If readers get to say what it means, anything goes, right?
A work can mean whatever. The ultimate subjectivity. Well, not exactly. A piece of literature can mean a lot of different things—which is why literary scholarship still exists. Hell, Shakespearean scholars are still getting published, and those plays have been studied for 400 years. But that doesn’t mean anything goes. There are wrong answers. And those wrong answers are called “misreads.”
This is the kicker of New Criticism. You have to back up your reading with evidence, and if the evidence does not remotely favor your argument, you’re wrong. You’ve misread the text. The most horrifying moment of my undergraduate career was when a professor wrote in purple pen on my paper, “MISREAD.” My stomach dropped out of my damn pant legs.
Usually, I like to nip misreads in the bud on Day 2 of my class. We watch Sia’s music video for “The Greatest,” I break students into groups so they can analyze what it means, and then we come back together as a class to discuss their interpretations. Nine times out of ten, they’ve misread it.
So class, let’s get to work.
We’re going to watch this music video together. (Twice).
Since we’re mostly writers here and we deal with symbolic codes on a daily basis, I don’t know if the stats will be as high as nine times out of ten, but I’m kind of hoping some misreads do happen with this exercise. If they do, don’t feel bad. It’s in the service of learning.
Before we begin, I do want you to know this video can be incredibly triggering. I cry literally every time I watch it, and I can’t tell you how many times that’s been. It’s going to get really heavy here in a second. However, it would spoil the activity for me to give the content warnings here. If you’re concerned your mental health might be compromised, I’ll include them at the bottom of the blog post so you can scroll to those before you watch. (And you might not want to read the italicized stuff at the end). Sending lots of love. And I do kind of want to cry about it with you at the end of the post, but we’ll get there.
First Watch Through
Okay, warnings aside.
Watch this video on your own and tell me what it means. (Bonus points if you comment your first reactions.)
[Seriously, watch it. All of it.]
I’ve gotten some interesting answers from students. It’s about childhood hunger, childhood poverty, child abuse. It’s about breaking free, about being yourself, about mass incarceration. I kid you not, one student tried to sell me on nazi zombies—kids are rising from the dead right? Zombies. I’m sure his time playing Call of Duty had nothing to do with that. But when I ask them, “why do you think that?” a fair amount of stammering happens.
Often the reason for it is simple: they’ve skipped a step.
Remember, New Criticism requires that we use evidence. We can’t just project our experiences onto the text in ways that the language does not support.
Later in this blog, we’ll break down in detail exactly how to close read, but for the purposes of this activity, here is a very quick step-by-step guide:
notice striking words, images, motifs, patterns
discuss what effect these observations produce
so what? Explain why this effect is worth talking about
Usually, if a student is struggling to figure out the meaning of this video, it’s because they jumped straight to analysis or synthesis without first stopping to observe. In other words, they forgot to let the text speak for itself.
I can see where students might think this video is about hardships children face. The dancers are children; it starts out with the hashtag, #weareyourchildren. But that reading is wrong.
So what is the right answer?
Sia’s “The Greatest” is about the Pulse Nightclub shooting.
Depending on how well students did on the first watch through, I usually hear a murmur ripple through the room. What? How? But here’s the point: I can prove my reading with evidence. (And, I mean, if you doubt me by the end of it, just google it—but hopefully you won’t doubt me in a sec).
Second Watch Through
Let’s watch it again, but this time, we’ll follow the steps.
First thing’s first: observation. As you’re watching, don’t try to analyze. Simply write down or think about the things in this video that stick out to you. Striking song lyrics, striking images. Pay attention to the backgrounds and the costuming of the dancers. When you’ve finished, come back to this blog, and I’ll show you my list.
[Seriously, watch it a second time. Again, all of it.]
we are your children (all dancers are children)
Opens with ringing (ends with it too)
Prison cell, bodies on the ground
Bodies slumped and scattered, huddled together
Maddie Ziegler looking distraught in front of a wall with white paint splatter behind her head
applies rainbow faceprint down her cheeks like tears
Hands, body are dirtied
Stares directly into camera with tears in eyes
Desperately tries to rouse them, crying, ringing continues
They only move when the music starts
Breath / cry dance move—started by her, mimicked by others
Gray face paint
She runs them out of the building—evacuation feels
“I’m running out of breath but I, I’ve got stamina”
“Don’t give up, won’t give up, don’t give up, no no no”
Faces are a thing Maddie does in Sia videos, but a LOT of rage and crying faces
People keep slumping down against the walls, she keeps pulling them back up
Kickboxing vibes to the dance moves—blocking face
Second time we see Maddie in front of white paint, she’s passed out/immobile like them, then does the breath dance move to wake up
Mouths, “I’m so sorry” when gray-faced dancers come in to join her
Flashes peace sign but then dissolves into more angry “I see you” kinds of vibes, plus dragging fingers down cheeks like tears again
Camera zooms into her mouth (scream?) and then pulls out and we’re downstairs.
Maddie in front of blood-red background instead of white
Main room: 90s plastic disco balls rolling on the floor, pinpricks of light on the back wall only visible when dancers fall to the ground—biggest dance sequence
Lots of odd faces, jumping together in a group
Ringing comes in after song; they collapse, maddie with them
All gray toned
Can see chests moving, but eyes closed
Maddie opens eyes, confronts the camera
Then we see the opening images all again while ringing continues
Maddie sobs in front of blood-red background instead of white background
Upon further research: 49 dancers, 49 victims
“Free to be the greatest here tonight, free to be the greatest here alive”
These are our puzzle pieces. In order to get the larger picture, first we have to group them into similar categories—same colors, same content, so to speak—and then we can start putting it all together. If I were writing a paper on this, those categories would end up being my body paragraphs. I might have a paragraph about the face-paint, I might have one about the dance moves, I might have one about the mise-en-scène (fancy french film term for background / everything you see), and then I might have one about the sound design & music. Then, we analyze. What’s the effect of these observations?
I’m not going to go all five-paragraph-paper on your ass because I know your eyes will probably glaze over—this is FUN academics, right? *she whispers fearfully into the void*—but we can at the very least hit our big signals here.
Ringing: tinnitus (gunshot)
Rainbow: pride flag
Light pricks: bullet holes
Disco balls: dance floor
49 dancers, 49 victims
Children & white paint splatter: innocence & innocent blood
Prison bars: trapped
This video is a raging sob in the face of this tragedy. Maddie (who has long stood in for Sia) wills the victims alive for one last song. She urges them to run, to escape, to dance and to fight—only to then be confronted with the fact that the song will end. They will fall back to the floor. And we will see those huddled masses and be consciously aware, in the silence, in the stillness, that the dancers’ chests are moving from everything they just did—we are visually reminded by their panting that they cannot even fully inhabit those we’ve lost. We cannot undo death. Maddie—and Sia, and us—are left with nothing but grief and the color of blood, gunshots ringing in our ears.
This is what “The Greatest” means. To say it’s about breaking free is kind of right, but it’s vague. To say it’s about children’s hardship is kind of right, but it’s also kind of wrong. Children are a symbol here: for the innocent blood spilt, for the LGBT+ community that experiences childhood trauma at the fear of coming out, for those who texted, “Mommy, I love you” when they thought they were going to die.
Because of the stakes of this music video, reading it incorrectly is a kind of violence—it silences the rage and the grief. It gaslights it.
Meaning is placed on the page by the artist and felt by the reader. A shared moment that evokes true human emotion. Readers have a lot of power in that relationship. But always—and especially when engaging in criticism—we have to let the text speak.
“Mommy I love you,” the first message said. It was 2:06 a.m.
“In club they shooting.”
Mina justice tried calling her 30-year-old son. No answer.
Alarmed and half awake, she tapped out a response.
At 2:07 a.m., he wrote: “Trapp in bathroom.”
Justice asked what club, and he responded: “Pulse. Downtown. Call police.”
Then at 2:08: “I’m gonna die.”
Now wide awake, Justice dialed 911.
She sent a flurry of texts over the next several minutes.
“I’m calling them now.”
“U still in there.”
“Answer our damn phone.”
At 2:39 a.m., he responded:
“Call them mommy.”
He wrote that he was in the bathroom.
“I’m going to die.”
Justice asked her son if anyone was hurt and which bathroom he was in.
“Lots. Yes,” he responded at 2:42 a.m.
When he didn’t text back, she sent several more messages. Was he with police?
“Text me please,” she wrote.
“No,” he wrote four minutes later. “Still here in the bathroom. He has us. They need to come get us.”
At 2:49 a.m., she told him the police were there and to let her know when he saw them.
“Hurry,” he wrote. “He’s in the bathroom with us.”
She asked, “Is the man in the bathroom wit u?”
At 2:50 a.m.: “He’s a terror.”
Then, a final text from her son a minute later: “Yes.”
To quote Maddie Ziegler,
“I’m so sorry.”
**CW: violence against the LGBT community; active shooter situation; pulse nightclub shooting**
I am a cis bisexual woman, but I’ve “passed” for most of my life and didn’t come out until I was 28.
Sia. “The Greatest.” YouTube.com Sep 6, 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GKSRyLdjsPA
Press, The Associated. “Orlando Massacre: Son’s Heartbreaking Texts Reveal Final Moments.” NBCNews.com, NBCUniversal News Group, 13 June 2016, www.nbcnews.com/storyline/orlando-nightclub-massacre/horror-mom-mina-justice-text-shootings-unfolded-n590736.