A little while ago, I said that I would write an essay of at least 1000 words, on any topic, for the first person to ask for one after I passed 500 followers on Twitter. I reached that milestone (hey, to me it’s a milestone) and immediately two people asked me simultaneously. One of them asked me to write about Kate Bush. So here goes.
‘Running Up That Hill’ has been called the greatest pop song ever. Now, the rational part of my brain says “Clearly that’s rubbish, how can you quantify something like that?” Thing is… ‘Running Up That Hill’ clearly is the greatest pop song ever created. I mean, it just is.
There are a lot of cultural products which acquire a near universal reputation for greatness or importance owing to factors other than their intrinsic worth. If your memory of the product in question were wiped, along with your memory of your youth, and all your knowledge of the critical consensus, and the agreed narrative of public opinion, and when you read or saw or heard it for the first time… chances are that, with a lot of things widely held to be significant, you’d pass over them without especially noticing them.
I am worried by how many of the things I love and rate would, I suspect, fall into that category… though it’s actually silly to imagine that you can evaluate anything divorced from the circumstances – personal, social, historical – in which you encounter it. But we all like to imagine that we possess a certain degree of objectivity, and we perhaps tend to flatter ourselves. I mean, I love Season 18 of Doctor Who. I adore it. And I would want to make claims for its objective quality. But can it entirely be a coincidence that it happened to be the first Doctor Who I ever saw? I suspect the answer is complex. I’m sure part of why I rate it is owing to nostalgia, and a deep imprint it made on my young, developing brain. But would it have had that impact had it not possessed something else? Something objectively intriguing in its imagery, etc?
I truly believe, however, that in a situation like the amnesia scenario I outlined above, Hounds of Love would still make most people stop and go “wow”. Especially if listened to as part of a grand tour of the popular music of that year.
I think this because… well, it kind of happened to me.
I should go back a bit. I’m going to give a personal account because… really what is there fresh to say about Kate Bush? I confess to being a bit dispirited when she was named as my topic. Not because I don’t love her, and not because she’s not interesting, but because its mostly all been said. Also, music – much as I love it – isn’t something I’m tremendously confident pontificating about. But here goes.
I first heard Kate Bush consciously when I listened to Peter Gabriel’s album So, which featured ‘Don’t Give Up’, her duet with Gabriel. My parents (Genesis fans from way back) had bought it for me after I’d gone bonkers about ‘Sledgehammer’. I don’t, in retrospect, really know why ‘Sledgehammer’ appealed to me so much at the time. I was about 10, so it was probably the peculiar sinister jollity that Gabriel was playing around with at the time. Anyway, the album is permanently burned into my brain. I came for ‘Sledgehammer’, but it was ‘Red Rain’, ‘Don’t Give Up’ and – in particular – ‘Mercy St’ that came for me. It’s one of the few moments in my life that I can pinpoint as an axis of maturation (assuming I have in fact matured). The album is probably single-handedly responsible for my lifelong attraction to things that exist on the border between artsiness and commercialism. It’s esoteric, self-consciously performative, post-Prog with lyrics that tell odd stories to catchy tunes. It’s also directly responsible for my interest in Anne Sexton, which led on to Sylvia Plath, and thus on to… well, that’s a different essay. It was responsible for my short-lived interest in Prog Rock. (As it happens, my actual experiences with the haute genre left me eternally unmoved. As is so often the way, it’s the genre in degeneration or fracture or adaptation that interests me.) So is also directly responsible for my interest in Kate Bush. That voice. Oh my god that voice.
But here we get into difficulties… because Kate, especially early-Kate, is very Prog Rock. And, I think, very clearly and classically Prog Rock. And I, as a young prig and purist, went straight for the early stuff. The most Prog Rock stuff. (I must’ve been an insufferable pre-adolescent. No wonder I was bullied.) Of course, present-day Jack is able to see that Kate is head and shoulders above almost all her Prog influences in terms of style, sophistication and – crucially – emotional honesty. But, at the time, I was turned off by The Kick Inside and Lionheart, though I liked individual tracks. As albums, they were too much like the older Prog material with which I was already disillusioned. ‘Wuthering Heights’ and ‘The Man With the Child in His Eyes’ (and all the other obvious ones) were duly copied off onto homemade cassette tape compilations, and the albums as wholes were discarded.
Of course, there was something else about Kate Bush, something that meant there was little chance of me putting her aside totally. She was scary. She was witchy. She had staring eyes and a voice that sounded like a crazed she-elf smiling sweetly at you as she raises a kitchen knife over your heart as you lie in bed. And she was sexy.
I was 10, 11 years old, and I liked scary. And, even at that age, I also knew she was sexy. 11 year-old-me definitely dimly sensed sexuality looming somewhere on the horizon when Kate Bush was playing. The attraction was powerful precisely because it was mixed up with fear. Not to in any way denigrate Kate Bush’s own adult sexuality, but she (or, at least, the character she performs in videos, etc) could have been designed to tap into the nascent sexuality of young boys. All that fear mixed up with desire. The woman as desperately alluring but also terrifyingly unknowable and intimidating. The woman as a creature of alien appetites and moods. (You know, all those feelings boys lose when they get past early puberty and actually learn how to relate to women as fellow human beings… or turn into GamerGaters.)
I mean, look at ‘Wuthering Heights’ (a song I heard long before I read the novel, and thus found incomprehensible in its own terms). It’s aggressively female (and that’s fine… indeed, it’s part of what I love about it). The voice does things that – generally – only female voices can do. And the story being told is a woman’s story, the character being played is a woman (one of the most iconic women in fiction). Moreover, the song is a woman demanding to be heard from beyond the grave, demanding to be let in, demanding to be recognised, demanding to be remembered. It’s deeply gothic – the return of the repressed, as in the original novel – also also deeply female. The woman is the figure with the gothic agency. Hence the unnerving appropriateness of the witchy style Kate uses to express and comport herself.
Kate is definitely partly responsible for my adult interest in all things Gothic, to the point were I know describe myself as a Gothic Marxist. I’m grateful to her for being there to give young me an early sense that the gothic female wasn’t inherently and necessarily someone without agency, always acted upon and never acting; or with evil agency. You didn’t get that from Hammer and Universal, the other wellsprings of my love of the Gothic.
Some of Kate’s work is like a gateway drug for boys to get into gothic femininity. That’s not what it’s for, but it’s a useful by-product for which boys should be eternally gratefful. She breaks you through the fear barrier into the place beyond. And that’s a good place. Respect and admiration lie beyond. Respect and admiration for the Erinyes, the Harpies, the Moirai, the Sirens, the Banshees. Respect and admiration for Lilith and Medea. This isn’t meant to be unflattering. On the contrary. I think of all these entities and persons with the profoundest respect. Nor am I making direct comparisons. I’m not saying that Kate Bush’s music is especially tied up with themes of temptation or vengeance or ill omen, or killing children in fits of jealousy, or anything like that. What I’m saying, I suppose, is that the creatures I’ve listed are emblematic of how patriarchal societies depict and engage with female agency, especially combative and independent female agency. In more popular depictions, there are Gorgons – and I knew of two Gorgons in my childhood: the Hammer one and the one in Clash of the Titans (1981) – and the brides of Dracula, and witches. And there are those capricious – yet often wronged, scorned, and rightfully angry – Greek goddesses. Presumptuous as it is for me to say this, I detect the possibility of sorority between all these disavowed women. And the figure of the spectral Cathy, forever haunting Heathcliff, is part of the sisterhood. And Kate played Cathy in her arrival, her first iconic piece of self-revelation and theatre and disguise.
And the sexuality infusing that early announcement – romantic, scarily intense, clear-eyed, accusatory, fixated on the power of female emotions and desires – is developed in Hounds of Love in ways that are frankly mythic. To the point that, when I finally listened to it, I was seriously jolted and immediately enslaved by it… despite the fact that I’d rejected as much of Kate’s previous work as I’d adopted; despite the fact that I came to it with precious little understanding of its reputation; despite the fact that the album had been released in 1985 and I was finally getting around to listening to it just over a decade later, under circumstances far removed from the musical culture of its original appearance.
There’s a review of one of her 2014 shows on The Quietuswhere the writer claims that ‘Running Up That Hill’ is about a longed-for exchange of genders so that that the narrator of the song can experience having a penis, penetrating a woman (herself?) and thus also show her male partner that sex is pleasurable for her. This reading strikes me as
a) strangely like the comic misappropriation of ‘Wuthering Heights’ practiced by Alan Patridge (who turned “let me in your window” into a bawdy line),
b) irritatingly reminiscent of something a Tarantino character would say, and
c) impossible to dismiss.
I don’t think this is The Meaning of the song, but I do think it’s the key to a powerful reading.
She wants to “make a deal with God” to change her place with that of the man to whom the song is addressed. She wants this because she wants him to know “how it feels”, because she wants him to know that it doesn’t hurt her. At first, this might seem like a sentimental, even self-subjecting wish. A woman sacrifices herself for her lover. She is more concerned with his feelings about her than with herself. But that’s wrong. She wants him to understand her pleasure. She wants him to understand that it is the equal of his. Then things would proceed “with no problems”. She would not have his issues were she in his place. The male misunderstanding of the female body is called-out in no uncertain terms. They’re just not the terms of rejection. They’re the terms of desire. She wants him to get his act together and understand what she needs him to understand. Ultimately, she’s not actually wishing to be made into a man; she’s telling a man that she could do ‘being a man’ better than he could because she has been a woman. The reference to God acknowledges the presence of a notional male hierarchy and male authority, even as it implies that appeal to such power is useless in real terms. The song is filled with such levelling implications. She addresses him in terms traditionally reserved for use by the male towards the female in patriarchal relationships. She cajolingly calls him “angel” and “darling”.
The video reinforces this reading. Kate dances with a male partner. There is never any sense that he is leading or that she is following him. They fall against each other, and land on each other, in fluctuating positions which mirror each other carefully. They wear exactly the same billowing skirt-like clothes, in neutral grey. Crowds of similarly-dressed figures – male and female and indeterminate – appear, and sometimes they all wear a print of his face, sometimes of hers. Gender as a hierarchy, even as a binary, breaks down. It’s startlingly ahead of its time… which helps moderate the apparently exclusive heteronormativity implied by aspects of the song.
Aside from the fact that it sounds unlike any other pop song ever, and is ominously beautiful and catchy, it’s also a levelling call, a call for not just gender equality but actually the dismantling of any romantic or sexual hierarchies… and it couches this in terms of a forceful, even sarcastic, demand for empathy. It’s always Kate’s special subtlety to force-feed us bitter pills that are good for us in sweet packages that make us want more.
All that fear mixed up with desire. The woman as desperately alluring but also terrifyingly unknowable and intimidating. The woman as a creature of alien appetites and moods. All that adolescent boy stuff. Terribly understandable in the context of growing up a boy in the world we live in. Terribly sweet in some ways. So terribly potentially toxic. She punctures all that. Not by making concessions, but rather by being scarier, by upping the ante.
The title track of the album, ‘Hounds of Love’, invokes the legend of Actaeon. In the legend, Actaeon the hunter stumbles across Artemis bathing in the woods and stares at her naked body. In revenge, she turns him into a stag and he is hunted down and torn to pieces by his own hounds. Female power, revenge, metamorphosis. The divine – a goddess – which cannot be bargained with. Transformation into the target of one’s own actions, transformation from subject into object within a hierarchical relationship. Enforced empathy through transformation.
Images of hunting reappear throughout the album, as do images of water. Water in all its states: water, ice, steam (fog), etc. ‘Cloudbusting’ is explicitly about the transition of water from one state to another: steam to water. Water is the flowing element, the element that always speaks of transition and change. The album dramatizes a dialectic between the dry world of predation (i.e. the black FBI cars and “men in power” who come for Wilhelm Reich) and the gentle rain from heaven (i.e. every time it rains, the boy’s father is “here in my head”).
I won’t go through the album with a fine toothcomb because I’ve already made the points I wanted to make.
Aside from the strangeness of the album as a whole, its relentless demands on the listener, the detailed and wilfully eccentric soundscape that makes other music of the era (much of it great music too) look flat, there is also this forceful demand to be recognised running through it. Empathy is the organizing logic, but it isn’t one-sided or soppy. It’s weaponized empathy. Critical empathy. Empathy that demands to be returned on pain of being declared meaningless. Empathy that changes you, and forces itself upon you by changing you, transforming you.
Scary. And wonderful.