July 19, 2019

The Enduring Appeal of Kate Bush

“Female pop geniuses who exercise their gifts in rampant, restless fashion over decades, writing, performing, and producing their own work, are as rare as black opals. Shape-shifting brilliance and an airy indifference to what’s expected of you are not the music industry’s favorite assets in any performer, but they are probably easier to accept in a man than in a woman. And such a musician, even today, is subject to the same pressures that have always hindered women’s artistic expression. Like the thwarted writers whom Virginia Woolf described in “A Room of One’s Own,” the female pop original is “strained and her vitality lowered by the need of opposing this, of disproving that”—by the refusal to please and accommodate that only a deep belief in one’s own gift can counteract. “What genius, what integrity it must have required in the face of all that criticism, in the midst of that purely patriarchal society,” Woolf writes, “to hold fast to the thing as they saw it without shrinking.”

Kate Bush, the English singer-songwriter, is one of those who have held fast without shrinking, so it is curious and instructive to see how certain cultural signifiers have been trotted out over the years to diminish her. Certainly, she’s had her share of respect and even adoration. Prince, Peter Gabriel, and Elton John collaborated on songs with her, and she has inspired younger talents; Tori Amos, Björk, Joanna Newsom, St. Vincent, Perfume Genius, and Mitski are all heirs. Every year, around the world, people get together by the hundreds to dance in public to Bush’s “Wuthering Heights”—a goofy but heartfelt tribute to her interpretive dance moves in the song’s glorious freak flag of a video. She’s got credit for her pioneering use of the Fairlight synthesizer, in the eighties, and the headset microphone onstage, for producing her own albums, and for evolving an ahead-of-its-time sound that combined heavy bass with the ethereal high notes, swoops, and screeches of her own remarkable voice. She is a dark-haired, dark-eyed beauty, and critics have always noticed that.

And yet—in part because she emerged into the public eye at just eighteen, and with “Wuthering Heights,” surely the most literary and therefore one of the strangest hit singles in history—Bush struck some people as a wide-eyed sprite to whom music somehow happened, not an artist fully in command of her own ideas and craft. The evidence against this reading, even then, included the fact that Bush had defied EMI record executives to pick “Wuthering Heights” as the lead single from her 1978 debut album, “The Kick Inside”; it went to No. 1, making Bush the first female performer with a self-written No. 1 hit in the U.K.”

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