For a couple of months in 1990, I was completely obsessed with The Sensual World by Kate Bush. It didn’t last for too long before I moved on to be obsessed with The Pogues and the Pixies, and I’d completely forgotten about it until just recently. A few nights ago, YouTube recommended I re-watch Noel Fielding’s brilliant parody of Wuthering Heights, and I had a vague memory that oh yeah, I used to be kind of infatuated with her.
I was trying to remember my favorite song of hers based on a few half-remembered details — what’s that one Kate Bush video where she’s against a black background and flinging gold sparkles everywhere? — and a memory of the chorus but not the actual title Love and Anger. That meant stumbling around all her videos on YouTube trying to find the right one, and coming to a series of conclusions, in roughly this order:
- Watching these now is like suddenly remembering vivid details from a dream I had 20 years ago.
- Holy crap, Kate Bush is brilliant.
- Even if I’d tried, I don’t think I could’ve fully appreciated all this stuff in 1990.
- I’d forgotten how different the music industry was back before Napster and the ubiquitous internet.
- I never thought much about how important context is to appreciating a work of art.
- No really, she’s just the best.
Until I went to college in a city that prides itself on its music, I only listened to whatever was popular at the time. So when MTV started playing that video for Love and Anger and commenting on what a big deal Kate Bush was and how significant it was to be getting a new album, it was all lost on me. To me, she was just “that woman who sang on that Peter Gabriel song.” I had a vague memory of Running Up That Hill, but had just filed it away in the same folder as Bonnie Tyler and Total Eclipse of the Heart: a synthesizer-heavy pop song by someone who was apparently a lot more popular in the UK than in the US. I can’t remember if I was even aware of Wuthering Heights at the time; if so, I almost certainly dismissed it as someone screeching over overly-precious lyrics. Knowing myself at the time, I probably picked up The Sensual World mostly for the cover, thinking that she looked like Jane Wiedlin and sounded like Cyndi Lauper and was probably worth a listen.
The album is a lot more interesting and varied than the pop record I’d been expecting. Rocket’s Tail in particular is fascinating; I don’t believe I’ve heard it in 25 years, but it all came back suddenly as if it’s been looping constantly in the recesses of my brain. I also suddenly remembered why I didn’t become an obsessive fan back then, and it’s two of the most 1990s reasons imaginable.
One is just raw early 90s proto-hipsterism. I thought the song Deeper Understanding‘s story about a man who retreats from human contact into his computer was facile and paranoid, the same way there a lot of stories around the same time talked about virtual reality and rogue AIs but didn’t seem to understand how computers actually worked, and instead panicked about a super-advanced, cold cyber-world that looked like Second Life. I dismissed it as out-of-touch and irrelevant. (And of course, I’m saying that as someone who now wakes up every morning and immediately grabs his cell phone to check on Twitter and Facebook).
The other reason is that doing a “deep dive” on anyone’s work was, at the time, an investment. In 2015, I started digging around YouTube, Wikipedia, and Apple Music, and within a couple of hours had seen and heard 90% of Bush’s artistic output since 1978. It’s hard for me now to imagine a time without YouTube, much less a time before the web and even USENET, even though I was a computer-fixated nerd back when a 300 bps Vicmodem was a novelty. But essentially, in a time without hypertext, I didn’t have much chance to appreciate what I was listening to.
There’s a 2014 documentary from the BBC called The Kate Bush Story that’s a lot better than it would seem on the surface. It’s the typical VH1 format, where a bunch of celebrities gush about Bush’s work intercut with clips from her videos. It seems about as vapid as a Behind the Music or I Love the 80s show, right down to the sour note of ending with Steve Coogan making a pun about “bush.” And they have interviews with the usual suspects, where Elton John and Tori Amos and Neil Gaiman say that they’re huge fans of Kate Bush.
But of course they are, right? I’m not being entirely dismissive; I was an enormous fan of Amos and Gaiman (I wrote Gaiman a fan letter on the GEnie network! And he sent a personal response with a great story about seeing The Pogues in concert!). But even my vague awareness of Kate Bush as “British and feminine and lots of pianos and literary references and scarves and dancing” fits solidly and predictably into the same category as The Sandman and Little Earthquakes.
And speaking of USENET, I was aware even back during those days that there was a pretty substantial fandom around Bush’s music. But even there, it was named after a song that was relatively obscure in the US. So I thought of it in kind of the same way as Doctor Who pre-Russell Davies: super-popular in Britain and good for them! but completely inaccessible to me.
So to watch that documentary and see St. Vincent and Johnny Rotten and Big Boi and Tricky pop up to say how much her work influenced them, it didn’t just grab my attention, but put everything into a context I hadn’t considered before. And made observations that I wouldn’t have come up with on my own, but seem kind of obvious once they’ve been pointed out to me.
Ooh, it gets dark!
For instance, that Noel Fielding parody of Wuthering Heights. I’d seen it years ago, back when my obsession of the moment was The Mighty Boosh. At the time, I hadn’t appreciated that it was a parody of two versions of the video: the iconic one of her dancing in a field wearing a red dress, but also the studio version with its cartwheels and 70s video-trail effects.
I also hadn’t appreciated that it’s not a mocking parody but a reverential one. The joke isn’t about how weird or fey Bush’s performance is in that video, but that she’s the only person who could pull it off without looking silly. And for that matter, what a touchstone the performance was for her fans. (Proof that it’s not mocking but instead a love letter from a fan is that Bush included Fielding in her remake of the Deeper Understanding video that year).
It’s also about how iconic the imagery is, and how indelibly it’s associated with that song. In several of her early interviews, Bush says (paraphrased) that she studied dance, mime, stage production, and eventually, filmmaking, in order to make visual extensions of her songs. To someone raised on MTV and cynicism, that could sound pretentious or disingenuous — videos are promotional material used to sell music, and only inadvertently become artistic works. But then you remember that Bush was doing this before videos were a thing. And you remember how strong the imagery is: I’m about as close to the polar opposite of “waif-like” as a person can get, but I still find it difficult to keep from making the same gesture when I hear the lyric “let me into your window.”
And — even more embarrassingly for me — I hadn’t put any thought into what the song was about. As someone with the perpetual mindset of a teenage boy rolling his eyes at “girls’ stuff” like gothic romances, I hadn’t considered that it was the voice of a dead woman appearing at her lover’s window in the night, pleading to be let inside. So what I’d dismissed as just weird screeching was, of course, completely intentional. For a female songwriter and singer in 1978, The Man with the Child in his Eyes would’ve been a much more accessible debut song. And it would’ve been successful; it’s a beautiful and memorable song that, in my opinion at least, evokes Karen Carpenter’s considerable talent and holds its own. But she deliberately chose her first appearance to be literary and otherworldly.
This Woman’s Work
And she’s done that throughout everything that I’ve seen and heard. Her stuff is clearly influenced by whatever else is going on in music at the time, but there’s a sense that she won’t bother doing anything unless it’s something she finds interesting and unique.
When I first saw the video to Eat the Music from 1993, I thought I’d figured it out: ah, here’s where she went through her World Music phase just like Peter Gabriel and the Talking Heads and pretty much everyone else in the mid 80s through early 90s. But it’s gloriously sinister right from the start, with the lyric “Split me open with devotion, put your hand in and rip my heart out.” As the video goes on, it gets even weirder and more sinister, as the spinning becomes unstoppable, and the other dancer’s eyes roll into the back of his head, and it becomes so frenzied that everyone collapses. What I’d mistaken as a novelty song or a one-off becomes (obviously, in retrospect) a crucial part of a concept album about obsession and loss.
Rubberband Girl from the same album sounds a little like an early 90s Eurythmics song, and the warehouse in which its video was filmed is the same one that supplied the backing bands and ceiling fans for countless other 90s videos. But then there’s that choreography, which suggests that her seemingly effortless grace is actually the result of her being pulled, exhausted and against her will. And then it, too, descends into a kind of frenzy that belies the “bend without breaking” sentiment of the lyrics. She’s bound into a straightjacket and is compelled to wave her arms around, all filmed with the harsh light of a Twin Peaks murder scene.
Apparently, all the videos from The Red Shoes are from a long-form video that featured Miranda Richardson (she has a lot of videos that feature British comedic actors) and one of her early mentors, Lindsay Kemp, which explains the non-sequitur beginnings and endings. Hilariously, in 2005 interview she describes it “a load of bollocks,” while I’m here 10 years later trying to make sense of its bizarre transitions. Removed from that context, Moments of Pleasure is even more fascinating — starting with a whispered soliloquy and then showing nothing but her spinning and tumbling over a series of backdrops. It’s at least as beautiful and powerful a song as This Woman’s Work, but what’s most remarkable to me is how conversational, almost extemporaneous, the lyrics are. It seems like the natural impulse for a song about death and loss would be to make the lyrics flowery and poetic, but having something so prosaic against such a moving orchestration just makes it all the more real.
And speaking of This Woman’s Work, I suspect that the real reason I stopped listening to The Sensual World was that it was too exhausting. Even without the video, it’s hard to hear that song without feeling emotionally drained by the end. Even while cynical early 90s me dismissed as “maudlin” to disguise the fact it never fails to get a sob out of me.
Same with Love and Anger, which I still love but had thought was nothing more than a product of its time with a simple “we’re all in this together!” message. Paying even a little bit of attention to the lyrics shows it to be more sophisticated than that: I think it’s about passion and empathy, expressing even what we think of as negative emotions instead of being repressed and “waiting for a moment that will never happen.”
In an interview around the release of The Sensual World, she said that it was her first album that was written from a feminine perspective, since up until then, all her musical and artistic influences had been men. Which, I think, is selling herself short, since so much of her entire body of work is uniquely feminine. In that BBC documentary, Neil Gaiman calls out the maternal aspects of the songs Breathing and Army Dreamers. The song that Americans around my age were likely most familiar with — Running Up That Hill — is a call for empathy disguised as synth-heavy 80s pop with some terrific choreography. (With the fascinating, slightly sinister twist of making it sound selfish with “let me steal this moment from you now.”)
“It’s in the Trees! It’s Coming!”
And then there’s Hounds of Love, which is so good that it kind of makes me angry that attitudes like the one 1990s me had kept it from taking off in the US and so I didn’t get to see and hear it until 2015.
The story I keep reading is that Bush was savvy enough to build on her early success from her first two records, to the point that she was able to free herself from the record label and do everything on her own terms. By the time of Hounds of Love, she was not only writing, singing, and producing her own music, but had built her own studio and conceived of and directed the video to the title track. It’s driving and cinematic and enigmatic, and it’s fantastic in the way that I usually think of Terry Gilliam’s movies as being. (And apparently, she collaborated with Gilliam on the video for Cloudbusting on the same album). In yet another interview, she casually mentions drawing storyboards for the video as if it were no big deal.
One of the reasons I admire St Vincent so much is that she’s able to go all-in on the conceptual art side of her work, and then in “real life” is as personable and down-to-earth as it gets. (Unlike, say, Bjork, who’s brilliant but whom I’d never, ever want to meet in person).
Kate Bush comes across the same way, as a person who pours all her imagination and idiosyncrasies into her work. This results in fantastic things like Sat in Your Lap from The Dreaming, which seems to me as early 80s prog rock as early 80s prog rock gets. And then this wonderful appearance on a British children’s show, where she says she’s lucky because she got to wear roller skates in her video, and she lets a little girl in the audience wear one of the minotaur masks.
It probably goes without saying that Kate Bush is objectively, almost impossibly, beautiful. But even that aspect seems to be something she always treated as incidental — great insofar as it helps the music, but never something that should take away from the music. Experiment IV, for instance, is a sci-fi horror story where she lets a bunch of comedic actors (and her then-partner) take the focus while she takes a bit part as a harpy and a horrible monster.
Most amazing to me is Babooshka from 1980. As with Wuthering Heights, she treats dance as a crucial part of telling the story of the song. She appears both as the scorned wife and as a wild-eyed Valkyrie. The first thing that amazes me about this video is imagining the concept stage: when coming up with ideas of how this alter-ego character would look, evidently Bush saw this piece of art by Chris Achilleos and thought, “Hmm, I bet I could probably pull that off.” The second amazing thing is that she totally does pull it off. And there’s absolutely no hint of pandering and zero sign of the Male Gaze. It has the vibe of an artist completely in control of her work, her appearance, and her sexuality.
Also remarkable to a viewer first seeing it in 2015 is Bush’s interpretation of the song at the time. I doubt it was ever intended to be a “deep” song, but I would’ve taken it as an indictment of the husband for discarding his wife once she was no longer young and beautiful. Bush’s take on it was entirely from the woman’s perspective, though; the husband was mostly incidental but sympathetic. Bush describes the song as being about the wife’s self-doubt and paranoia bringing about her own downfall.
At the risk of reading too much into it, I think that’s a perfect metaphor for Bush’s career. There’s a recurring theme of empathy and love and human interaction throughout her work, but never a sense that she’s defined by anyone else. The songs are inescapably hers, and even when she’s playing a character, it’s a character that she created.
And the final thing I find fascinating about Babooshka is that it sounds so much like an ABBA song. On every album of hers that I’ve heard, the sound is all over the place, reminding me at times of ABBA, the Carpenters, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Peter Gabriel, Kirsty MacColl, the Eurythmics, Pink Floyd, Queen, and probably dozens more that I’d recognize if I had more expansive taste in music. (Not to mention artists like St Vincent and Tori Amos, who’ve declared outright that Bush was an influence on their own work). But even when you can place it in a specific time period, it never sounds derivative or pandering.
If she were pandering, there’d be no explanation for Delius, which is beautiful and memorable and undeniably, unabashedly weird. Or for that matter, the concept album second half of Hounds of Love, which has tracks that are just as melodic as anything from her singles, not to mention an Irish reel that would’ve made me a lifelong fan if I’d only heard it when I was in the middle of my obsession with the Pogues. But it’s not at all concerned with being commercial, and only exists as a purely personal expression.
Even when that expression isn’t high-minded or cerebral, and just putting on costumes and goofing off with a bunch of friends and collaborators.
Stepping Out of the Page
So in other words: yes I said yes, I finally get it now. And what’s more, I wouldn’t have been able to get it in 1990. If for no other reason than I didn’t have Neil Gaiman to explain to me that the title track of The Sensual World was inspired by and referenced Molly Bloom’s soliloquy at the end of Ulysses, and I didn’t have easy access to Ulysses to get the significance of that.
And even if I had, I would’ve thought that the significance of that soliloquy is just a woman’s anachronistically frank and vulgar discussion of her own sexuality. I would have — and did — come to the vapid, simple-minded conclusion that it’s just about being “sex-positive.” But the whole significance is much more than that; it’s how the stream of consciousness is an unpunctuated torrent of the entirety of her experience: vaginas and religion and landladies and chocolates and paintings and gossip and cigarettes and cleaning semen out of sheets and castles and geraniums and breasts and flowers of the mountain. And how she says yes to all of it.
And I wouldn’t have had instant access to decades of a body of work, and all the articles and documentaries and interviews that interpret it and put it in context. So I couldn’t have fully appreciated how that soliloquy would be significant to someone who’d spent years pouring all of her work and energy into sharing her experience without much thought over whether it was commercial or even accessible but just that it was genuine and uniquely hers.
For almost every one of Kate Bush’s videos, I can instantly tell roughly when it was made, whether she was responding to the “look” of the decade or whether she was helping define it. This is mid-to-late 70s, that’s clearly mid-80s, that’s absolutely a product of the early 90s. The exception is The Sensual World, which is timeless. It could’ve been made last year, or it could’ve been dropped to Earth as a response to the Voyager disc.
I’d said that seeing it again recently was like vividly remembering images from a dream, and that’s still the case. But now that I’ve caught up with the people who’ve been lifelong fans of Kate Bush, the images are even more powerful. In that documentary, St Vincent describes Hounds of Love, Stefon-like, as “that thing where it burns like wildfire and then comes alive,” and Viv Albertine describes it like repressed sexuality, as if “the whole song’s on a leash, but you know it’s gonna escape and burst and run free.”
For me, it’s that tremendous moment of release in The Sensual World where she removes her headdress and is dancing barefoot in front of a field of flames. And seeing her confidently and effortlessly dance backwards down a moonlit path in a velvet dress is the most beautiful thing.