In May 2022, singer and songwriter Florence Welch of Florence + the Machine dropped her latest album Dance Fever—her first in four years. Though the album and its individual songs have been lauded for a variety of reasons, a track that stands out is “Free.”
Not only does the music video for this track speak volumes about the reality of anxiety, but the fact that the video was filmed in Kyiv in November 2021 and is dedicated to “the spirit, creativity and perseverance of our brave Ukrainian friends” layers the conversation about personal anxiety upon that of national anxiety.
The song opens with the introduction of Florence Welch (who plays herself in the music video) and Bill Nighy who personifies her anxiety. The first shot shows them sitting side by side, dressed almost identically in long grey overcoats (though Florence’s is unbuttoned to reveal a bright red dress.) They move in unison in the first shot, and for the first part of the video, the pervasiveness of her anxiety is clear. Nighy is never far away as she sings the opening lines:
"Sometimes I wonder if I should be medicated / If I would feel better just slightly sedated / A feeling comes so fast and I cannot control it / I’m on fire, but I’m trying not to show it."
This fire is externalized by Welch’s red dress, and as she sings, Nighy proceeds to hand her coffee and take out a cell phone. In the role of anxiety, he is never still, and at one point when they’re seated next to each other, he has only to move his hand to send Florence into frenetic motion as she sings the chorus:
"As it picks me up, puts me down / It picks me up, puts me down / Picks me up, puts me down / A hundred times a day."
The frantic pace continues as Florence breaks into a run alongside her anxiety and sings, “I’m always running from something / I push it back, but it keeps on coming.”
However, as the song goes on, Florence slowly begins to pull away from her anxiety. Nighy is ever-present in the video, but the distance between them lengthens. She no longer mirrors anxiety’s movements. Her running turns to dancing through a dining hall and then upon a table, and her words take on an energetic, joyful tone:
"But I hear the music / I feel the beat / And for a moment / When I’m dancing, I am free."
Finding freedom from anxiety
This freedom found in dance and song is something Welch reflects on in an interview with Zane Lowe. In speaking about performing, she describes it as a haven, a place where “things make sense to me,” a space that feels “so peaceful.” Noting the goodness of sharing her art, Welch elaborates on the freedom that has come in giving of herself to others: “What alcohol used to do for me is it would turn the sound down in my head . . . I think what performance does for me is it also turns all that sound down and you do get to experience a kind of positive oblivion, of like a loss of self.”
Now eight years sober, Florence’s story points to another facet of freedom—what she describes as getting “this very big life,” “an ability to live,” and perhaps even more agency in giving the gift of her music and song to her audiences.
"Loss of self"
But as Welch makes clear both in the interview and in the music video for “Free” giving of oneself can come at a price. The physical and mental toll—of both performing and managing anxiety—can be high. In a soaring bridge within “Free,” she asks big questions of the life that both shimmers with beauty and leaves her exhausted:
"Is this how it is?/ Is this how it’s always been? / To exist in the face of suffering and death / And somehow still keep singing / Oh like Christ up on a cross / Who died for us? Who died for what? / Oh, don’t you wanna call it off? / But there’s nothing else that I know how to do / But to open up my arms and give it all to you."
In this part of the song, I hear almost a prayer—Florence’s own commitment to giving her audience deeply felt, vulnerable lyrics, and at the same time a nod to suffering Ukrainians who have shown courage, heart, and incredible persistence in the face of war, which at the time of this writing is still being waged in their country. Reporting on increased violence in Kyiv, a recent New York Times article noted one Ukrainian museum worker’s feelings: “And now, of course, the feeling of anxiety is growing . . . What can we do? We are constantly worried.”
I can’t help but hear resonance between this Ukrainian woman’s words and Welch's song—a desire to acknowledge the reality of anxiety and suffering. There’s a certain surrender in saying, “What can we do?” But, as she sits in the basement of the museum during air raids, it is clear. She has found a way to “exist in the face of suffering and death / And somehow still keep singing.” To be sure, to keep singing—to continue with one’s life—in the midst of suffering is incredibly difficult, and yet this song calls listeners to witness to those who have done and continue to do just that.
We are not our anxieties.
Striking at the end of the music video for “Free” is the last three frames. The first shows an exhausted Florence sitting next to Nighy and resting her head on his shoulder. The second depicts Florence in an almost sculpture-like pose, and because Nighy is so far in the background, for a moment it looks like Florence is towering over him, ready to impart a soft pat upon his head. The final frame shows Nighy and Welch overlooking a graveyard. Nighy puts his arm around her as they gaze outward. There’s a sense in these final scenes that though anxiety is a draining, difficult diagnosis and reality to live with, it’s not something that has to be completely eliminated for Florence to live joyfully. She carries on through her art, through singing. And importantly, Florence is not her anxiety.
“I think that’s why I like songs so much," Welch tells Zane Lowe, "because I feel like . . . in a song you can hold so many complicated ideas.”
“Free” is a powerful reminder that in the midst of personal, national, or global suffering, there is room to acknowledge deep weariness, helplessness, and pain, at the same time as finding small moments of rest, the will to carry on, breakthrough, and even joy.
The end of the video makes reference to Ukrainian artists “whose radiant freedom can never be extinguished.” As these conversations about personal and societal anxiety intertwine in “Free,” one hopes that each of us may seek after that “radiant freedom” for ourselves, our communities, and our world.