Blog Post 2: Sia
Updated: Mar 11, 2021
Anyone that knows me knows that I love KTV. KTV is the Asian form of Karaoke and, honestly, it's far, far superior than western Karaoke. Instead of singing a handful of songs in front of strangers and then being forced to hear them sing songs you couldn't care less about, you rent a room that you share with your friends. It could be a small room with four people. Or, like we did after my wedding, it could be a massive room with 50 people. Either way, if you do it right your voice is shot the next day and it is entirely worth it.
I absolutely love KTV. And when I go, I don't like to halfway sing anything. No, when I go to KTV it's to belt at the top of my voice as if I were on a roadtrip or in my shower. I'm not a great singer, but the people I go with don't care (thank you for tolerating me Lynn and Valon!). We have some go-to songs on our list. Songs like Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody", Fort Minor's "Remember the Name" (this one is always sung by Valon and myself—though he's more fluid with the lyrics), and Evanescence's "Wake Me Up". But aside from our mainstays, one of the artists I'm always bummed to find out is either underrepresented at the KTV or not represented at all is Sia.
Sia is among my favorite modern artists. For someone with such incredible range of vocals, her talent for visual media is astounding. But even among her many gifts, her greatest of all may be her ability to write.
"I found solace in the strangest place
Way in the back of my mind
I saw my life in a stranger's face
And it was mine"
-Sia from the song, "Alive"
Isn't that beautiful? Take a moment and read that again. Go ahead, I'll wait.
She is wonderful because she tackles hard subjects with subtlety and, in an odd way, beauty. I won't go into detail on what that lyric means to me—interpretation is one of the last remaining areas of art yet to be converted into something marketable or consumable—but I hope you have a picture in your head of what it means to you. If you want, while you read the rest of this, turn on Sia's "Elastic Heart". God damn that song is beautiful and god damn that video is perfect. For the remainder of this blog post I'll be playing it in the background on repeat and it'd be really cool if you did the same. If you get distracted by music, though, and leave it off no worries. Like I said, interpretation should be free and I don't want to interfere with however you interpret anything.
This song does so much to me. It takes me somewhere. I want to experiment with writing but god... it's so hard to make it when it seems like every agent and publisher wants only what's been proven to "work". Don't get me wrong, learning structure is crucial to being a writer. There's not a successful architect in the world that didn't first study how to put one stone onto another in such a way that the whole thing doesn't fall. Structure is important. Format is important. But come on, "The Museum of Tomorrow" in Rio de Janeiro defies gravity. Machu Picchu shouldn't exist. It makes no sense. Why drag those stones up a mountain? If you've never been, google Machu Picchu real quick (and if "Elastic Heart" stopped, start it again. I'm almost done with my first listen and will be doing the same soon). It's breathtaking, isn't it? The structure is obviously sound. It's been there long enough to prove it was built to last. But not all things that are built are built with eternity in mind. Maybe Machu Picchu was, I don't know, but I know this: it wasn't built because it made sense. It wasn't made as a testament to structure. It was made because it's incredibly beautiful. What's the literary equivalent of Machu Picchu? I don't have a great example. If you do, leave a comment or drop me a line. Also, side note: if you've never been to South America and get the chance, go. Even if you don't go to Peru, even if you don't go to Machu Picchu, try to make a trip to South America. Bogota, Colombia is one of my favorite cities in the world (and I even got my passport stolen there. My passport got stolen in that city and it's still one of my favorite places).
Just restarted "Elastic Heart".
From the first note my hands are no longer my own to control. They bang on my desk as my body rocks back and forth and my heads bobs to the music. How can a song with such depth be so fun to listen to? I didn't even chose to write about this song because of the beat, either. I chose to write about this because of my cages. Or rather, my past cages—two of them, actually. One was mild alcoholism and the other... a bit more delicate to explain. But that's not all. No, I chose to write about this because my past cages... are also my dad's cages. But I'm not sure if I'm ready. If it's okay with you (like you have a choice, haha) I'd like to wait until my fourth listen to the song to get into that. And, mild spoiler, I never had a "rock bottom" moment. I had dozens of "pebble bottom" moments. Times where I didn't lose my job or burn a bridge with a close friend or nearly get someone (other than myself) killed but still experienced something that revealed the error of my ways. No, my own moments were wake-up calls, but the alarm was set on vibrate and not "Train Horn" but even so, it was my struggle and seeing what it did to my dad hurt. And still hurts.
"And another one bites the dust
Why can I not conquer love?
And I might have thought we were one
Wanted to fight war without weapons
And I wanted it, I wanted it bad
But there were so many red flags
Now another one bites the dust
Let's be clear, I'll trust no one"
-Sia "Elastic Heart" Verse 1
Man, it's not easy typing the lyrics to a song when the song is playing at another part in the background. Had like eight typos the first time (Back off, Lynn, I fixed them before you could notice).
What does it mean to conquer love?
Thank god this isn't a "love" song. No, Sia took it far deeper than that kind of love.
For those who don't know, this song is believed to be about her relationship with her father. Sia has struggled with depression, a pill addiction, and alcoholism. Her father may have had similar struggles. (Before I continue, though, remember that interpretation is a deeply necessary part of art and you are entirely free to allow this song to affect you however you want.) The video for this song definitely seems to back that up as the fantastic Maddie Ziegler serves as her stand in while the incredibly talented Shia LaBeouf (he's been in the news recently, and, true or not, it doesn't change his performance in this video) serves as her father. Through it they are caged (by what, is again up to you. For me it's primarily alcoholism). They dance around and exhibit a very father-daughter like relationship filled with goofy faces and playful running. It's already incredibly moving just with that. But then, the daughter gets out. The bars are spaced far enough she can easily fit through. She is running from her father at this point. What a display of a human relationship. A foundation of love but with walls of anger, doors of mistrust, and hideous furnishings built from deceit and projectionisms and control. But even with all of that ugly... she returns. Because anything built on love is worth our attempts at reclamation. She reenters the cage for the sake of her father and shows him how to get out. But he can't. The bars are wide enough, he could crawl out. He could escape. But he doesn't. He doesn't, and what's worse he clings to his child. But a new emotion is expressed here: fear. Her father is terrified. What Sia's father feared, I can't speak on. But I've seen a very specific type of fear. The fear of fading. I've seen it in the eyes and actions of someone close to me. Someone who will leave this world much earlier than he needs to... because of his cage. A cage I escaped, but one he never will. And that's what I feel when I see this video. I feel his reach, even though he pushed. I feel his hands pulling on the sleeve of my jacket as his words splash into me like a verbal tsunami bent on washing me miles away.
"I've got thick skin and an elastic heart
But your blade, it might be too sharp
I'm like a rubber band until you pull too hard
I may snap and I move fast
But you won't see me fall apart
'Cause I've an elastic heart"
-Sia "Elastic Heart" First chorus
Growing up where I did, thick skin was a requirement. I won't go into it here, maybe some day I will, but there's a reason I left home at 18 and went as far away as I could. But thick as my skin was, my father's words were always able to pierce it. And no matter how well I bounced back, no matter how much I let drop, no matter how much I forgave, the elasticity of my heart grew worn. It's so strange. Love comes in so many forms and is seldom pure. My father's love is without question—truly without question—but god damn did it leave scars. "But you won't see me fall apart". I hate that was true in my own life. Maybe if I'd shown it more, he would've stopped. Maybe if I'd not kept it all inside, he'd have seen it and acknowledged it.
He wouldn't have.
I know him too well to think he would have.
But it is the elastic heart that snaps back into form. But when pulled back far enough... every rubber band will break.
I should probably talk about my worst times in my cages. For the record, I'm not an alcoholic. I never had an addiction. I abused alcohol, sure, but even at my worst I could go weeks without it and never feel the worse. That being said, I still don't think I'm ready.
"And I will stay up through the night
Let's be clear, I won't close my eyes
And I know that I can survive
I'll walk through fire to save my life
And I want it, I want my life so bad
I'm doing everythin' I can
And another one bites the dust
It's hard to lose a chosen one"
-Sia "Elastic Heart" Verse 2
So far, I've written out all the lyrics except for one. One very important one that I'll write soon. Until then, all I can do is ask:
Who is the chosen one when Sia is singing? I don't know. But in my story, it's me. When I was fourteen I was everything my father wanted me to be. I was a pretty good basketball player (for a small town), had good grades, and never defied him. All of those were great, but the jewel in the crown was this: I wanted to be a Christian missionary. Wind the clocks forward a decade or so and I was a man with two Master's Degrees—one of them in theology—and I was an atheist. I suppose "agnostic" is more accurate, but the lifestyles between the two are indistinguishable. Eight years of post-high school education at two Christian universities was what it took for me to realize I don't agree with one of the cornerstones of my upbringing. And my fall from grace was down a steep, rock-filled mountain. I was the chosen one—my father's chosen one—only, he'd chosen wrong.
Alcoholism was not the first cage I escaped.
But it could have been the one that kept me.
At this moment I'd like to speak plainly. I know hundreds, probably thousands, of wonderful Christian people. I neither look down on their for having a difference in belief than myself nor do I vilefy them for the present or history of Christianity. That being said... it was my first cage and it was far and away the hardest one to escape. I hope any readers of faith that come across the blog won't be insulted or offended. I hope, instead, they'll read this for what it's intended to be: a honest look back on my life and what was, in my experience, an incredibly difficult cage to get out of.
My early to mid twenties were spent half inside a classroom—both as a teacher and as a student—and half inside a bottle. Again, I'm not addicted to alcohol. I still drink on ocassion—and on more seldom ocassions, I drink a little too much. But during my twenties I drank hard. I'm a deeply passionate person. When I loved basketball as a teenager, I practiced nearly every day. As I've been trying to make it as a writer, I do write every day. I love it. It doesn't take much discipline for me to do this, because I just enjoy it so much. Writing is amazing and I could read a thousand books on writing and still be down to read more. It's just so much damn fun to me. Alcohol was the same. And coming from a highly controlled life as a child, living outside of control was, well, just so much damn fun. Waking up beside a woman I barely remembered meeting was fun. (Before I continue, I just want to say that I've lost count how many times I've listened to "Elastic Heart" tonight. Pengyun is the greatest human on earth for not being annoyed) Getting drunk with people that said we were friends but whom I knew very little about was great. I'll always remember being 21 during my first year in China. I studied Kung Fu. My Kung Fu brothers could drink, man. And they did it often. And I loved doing it with them often. The rest of my early 20's were a constant game of knowing which friends liked to drink and which friends detested drinking and viewed it as sinful. My two cages merged like a Venn Diagram with me in the intersecting middle. I thought when I left Christianity things would change. But they didn't. I still had two very different sets of friends. It should be said I've always had a wide array of people I enjoy being around, but there was a difference here. And I allowed it to force me into being one person with two sides. I was never two people, I want to make that clear, but I was like those pictures of earth we get from the people on the international space station—a full picture of our planet but with only parts of it currently illuminated by the sun. And which part of myself I turned towards the light was determined by who I was around.
Now, on the "pebble bottom" I referenced early on in this blog post (if you're still here... thank you). When I think of "rock bottom" I think of people who OD'd and had to be taken the hospital or lost their career or their spouse or a friend. I never lost any of those things. So I think it'd be very unfair to those who have, to compare myself to them. So instead, I coin the phrase "pebble bottom" in hopes that it communicates my past without blowing it out of proportion.
These events, spoken unspecifically of course, were simple. Things like waking up in questionable places... with questionable people. I've never contracted anything, thankfully, and I always made sure to get tested to be sure. Aside from that, though, my harshest bottom has just been that I lost so much time. It's an underwhelming admission, I know, but if I'd spent my twenties writing blogs like this, or writing short stories or novels or poetry or literally writing anything, it'd have been infinitely more valuable. But the fact was: I'd questioned Christianity since I was a teenager and before I left, drinking quieted the questions that no one could answer. And after I left Christianity, alcohol quieted my father's voices. His accusing voice, his voice of disappointment and disillusionment, his voice of anger and his voice of derision. It was a cop out. And it is shocking how quickly I was able to overcome it when I changed my situation and started fighting it. I want to say something clever here to communicate my meaning, but well, Sia did it best.
"You did not break me
I'm still fighting for peace"
-Sia "Elastic Heart"
The "You" isn't always my father. In the past it often was, and even now it sometimes is. I can be in the shower or taking a walk and out of nowhere I'll start mentally arguing with him (Does anyone else have mental arguments? If so... please tell me. I'd really like to know). In these arguments I tell him all the things I used to want to tell him. All the things I still occasionally want to tell him. All the things I'd never tell him in person because, well, I suppose I'm trying to conquer love. But I fail. And maybe, with this specific type of love, that's the point. The goal isn't to succeed, but to simply keep trying to. It's not ideal, it's not even sub-optimal. It's bad. It's a bad form of love. But wherever there's love, there's reason to endure. Wherever there's love, there's an understanding for pain. I won't bring this love into my relationship with my children. I want my love with them to be more than a foundation. I want it to be a mansion with red curtains always drawn to let in the sun. I want it to be a place with wood floors that creak as Pengyun and I and they run and play even though something may get broken. I want our walls to be built to support instead of contain. I want our doors to open with ease and I want the sound of their opening to bring joy and excitement and not dread and worry. That's the love I want to have with my children. But even if it's not the love I have with my father—though flashes of it decorated my childhood like sunlight through torn curtains—I will endure it to keep it alive.
It did not break me
I'm still fighting for peace
God, I just hope so badly that Sia found peace. Because I found mine. There will always be tremors of conflict, sure, and memories of past wars, but I know how to fight for peace now, and if the day comes that I need to suit up again, I'm ready.
The song just ended and now the only thing I hear is the sound of my own keystrokes. I won't need to play it again. I'm finished. But if you're not, keep listening. Or listen to something else. Or write. Write a comment here or send me a message or write to someone else or write to no one. Whatever you do next, know that I thank you for taking this time with me. You're reading it after I wrote it, but in a odd, beautiful way, we're experiencing it together.