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On the joy and power of Kate Bush

The first time I heard a song by Kate Bush, I hated it. I was sitting in the car as my father drove me to school. Typically, he plays dad music while driving: The Beatles, The Police… the whole collection of white men. Until one morning when he put on “Wuthering Heights” by Kate Bush. I went into shock. Bush’s voice dipped and dived in waves. Piano rattled, the sound as cloying as a strong perfume. It soon became a running joke in my family that I hated Kate Bush. If you wanted to frustrate me, all you had to do was play that annoying lady. 

A few months pass, and I walk into the living room. My father’s eyes skim a newspaper. A folklorish song hums from his phone. The lyrics tell the story of a mother who loses her son during the Vietnam War: “What a waste / Army dreamers / Ooh, what a waste of / Army dreamers.” I listened in a state of intoxication; I felt drunk on the lyrics. I asked my father who the artist was. “Kate Bush,” he told me. Really? I could not believe it. For the next few weeks, I danced in my room to “Army Dreamers.” While the piece is sad, Bush’s spirited vocals brought excitement to my routine schooldays. I was officially a Kate convert. What once sounded like screeching transformed into gothic perfection. Kate cast a spell on me, and I was enchanted. Her work is not just music; it’s witchcraft. 

When the coronavirus began, my world shrunk to the size of my bedroom. I could not pay attention to my online classes. I felt stuck, and with newfound time, I began to explore Bush’s discography. Each song left me more in awe than the last. Bush rarely sings about herself, rather she explores the human condition through a cast of characters. This includes a jilted wife, a fetus during a nuclear fallout and a bank robber. The result is songs that are not confessional; but they do confess, in detail, the kaleidoscopic reality of Bush’s mind. The combination is music that is achingly honest and over-the-top all at once. Listening feels like entering a funhouse mirror. She distorts common emotions like sadness and happiness and reflects them back to us in new and novel ways. 

Bush grew up in a musical household. Her early talent allowed her to present her music to Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour. Bush’s unique voice and storytelling ability floored Gilmour. She soon got a record deal and released her debut single “Wuthering Heights” in 1978. The song is uniquely literary. She sings from the perspective of Cathy, the unhinged female lead of Emily Bronte’s iconic 1848 novel Wuthering Heights. Since punk reigned in the ’70s, Bush’s sparkly masterpiece refreshed audiences. It was a breakout hit.

Kate continued to release music with a clear-eyed, witchy vision. Bush’s fourth album “The Dreaming,” from 1982, shocked me more than “Wuthering Heights” ever had. “The Dreaming” was the first time Kate had complete creative control—no more wrangling with male executives to execute her vision. Her vocals thunder and scream. In one song, she impersonates a mule. The tracks are claustrophobic, uninviting and yet intensely creative. “The Dreaming,” similar to male rock, intrudes upon the listener. But, Kate intrudes with utterly feminine grace. In a world that belittles emotion, Kate Bush emotes with a thrilling, even transgressive, immoderation. As she says on “Leave It Open”: “We let the weirdness in.”

While “The Dreaming” is an undeniable example of Kate’s genius, her talent explodes in prismatic fireworks on her 1985 album “Hounds of Love.” While the sonic colors of “The Dreaming” are red, plum and jewel-toned, “Hounds of Love” is purple, pink and pastel. I am used to music about sensuality, but “Hounds of Love” is special. From the first racing note, Kate explores desire empathically without sacrificing complexity. It is her crowning glory, her magnum opus. 

Kate ascended such heights of creative perfection because of the album’s genesis. Bush built a studio in the British countryside to record the album. Fluttering birds, blossoms and family became her only company. The result is a tribute to euphoria. While pain can create powerful art, happiness can as well. Nothing displays this as well as the creative joy Kate Bush experienced while writing and producing “Hounds of Love.” 

Bush split the album into two suites. The first side has five pop songs, including, notably, “Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God).” On the track, Kate sings about wishing that men and women could swap places for greater understanding. The lyrics are achingly honest. The persistent synthesizer creates a thrilling musical atmosphere. The music video has stunning contemporary choreography, a new dance form at the time. The song was recently featured in the latest season of “Stranger Things,” bringing her vision to new fans and delighting old fans alike.

The second suite of “Hounds of Love” is entitled “The Ninth Wave.” The conceptual sequence details a vision quest. A woman lost at sea enters a series of dreams as she awaits rescue. The songs are experimental brilliance, fusing technological innovation with traditional British and Irish sounds and instrumentation. The disparate musical elements create not only a musical experience but a musical journey, more ebullient than “The Dreaming’s” fiery warbles. 

“Walking the Witch” is a particular favorite from the second suite. The song is electric; voices glitch and serenade in hope and fear. The lyrics chronicle a hallucinatory witch trial, fascinating for its feminist slant. As Kate said in an interview:

“I think it’s very interesting the whole concept of witch-hunting and the fear of women’s power. In a way, it’s very sexist behavior, and I feel that female intuition and instincts are very strong and are still put down.”

The last song on the album, “The Morning Fog,” sounds like relief. The woman has survived the near-death experience and returns to consciousness. Her vocals balance depth and lightness with poetic lyrics: “I am falling / Like a stone / Like a storm / Being born again / Into the sweet morning fog.”

“Hounds of Love” confirmed Kate’s status as a sonic visionary. If anyone had doubts, the album proved them wrong. Kate is an unparalleled musical genius not to discredit or mock.

Kate continued to release albums, including “The Sensual World” (1989), which showcases more suave artistry, and “The Red Shoes” (1993), memorable for its flawless lyrics. Kate collaborated with Prince on one song, who one called her “his favorite woman.” 

A more recent album is “Aerial” from 2005. My favorite track is “Bertie,” a song dedicated to Kate’s son. She sings: “Here comes the sunshine / Here comes the son of mine / Here comes the everything / Here’s a song and a song for him.” While hundreds of songs explore sexual love, “Bertie” is the only song I have ever heard exploring maternal love. Bush depicts the subject with so much reverence that I cried once while listening to the track.

Bush profoundly influenced the music industry. She invented the cordless headset, experimented with the cutting edge of technology and seamlessly blended folk and pop. Kate Bush did not just break the glass ceiling; she shattered the glass into confetti and then set it aflame. The result is one of the best and most successful musical geniuses of the 20th century. 

Virginia Woolf wrote of Emily Bronte’s novel, “Wuthering Heights”: “The impulse which urged her to create was not her own suffering or her own injuries. She looked out upon a world cleft into gigantic disorder and felt within her the power to unite it … [h]ers, then, is the rarest of all powers. She could free life from its dependence on facts; with a few touches indicate the spirit of a face so that it needs no body; by speaking of the moor make the wind blow and the thunder roar.” Make the thunder roar. That is what Kate Bush’s thunderous music does for the listener. She flows into your soul and fills you with beauty. As Kate sings in “Moments of Pleasure,” “Just being alive / It can really hurt / And these moments given / Are a gift from time.”

I feel overwhelmed with gratitude for the moments of pleasure Kate has given me. I cannot wait to spend many more years listening to her discography; she has been one of the transformative joys of my life. I am thrilled for the new fans who are discovering Kate Bush for the first time. As a longtime resident in Kate Bush’s world, it is a wonderful, wacky and continually fascinating place to be. While we assume many of our life’s special moments are big, small moments, like listening to a song, can be just as powerful.

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Here are two book recommendations on her work and career for all Kate nerds and aspiring Kate nerds:

“Under the Ivy: The Life & Music” of Kate Bush by Graeme Thomson

“Adventures in Kate Bush and Theory” by Deborah M. Withers



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