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From Governors Ball 2019: Florence + The Machine’s One-Woman Exorcism

florence gov ball
Florence Welch dancing at Gov Ball 2019.

There are certain emotions that can only really be expressed in a Florence + The Machine song. At the end of the night on Saturday, pressed up against the metal barrier at the very front of the crowd, I experienced a new one.

A streaming silhouette of red-orange, Florence Welch ascended to her headlining set at Governors Ball toward a thin pinprick of light. She started off with the quiet of “June,” the first song off her latest album. “Hunger” was next, its breathy intro summoning a kind of morbid energy. The song is something of a risk for the pop star: Its razor-edged specificity is a stark change from the radio favorites that helped make her famous.

The first vocals mimicked her breath, each ascending note more labored than the last. “At seventeen, I started to starve myself,” she whispered out. “I thought that love was a kind of emptiness / And at least I understood then the hunger I felt / and I didn’t have to call it loneliness.”

I had already become numbingly familiar with “Hunger”’s autobiography, the indistinct outline of some unspoken fear so out of sync with the freedom of her performances. But nothing had prepared me for the spectacle of it, the way it would feel to see our shared shame paraded about in front of a thousand people, euphorically released and subdued at the same time. It was an almost ludicrous confession emanating from this wild, towering woman. How could she possibly believe her excess was anything other than mesmerizing?

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When it comes to gender, eating disorders don’t discriminate. But there is something particular about the way they intersect with social prescriptions of femininity, feeding off the expectation that women shrink and limit and fence themselves in. Speaking for so many, Florence unleashed the disease of insufficiency that had wormed its way into the laugh lines of my best friend, hid beneath my little sister’s baggy sweatshirts, and the guilt in my mother’s eyes. Pulling back from the distance of spectacle and performance, she showed us Florence Welch, the woman behind the show.

In the intimacy of her performance, she captured the particular desperation that ensuing emptiness leaves us with. It drove her gigantic leaps, her soaring vocals, her random, fiery sprints across the stage. It fueled the set’s compounding sonic ambition, the cinematic drama of abrupt blackouts and grand thundering intros.

She summoned the enemies of collective womanhood out into the light, the demons that tortured a starving 17 year old elevated to towering urgency. “We all have a hunger!” She chanted above the crowd of kindred spirits. Thankfully, that was far from the end.

The song began to swell and cameramen weaved their way underneath her. Florence raised her arms, only smoke and darkness behind her. A stream-of-thought transition carried her to something impersonal: “Oh and you in all your vibrant youth…” she sang to the crowd. “You make a fool of death with your beauty, and for a moment,” she paused. “I forget to worry.”

Reinvigorated, Florence moved through the revelatory openers on each of her two older albums, “Ship To Wreck” and “Only If For A Night.” Anthemic drumbeats riled the crowd as she whirled across the stage, newly lighter, her long billowy sleeves straining to keep up.

Afterward, she paused to introduce herself to the crowd. Her speaking voice was uniquely enchanting, enhanced by the mystical harp notes that played behind it and the twirling of her restless wrists. “It’s weird that I’m shy isn’t it?” she said, lilting and coy. “You wouldn’t think I would be shy.” With a wink, she launched into a description of her tribute to punk rock legend Patti Smith, “Patricia.” “This one’s kind of about toxic masculinity,” she said with a sly smile.

Her lyrics have a knife-like precision: “Well, you're a 'real man', and you do what you can,” she taunted the audience, “you only take as much as you can grab with two hands.” She paced across the stage as though delivering her anger, not just to a female throng, but some of the very people that inspired it. On its ringing chorus of “I believe her, I believe her, I believe her,” her operatic riff on the last note sent the words up to the sky like an offering.

She moved on then to her older hits, situating the number one “Dog Days are Over” at a well-chosen emotional high point. To follow, “100 Years” reached a fever pitch, one second pure soprano, the next a triumphant belt in her highest range. “What Kind of Man” seemed an unlikely closer, but was quickly followed by an encore of “No Choir” and “Big God.”

Finally, she told the audience: “We’ve got one more song for you tonight. Will you be our choir for this evening?” To shouts of affirmation, she closed out with the familiar, ringing optimism of “Shake It Out.” “And it's hard to dance with a devil on your back / so shake him off!” she yelled over the auditorium. And one last time, the audience obeyed, rippling with energy, hands outstretched as they laughed, leaned on one another, and lost themselves in a lingering release.

The song worked as a collective exorcism: She summoned out our smothered fears one last time and banished them to the fire. These demons may not be gone forever, but I can promise, for the rest of the night, they wouldn’t have dared go near followers of the flaming woman in her cream lace nightie.

—Staff writer Joy C. Ashford can be reached at joy.ashford@thecrimson.com.

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