This piece was inspired by an episode of The Cooler, KQED’s weekly pop culture podcast. Give it a listen!
I love Kate Bush. So much so that I’ve had to consciously make a point of bringing her up less often in conversation. I was turning into a drinking game parody of myself. (Take a swig every time I squawk about how I want to learn the dance from the “Wuthering Heights” music video or how it’s a crime that Kate isn’t as well known as Bowie or how my friend and I filmed a Kate Bush homage in a Virginian forest one winter or how Kate did the impossible in making me think mimes are cool, etc. etc.) In my years of randomly bringing her up out of nowhere, I’ve come to learn that an alarming rate of people have no idea who she is, let alone what her music sounds like. “Is she related to George W.?” No. No, she is not.
Dear non-believers, I present you with a required crash course in the magic of Kate Bush. Your earbuds and eyeballs can PayPal me later.
Let’s start at the very beginning (a very good place to start):
Kate didn’t waste any time being an ordinary, runny-nosed kid. She preferred the prodigy route, teaching herself how to play piano at the age of 11. She also studied violin and would play the organ in her parents’ barn. Because all that musical talent wasn’t enough, she also studied karate and earned the nickname EE-ee (a nod to the squeaky sound she made while chopping and kicking).
By the age of 15, Kate was better at networking than you are. She made a demo of 50 songs and used a family connection to get it in the hands of Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour, which eventually led to a record deal with EMI.
The label told her they weren’t quite ready to launch her career yet, but gave her an advance for the meantime. Instead of blowing it on drugs or cars or lap dances or whatever, she used the money to study interpretive dancing and train as a mime.
If all her perfectly bizarre-o music videos are any indication, it was money well spent. From her very first release (1978’s “Wuthering Heights”), interpretive dance is in full effect and dramatics are dialed up to the max, inspiring fans to assemble en masse and recreate the movements and visuals, almost 40 years later.
Brilliant visuals aside, the song itself, which she wrote as a teen, expertly bottles up all the Gothic romance of Emily Bronte’s source material and expands on it. “Wuthering Heights” skyrocketed to #1 on the British charts and stayed there for a month, making history in the process; Kate became the first female artist to have a self-written number one hit in the UK. And the song’s impact endures: “Wuthering Heights” ranked #32 on Q Magazine‘s Top 100 Singles of All Time reader survey. OF ALL TIME!
Like with “Wuthering Heights”, Kate doesn’t write about her own life that much, but instead prefers to inhabit a character and act as a conduit for that person’s story. A few examples:
“Breathing” is told from the perspective of a fetus whose mother is in the midst of a nuclear fallout.
“The Infant Kiss” is about a governess who realizes she might have the hots for one of the kids in her care. Don’t worry; he’s haunted by a sexy older ghost!
“The Dreaming” is about the abuse experienced by the Aborigine in Australia.
And “Heads We’re Dancing” is about spending all night dancing with a hot dude…who turns out to be Hitler!
Other songs deal with James Joyce, The Shining, Vietnam, Tennyson, Joan of Arc and the psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich’s rain-making machine. Basically, Kate will educate you more thoroughly than your high school did. Have you ever wanted to learn 117 decimal points of pi? You’re in luck!
And the content and songwriting aren’t the only impressive things about her music. Her vocal range is ridiculous in its vastness:
The point of the above video is to point out how laudable Kate’s vocal ability is…but also to point out that you should never ever attempt to sing one of her songs at karaoke. I know it might seem like a fun idea, but just don’t. Trust me; I’ve been there and am still reeling from the shame and failure.
By now, you’re getting an idea of how original and groundbreaking Kate’s music is. Her albums have inspired many artists who’ve come in her wake, such as Bjork, Tori Amos and Bat for Lashes. But she also has influenced a few musicians that might surprise you, like Tupac, Courtney Love, Prince and Johnny Rotten. Tricky from Massive Attack has said: “I don’t believe in god, but if I did, [Kate Bush’s] music would be my Bible.”
But the prize for biggest celebrity fan goes to Outkast’s Big Boi, who has gone on record in multiple interviews about his love for Kate’s music, a love that goes all the way back to his middle school days. In a 2004 Guardian profile, Big Boi was in the middle of saying “Kate Bush is my favorite artist of all time,” when he was interrupted by his “Babooshka” ringtone. In July 2010, Big Boi told British GQ about his efforts to track Kate down: “I’ve been trying for some years now. She’s like a kinda recluse. She lives somewhere in a castle around here and plays some sort of oversized piano like the Phantom of the Opera! You can hear music come out the windows! I’m looking for her, know what I’m saying? I’ve come over here to camp out for a month just to find her.”
Big Boi’s recent praise for Kate Bush’s new album 50 Words for Snow has been making the rounds lately, and with good reason. “The album, to me, is just very somber and very chill,” the OutKast MC memorably told Rolling Stone. “Knowing her music and being a fan, it’s very, very deep Kate Bush for me.
Big Boi apparently spread the Kate Bush love to his band mate Andre 3000, who had this to say: “Kate Bush’s music opened my mind up. She was so bugged-out, man, but I felt her. She’s so f*ckin’ dope, so underrated and so off the radar.”
If it’s good enough for Outkast, it’s good enough for you.
It was also good enough for Mystikal of “Shake Ya Ass” fame, who samples Kate’s “Full House” in “Ain’t Gonna See Tomorrow”:
And Maxwell, who covered “This Woman’s Work”:
Until recently, she had only done one tour in 1979 called The Tour of Life. There were 17 costume changes, a magician, interpretive dancing and the like. And then she stopped touring completely, as if to say, I don’t need your validation. I will release life-changing music on my own schedule whenever I want and you will flake on your friends to stay home and cry to it.
35 years after her one and only tour, she returned to the stage for a 22 night residency in London. All dates sold out in under 15 minutes. To many fans’ surprise, she didn’t play anything from her first four albums. Her real talk explanation: “I can’t possibly think of old songs of mine because they’re past now. And quite honestly I don’t like them any more.”
But fans have grown accustomed to being patient with Kate’s slow, considered pace. You think waiting for the Frank Ocean album is hard? Try waiting 12 years between 1993’s The Red Shoes and 2005’s Aerial. A writer by the name of John Mendelssohn was inspired by this Kate-less expanse of time and wrote a novel called Waiting for Kate Bush, which is about a bunch of obsessed fans hanging out in a boarding house, waiting for her return.
Silver lining for you non-believers: Because you’ve been sleeping on all this brilliance, you get to skip the agony of staring dramatically out of windows for years, longing for another Kate Bush release. You instantly get to enjoy 10 whole albums without delay! So what are you waiting for?!
In case you don’t know where to start, here are a few suggestions:
For even more Kate Bush thoughts and feelings, get a load of this episode of The Cooler: