Lately I’ve been obsessed with two things, and two things only: The music video for “Fallingwater” by Maggie Rogers and the music video for “Big God” by Florence and the Machine. Both are songs that express unfillable needs and unfathomable sorrows. Both are videos that use motion and the body to interpret these enormities.
Released within a month of each other, these videos look different but feel similar, or at least analogous. Where “Fallingwater” is light and airy, “Big God” is dark and dank. Where one is youthful and innocent the other is sensual and even grotesque. But they both place the artists in big, homogenous landscapes, on their own, with nothing but their own emotions to contend with.
Sand and sky
“Fallingwater” opens with a punchy electronic beat. Rogers appears on a bare sandy plain, wearing a deep crimson flowy thing — like a jumpsuit for land mermaids. She stands still for the first few bars, then begins to dance when the lyrics come in: “Hold on, I thought that I could take it from here.”
Rogers’s dancing feels extemporaneous, interpretive. Sometimes she moves in slow, liquid motions I suppose we could call “lyrical” and sometimes she simply, I don’t know, bops. As the video goes on, though, she becomes noticeably more perplexed. She clenches and flexes her fingers. She grips her hair. She brings her fists down in great arcing motions on the twos and fours as though she’s trying to pound old wounds into the sand.
There’s a particularly anguished moment at the end of the second chorus where, after Rogers admits, “I never loved you fully in the way I could. I fought the current, running just the way you would,” she spins around and doubles over as though she’s just taken a punch to the gut. She spreads her arms wide — for balance, maybe, dangling over some unseen edge. “And now I’m in the creek,” the chorus continues. “And it’s getting harder. I’m like falling water.” At this, Rogers stumbles to her knees, clutching her gut. She leans back and lets her head fall to the earth.
In the final third of the song, a lot changes. The track slows. It’s night and a strobe gives the effect of a storm. Rogers changes clothes: Now she’s in jeans and a t-shirt, and she’s soaked through, possibly to enhance the ambient storminess. Her face and body both express an agony that now, with the slower tempo, has more space to grow between beats. By the end of the song she’s on her knees once more, doing the dance equivalent of sobbing into her lap. In fact she’s hardly dancing, just emoting. Here, notably, Roger lip syncs to the song’s lyrics for the first time. They’ve overtaken her, or taken her over.
Despite this being a video for a song with “water” in the title, actual water doesn’t come into play until that final scene, at which point it feels like an afterthought. The sand and sky are the more lasting images, the other characters in an otherwise solo endeavor.
Dark and deep
“Big God,” on the other hand, takes place entirely on water. In the first shot, the camera slowly tracks towards Florence Welch and eight veiled dancers in multicolor, who hover above their own reflections in the middle of a deep blackness. There are no visible walls or attributes to the space, only dark above and dark below.
It’s only the water on the floor that gives the viewer some sense of space. When the dancers whip their fists above their heads a spray of water follows. This adds a dimension of reality, a physical context, where before they were suspended in nothingness.
The dancing in this video is not the unstructured whirling of Rogers in the desert: it’s sensual, stylized, conspicuously choreographed. The dancers writhe in their underwear and transparent mesh skirts that cling to their legs. Welch gyrates in a flesh-colored silk robe. Often, her movements seem self-consciously sexual while the rest of the ensemble moves with more primal aggression. When she joins in their choreography she adopts this animalism, but whenever she moves on her own it is with practiced restraint.
To me, this interplay is a lot like how like the mind interacts with feelings: sometimes swept up in them, sometimes aware of and separate from them, but always, always contending with their presence and force. In this sense the entire video takes an interior bent — perhaps what we’re seeing is an expression of Welch’s own mind and heart, danced out for us in a blank, black space without walls or windows. A stage of consciousness.
In one of the moments where Welch seems most at odds with the ensemble, she sings, “Sometimes I think it’s getting better, but then it gets much worse.” The dancers slither around Welch’s feet, then join her at a standing level, then ultimately are lifted above her head by invisible ropes and harnesses. “Is it just part of the process?” Welch asks. “Well, Jesus Christ, it hurts.” The dancers hang uncannily above her head, their legs dangling like vines from the top of the frame.
There is more of the uncanny to follow: Welch and the dancers throw their hair in front of their faces and jump up and down to form a line of creatures from The Grudge. Welch on several occasions sticks a hand into her mouth then flings it back out in an unsettling marriage of desire and disgust. This is how the video ends, once the dancers have all crawled away and Welch is alone in the blackness. She sits in deer pose and runs her hands up her body, into her mouth, through her hair. This brief filling of her mouth calls to mind the repeated lyric: “You need a big god, big enough to fill you up.”
As the camera retreats so that Welch’s silhouette occupies less and less of the great dark empty space around her, the nothingness is palpable: An absence with presence. A wide world Welch could devour and never fill up on.
Landscapes of longing
In either the desert or the dark studio, there is isolation. In “Fallingwater” Rogers is literally alone on the dunes. In the few striking long shots the video gives us, her red jumpsuit is stark against the pale sand and the sky above it. She may dance with a certain joy at the beginning, heart open and face skyward, but we’ve followed her to the dark and stormy end of the video enough times to know there’s pain in the movements. In “Big God” the darkness is so total you can’t see the end of it. For all the viewer knows, Welch could walk for miles and never reach light. Though she’s surrounded by dancers she never touches one of them, and the dancers never touch each other. This is the permeating aesthetic behind both videos: Women singing of emptiness and want in a space where their hands can only grasp at thin air.
These works are powerful. They use very little to say very much. They set songs of great interiority onto wide, exterior stages. But perhaps most notably the videos do not cast a character for the object of these longings. While the lyrics in “Fallingwater” and “Big God” directly address a person, the videos opt to place the singers on their own. Rogers expresses regret by moving her body through an empty desert; she doesn’t confess it to someone. Welch has only a Greek chorus of dancers for companions within a black chasm; she does not sing to her “favorite ghost.”
In this way it’s the space around them that becomes, in a sense, the final character of either video. These spaces are longing given landscape. Rogers’ acknowledgment of failures in a past relationship that can never be righted become miles of uncrossable dunes. Welch’s hunger for connection that can never be sated becomes an impenetrable dark plain. These are universal aches. We can feel these sorrows as sharply as sand between our toes, as water lapping at our ankles, reflecting nothing.