I think for most avid music listeners, there comes that moment fairly early in life where you realize, oh, hey, there’s great music out there not being played on the radio. For me, that came right around freshman year of high school, and one of the first “alternative songs” (a naive term for anything that didn’t resemble Justin Timberlake or Britney Spears) that caught my attention was “Dog Days Are Over” by Florence + the Machine. Just the fact that the track featured a harp was enough for me to adore its “experimental genius”. Looking back, I can see now that Florence + the Machine’s music is not the most experimental in the wide world of music. It’s unabashedly pop. But Welch and co.’s honesty in crafting beautiful pop anthems and shimmering, uplifting ballads can’t be denied. And that attention to craft and honesty in music-making was enough to drive me to seek out other music that resonated with me, instead of what the pop charts told me I’m supposed to like.
Fast forward ten years, and Florence + the Machine is headlining Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, accompanied by rising pop teen Billie Eilish, an artist I’ve enjoyed over the last year, though I may have never heard from had I not been drawn into the life-consuming hobby of music discovery. It was an interesting pairing to be sure. Eilish, a Lorde-inspired pop artist, combining heavy hip-hop influences with sweet and emotional pop balladry, carries a brooding mood throughout her set tailor-made for a dark club with pulsing strobe lights, heavy synths, and glitchy drum kits. Florence + the Machine, on the other hand, are full of brightness, delivering hope and freedom of expression through her graceful dancing, uplifting lyrics, and a deep sense of empathy.
Though the two artists seem so contrary, the pairing meshed seamlessly on the High As Hope Tour, offering a yin and yang effect which more fully expressed the breadth of human emotion than either artist could portray alone. Throughout her opening set, Billie Eilish swaggers, dances, and sings with teenage angst and heartache, accompanied only by a drummer and her brother on keys and guitars. And yet the energy fills the arena as the trap beats boom and Eilish’s dark charisma carries to the lobbies where many are still shuffling in. Though Eilish portrays the “tough girl” or “bad girl” vibe on tracks like “you should see me in a crown”, there is an astute self-awareness that keeps her grounded and likable. Where choreographed dance breaks can often come off as trying too hard or too serious (yes, you, Taylor), her ability to laugh at herself and her tongue-in-cheek approach to pop and hip-hop tropes make her an exciting artist to keep an eye on.
Though at surface level, the 16-year-old Eilish doesn’t offer much of a hope message in her opening set, her raw emotional expression of an American teenager sets the scene, the status quo into which Florence + the Machine seeks to bring hopeful encouragement. Where the opening set keys in on the dark, the soft white lights bouncing off the cream-colored, wood-paneled staging of the second act create an idyllic backdrop onto which Florence + the Machine explode. The band members take their stationary places across the stage, and the show begins with High As Hope opener “June”, a perfect prologue for the night as Welch belts out the phrase printed on the shirts of the front row fans: “Hold on to each other.” Her voice is angelic, and all remains still until the exact right moment. And then, as the song climaxes, Welch bursts in graceful leaps and twirls across the stage. That infectious energy would not be stilled until the lights went down 15 songs later.
The pure energy is enough to captivate the Nashville audience. There aren’t expensive staging gimmicks, flashy videos in the background, etc. It’s just the music, the dancing, and the words. The words, it’s obvious are important to Welch. “At 17, I started to starve myself / I thought that love was a kind of emptiness,” she begins on “Hunger”, one of the first times she was able to open up about her troubled teen years publicly. And with that open confession, she’s able to express her empathy, knowing “we all have a hunger” for something more than the chaos and heartbreak we’re currently experiencing.
It’s a reality that we are all too familiar with, though we are not always willing to embrace hope and move forward. Fully aware of this, Welch takes the time in between songs to remind us that “hope is an action”, it’s not just a feeling or something we think about. It’s maintained in all the little actions and choices made daily to move forward toward something better.
For Welch, hope is also found in community, something she expresses throughout the night with her intimate crowd interaction. She encourages the audience to give each other hugs, to hold hands together, to be vulnerable and awkward when no one wants to be. To be honest, these types of social interactions make me very uncomfortable. I didn’t follow Welch’s instructions one bit, but why? Why is it so hard to say, “Hey, you like this music too. Let’s enjoy it together and have fun!” Though I didn’t partake in the group hugging exercises that night, Welch’s willingness to lead in being awkward has had an impact, leaving me something to think about weeks later.
Community is necessary, and yet we fight against it daily, succumbing to insecurities, uncertainties, or just plain laziness. But on the High As Hope tour, Florence + the Machine express the equally true reality that we all have those insecurities. Somewhere in that shared brokenness, we find the comfort of community, when we’re able to let go and just be ourselves in the present. Of course, it’s a major problem both personally and socially, and one concert isn’t going to fix it. But Florence + the Machine are doing their part in making their daily choices to pursue hope, and I’m thankful for that example.