It doesn’t seem right that the video for Florence+The Machine’s “Sky Full of Song,” shows the singer hugging the floor, in somber black & white. Better to imagine her floating like the figures raptured up to the heavens in the first-season title sequence of The Leftovers, while the earthbound desperately try to hold on. Grab me by my ankles, I’ve been flying for too long. She’s riding the ecstatic thermals, high above the rest of us: I couldn’t hide from the thunder in a sky full of song.
Florence Welch is an unrepentant Romantic who writes love as sublime disaster: floods, shipwrecks, earthquakes, beds and cities on fire. Her feelings are always large-scale, her bliss just a shade away from self-annihilation: I thought I was flying, but maybe I’m dying. She tunes to depths and shadows: O the heart it hides such unimaginable things, a line straight out of Hawthorne. Lushed out with strings and ethereal harmonies, Florence’s huge, sweeping vocals mirror her stage performance of passionate sincerity. Her style has been described, fairly enough, as OTT: Over The Top. Her hourlong video collage, “The Odyssey,” for instance, stages the demise of a relationship as a literal car crash, with her body levitating out the shattered window. It’s all a bit much, especially with the silk chemises. I’m an ironizing modern; I know better. So why can’t I tear myself away?
When Florence commands us to shoot her down from those heights–Aim your arrow at the sky—it’s a sly nod at a nineteenth-century poem, once so famous it was the stuff of ready parody:
I shot an arrow into the air
It fell to earth, I knew not where.
The title of Longfellow’s “The Arrow and the Song” gives away its simple setup: shooting an arrow is like writing a song. The poem counsels us to approach both actions with a kind of purposeful aimlessness. Speak your truth, send your message out in hope, to your ideal reader—but accept that once you release it, you won’t be able to follow or predict its path. This may feel risky, but the final stanza promises a reward, with this fantastically tidy resolution: someday you’ll find that aimless arrow again, lodged in a sturdy oak tree. (Don’t overthink the image). And those intimate words you’d whispered into the air? One day they’ll be understood perfectly, by a soulmate you hadn’t even divined:
the song, from beginning to end,
I found again in the heart of a friend.
Lovely vision, isn’t it? And also, dead wrong. In case you’ve not discovered this: most heartfelt messages go astray, by little degrees of awkwardness or large ones of mortification. Desires almost never find completion in their object. To put this in the poem’s own metaphorical terms: on the slender chance that you do locate your arrow again, there is no way, my friends, no way you will find that sucker unbroke.
While Longfellow’s poem reassures us that important feelings can be conveyed to the right receiver, Florence’s song exhibits no such faith. It’s not even clear, in fact, who she’s addressing. It begins as deep-night advice to a maybe-lover—there’s a hint of plot— but then swerves to record her own watercolor impressions: long-distance calls, the surprise of L.A. rain, a sense of sway. She aims her libidinal energies, that is, not at the “heart of a friend” (which is where pop songs are usually directed), but straight into the air. Its best line– I want you so badly, but you could be anyone—might read as girl-power sarcasm from some lesser diva: a brush-off, a dis, an ego-deflator. Here, though, it means that what matters is not the object of desire, but desire itself.
Queer artists and theorists have been so indispensably good at showing how the constraints of propriety and property try to force eros into narrow channels, to keep it from overspilling the bounds. What could happen if you didn’t found a society upon such restraints? There’s a connection, if not a formula, linking libidinal to revolutionary energies; it hints at something like boundlessness between us, a true egalitarianism. Florence’s arrows are meant not for any one, but for anyone.
It would have been more honest of Longfellow to end his poem after the second stanza, with both the arrow and the song flying beyond our perception. He was susceptible to—but born too late for—the winds of the revolutionary sublime. What he saw instead, in the 1840s, was its cynical co-optation: people spouting ideas about equality and national greatness while hunting their fellow humans. It’s understandable that he may have been a little suspicious of the Big Feelings, opting for the neat containment of that last stanza as the only way to get over, to get on. (Although, I should say, he was capable of writing bleaker, truer poems than the one I’ve savaged here.)
I admit: it hurts to acknowledge that your writing, your longing, your revolution, is in all likelihood going nowhere. Really knowing that will squeeze the breath out of you. But here, in contrast, is Florence exposing herself to that thunder, giving it her everything. Take me down, I’m too tired now, she sings, but with such open-throated abandon that it remains an invitation, like June Jordan’s seven-day kiss, to go down into the breach.
Impossible question: what makes a work of art good? Sometimes that it moves you. Sometimes that it indicts you.
I was too busy to crack open and to be cracked open. I was listening to the voices that said to remember your password, check the sell-by dates, pay the late fee, use your inside voice, find the cap that goes to this water bottle, measure the outcomes, reply to that email, read the fucking news, revise and resubmit, resubmit, resubmit.
I was busy with these things while the world was melting all around me. I can hear the sirens, but I cannot walk away.
Maybe Over The Top is the only way for us to get over.
Kirsten Silva Gruesz: Every city was a gift.