When the libertine poet Arthur Rimbaud wrote what is known as the Seer Letters to Paul Demeny in 1871, he insisted “Je est un Autre” (“I am an Other”). Rimbaud could only have dreamed of the visionary art-pop of Kate Bush mastering that phrase’s highest expression: writing songs from another’s perspective.
The persona poem is a poetic literary device — writing in the first-person “I” in character. Persona is Latin for “false face” or “mask”, and its tradition stems from commedia dell’arte. Bush studied mime and dance with Lindsey Kemp, David Bowie’s choreographer. With Bush’s penchant for the theatrical, it isn’t any wonder that playing with point of view would be her strong suit.
Flesh out her songwriting with video, dance, rich shrills and trills, sonic experiments like eager drum machines and traipsing synths — especially the Fairlight CMI — and everything she touches is beguiling. Bush often heightens this artistry with the source material, whether it be popular television, Charlotte Brontë, James Joyce, Peter Reich, or George Gurdjieff. Bush is an inter-literary goddess and, unsurprisingly, is now exalted by Stranger Things, a Netflix series full of allusion.
Stranger Things is fueling the great Kate Bush renaissance we are in, skyrocketing 1985’s “Running Up that Hill” to number one charts in Europe, the UK, Germany, Australia, and the US. The phenomenon has garnered three Guinness World Records, all for the UK’s official top singles charts: enduring the longest period for a song to reach No.1, being the oldest female to reach a No. 1 status, and for the track existing in the longest gap between No. 1 spots.
What is the subtle power sparking that firebrand of a song? It’s a literary one: Bush is a princess of personae poems and queen of erasure — the erasure of the self. Even her musical influences are the blackbird and thrush; her label Fish People is an obvious nod to our morphing origins. Composer, producer, and choreographer, Bush’s interdisciplinary efforts only add to her advocacy of self-dissolution. Bush insists that her art does the talking, that it can demand she step out of her ego and into otherness.
“Running Up That Hill” revs on that exact mojo as the song asks us to be in another’s shoes. “Do you want to know how it feels?” are the lyric’s crux, requesting that God give us this ability to switch with another gender. The song promotes empathy — and creates it — as listeners ride waves of escalating vocals and merging rhythms. Released in 1985 in advance of Hounds of Love, “Running Up That Hill” showcases Bush’s production abilities, having newly established her home studio. Musically, it features the Fairlight, Alan Murphy on added guitar parts, drums programmed by Del Palmer, and her brother Paddy Bush playing the balalaika, a three-stringed Russian mandolin-like instrument. Cinematically, the video features a duet in dance form—and then the leads multiply themselves in masks.
“Running Up That Hill” resonates with Gen- Z’s ethos by questioning the binaries of our programmed genders. Originally the song was titled “A Deal with God”, but Bush acquiesced to that becoming an afterthought. On a recent podcast, Bush stated that she still considers “A Deal with God” the song’s real title. Perhaps this is because she possesses that god-like ability to see almost omnipotently. Indeed, Bush’s poetic power behind her genre-defying performance art is the point of view. The following songs also feature her personified “I” speaking in monologue-verse.
“Houdini” is track nine on Bush’s most experimental art rock album, 1982’s The Dreaming, and was written from the point of view of the magician’s wife, Bess. Even though Houdini spent the end of his life vehemently exposing spiritualists, the couple arranged to attempt to contact each other post-mortem. After Houdini’s death by burst appendix in 1926, Bess held a seance every Halloween for decades. Bush manages to express Bess’ skepticism at a charlatan in lyrics, and in her vocals, Bush uses guttural twists to emphasize Bess’ frustration. The song opens up with “I wait at the table / And hold hands with weeping strangers / Wait for you to join the group,” and we are brought into the seance. String interludes create some flirting with the afterworld … but to no avail.
“Cloudbusting” is the second single from her fifth album, 1985’s Hounds of Love. Its seven minutes of pumping orchestral organ and soothing strings from the Medici Sextet retells Wilhelm Reich’s life, an “orgone energy” touter arrested for his theories. Bush discovered Reich’s son Peter’s A Book of Dreams, which she had found “calling me from the shelf, and when I read it, I was very moved by the magic of it. It’s about a special relationship between a young son and his father.”
So Bush wrote “Cloudbusting” from the son’s point of view, and in the music video, she plays Peter trying to help his father activate his cloudbusting machine. It exemplifies Bush’s mastery of the relatively new video format. Directed by Julian Doyle, the flash film was created by Kate and Terry Gilliam with Donald Sutherland as Wilhelm Reich. While the song was used in the 11th episode of Bruce Miller’s The Handmaid’s Tale Season 3, it did not catapult Bush back into pop culture.
In “Breathing”, the lead single from 1986’s Never for Ever, the voice is radical—we meet a fetus aware there is nuclear fallout outside the womb: “After the blast / Chips of Plutonium / Are twinkling in every lung.” This “I” is wise; it even senses nicotine infiltrating from the mother’s smoking, and this “I” is necessary as Kate was brimming after seeing a documentary on nuclear war. “Out” and “in” are repeated in the chorus, adding breath and connectedness of the speaker to the mother. Bush described the song as her “little symphony,” yet it was only performed live once on solo piano.
Wuthering Heights debuted in 1987 when Bush was just 19 years old, reaching No. #1 in the UK charts. Based on Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, Bush fulfilled its legacy with a celeste, bass, organ, guitars, percussion, and rock opera flare. It is sung from (the other) Catherine’s point of view as Cathy: a ghost petitioning her lost but alive love Heathcliff to let her in through the window. “Ooh, it gets dark, it gets lonely … On the other side from you / I pine a lot, I find the lot/ Falls through without you.” The refrain’s “Wuthering” echos “withering”—and listeners also fade to spectral form. In the video, Bush’s dance in her red dress is ethereal but iconic, inspiring fans worldwide to don red and reenact the performance via flash mobs.
“The Sensual World” is the titular song of Bush’s 1989 The Sensual World, using James Joyce’s Ulysses to re-imagine Molly Bloom’s perspective as she steps out of the book. Emerging from two-dimensional black and white pages into fully embodied sensuality, the speaker is afloat in music that includes the fiddle, pipes, whistles, and whips. Immersive as always, Bush’s character champions female energy as they inhale, touch, feel the rain, and dance. Humming with a “Yes” never sounded so life-affirming. Bush pushes us into what the Transcendentalists emphasized: once fully in the senses, one transcends.
“This Woman’s Work” is also from The Sensual World. Written for John Hughes’ 1988 film, She’s Having a Baby, this gorgeous articulation is expressed by a male partner whose wife is in a childbirth crisis. It relies on Bush’s piano work to coat us in safety, as the words “work” and “world” expertly refract each other in slant rhyme. Listeners are invited to realize the all-encompassing fact that women’s “work” makes the “world.” We need more of this from Bush. Her empathy is magic.
So threatening a force is Kate Bush for encouraging merging, invisibility, and moving away from hyper-personality in her art that talking heads wrongly tried to label her as a mentally unstable recluse. In our time of self-possessed with self-involvement, novelty, and navel/screen-gazing, it’s a blessing this artistry can top the charts.