Wuthering Heights

I’ve been admiring Christine Kelley’s Dreams of Orgonon since before either of them were called that. It’s smart, insightful music criticism that lived up to its obvious debt to Chris O’Leary’s Pushing Ahead of the Dame and was no small influence on my own decision to make a song by song Tori Amos blog my next project. So when I needed someone to fill in for a few months while Jack wrote his book, asking her to crosspost her work to our site was the obvious choice. And when it became evident that her first post for us would be Kate Bush’s first big hit, well, that just seemed like destiny. It’s my absolute pleasure to give Christine a bit of a boost and to have her on the site. If you want to read the story thus far, her blog archives are over here. But for now, welcome to the site, let’s get on with it. -El

A misty morning

Begin with an instrumental call-and-response in the form of a spine-tingling arpeggio which is met by the same figure repeated an octave higher. Eight seconds in come the vocals, which sound as though a bog witch has put on a frilly dress and gone out to cruise for men. Eventually the song ushers in the chorus, with its soaring invocations of the romantic lead of the sort of 19th century novel for which Cliffs Notes were invented. Let’s begin, then, with the obvious question that would have been on the minds of anyone listening to the #1 single on March 11, 1978: what the fuck are we listening to?

To answer that question, it’s useful to look at what “Wuthering Heights” isn’t. The basic set-up of an unknown 19-year-old artist’s debut single based on a classic novel hitting #1 screams “novelty song.” (David Bowie, of course, became known with a novelty single influenced by sci-fi literature and cinema.) Yet “Wuthering Heights” lacks a key ingredient of the novelty format: calculated cynicism that preys on its audience’s liability to fall for a shtick. Bush lacks this predatory instinct. She’s fluent in populist language, but for her pleasing the market is a subordinate priority to using its tropes in the order of making new kings of music.

Tom Ewing has identified the particular strain of populism in “Wuthering Heights”: “[it’s] a power ballad… it also has an absolutely steely conviction in its own seriousness and worth; it stares down even the merest notion that it might be ridiculous.” One suspects this sort of familiarity helped land “Wuthering Heights” on the charts. For all that Bush aims at and successfully hits on “music people haven’t heard before,” there’s an intelligence and understanding of pop language to “Wuthering Heights” that keeps it anchored in the sensibilities of 1978.

I Wish I Were a Girl Again

A frequently remarked-upon aspect of this insight is Bush’s age. She recorded and released this song at 19. The Beatles were singing “Love Me Do” at that age.…

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