then-12-year-old Ziegler starred alongside 28-year-old Shia LaBeouf in a display that made many fans feel deeply uncomfortable. The video is all the harder to watch now given the accusations made against LaBeouf by several women, including Sia herself.
In a 2017 interview, Ziegler said, ‘I’ve actually lived with [Sia] this year more than I have with my actual family.’ She calls the singer her ‘second mom’ and later addresses her as her godmother. It’s clear that there is a great bond between Sia and Ziegler, and that the former is immensely inspired by the dancer’s talent. She’s essentially crafted the past half-decade of her career around this young woman, and all before she became an adult. I’ve no desire to cast aspersions on their relationship or speculate over things in the way that many wannabe internet detectives have. For me, however, there are still questions to be asked over a grown woman’s decision to use a child as her public face and to have such control over her career.
It’s no fun being a muse. It’s an oft thankless and dehumanizing task that leaves a lot of women kicked to the curb. The life of a muse is typically seen as that of a beautiful young white woman who is the object of adoration of a male ‘genius.’ It’s not so common to see major celebrities play out this part as a dynamic between a woman and a girl. To be a muse is to be held to an inhuman standard, both from the creative figure and the public at large. It seldom ends well for the muse either. They’re, by design, easily disposed of.
It’s hard to read quotes such as Sia claiming she can’t make art without Ziegler and not feel a touch unnerved by them. The sheer force of co-dependency such a claim elicits is tough to overlook. That claim would be questionable when aimed at anyone of any age, but at a child, it’s particularly questionable. We’ve seen what happens to child stars who grow up in the spotlight. Time and time again, the soul-sucking fury of that cycle rears its ugly head, and it feels like we never learn from the mistakes of generations past. No human is built for the smothering pressures of fame, but the ways that we collectively insist that pre-teen boys and girls are emotionally bulletproof, particularly in the social media age, remain baffling.
For Ziegler, the combination of forces at play is particularly strong. She’s been in the spotlight for most of her life, in large part thanks to a reality TV show that was widely criticized for being part of American pop culture’s sexualizing of young girls (a mother of one of the girls involved with the show called the experience ‘traumatizing.) She’s then plucked from Twitter by an older celebrity to become her public face and personal accessory. They become an inseparable pair, a double act defined by the dichotomy of visibility and so-called privacy. The older one makes a major point of centering their art and concept of fame on this kid, bragging that they simply can’t make art without her, that ‘as soon as I met Maddie, I felt this extreme desire to protect her and I think that it was part of my own healing.’ Their muse, their goddaughter, their supposed reason for making art, is then thrown to the wolves by their ignorant decision making, potentially putting an end to Ziegler’s acting career before it’s even begun. Her own tearful reservations are ignored by every adult in the room.
Ziegler becomes the face of the problem, not Sia, because Sia has made Ziegler her face for the world to see. This is the way it was set up to be.
Header Image Source: Getty Images.