How Kate Bush became the constant soundtrack of my life

Welcome to Formative Jukebox, a column exploring the personal relationships people have with music. Every week, a writer will tackle a song, album, show, or musical artist and their influence on our lives. Tune in every week for a brand new essay.

Back in 1983, my parents were undergraduates at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. They were artistic Gen-Xers who lived in an apartment filled with roommates, when my mom found out she was pregnant with me. Young, idealistic, happy, and in love, they were thrilled, and started whipping themselves into shape for my arrival.

This included selling off their collection of over 500 LPs for maternity clothes. With the leftover cash, they bought three albums by three artists — The Talking Heads, Sly and the Family Stone, and Kate Bush. My in utero music was the start of everything for me, my pops drumming on my mom’s stomach to illustrate the beat. I came out and was immediately a listener, snapping my head around the delivery room at the voices I already recognized.

And so, I began my life with Kate Bush. When I was a toddler, I would get her mixed up with my mom because of their dark hair, petite statures, and pretty faces. When my dad and I would do our Saturday afternoon record shopping tradition, I would point to the Kate Bush posters, “Look, there’s mommy!” I spent much of my childhood dancing around the living room like Bush, or scandalizing my babysitter by rolling around the floor like Madonna.

Growing up with my parents, art and music filled our house, from Public Enemy and De La Soul to Grace Jones and Wally Badarou to Joan Armatrading and Public Image Ltd. I had some inkling of how hip their tastes were, but it really became clear to me as a teenager, when my peers started to discover the music that had always been playing in our household. You’d think this would have been nothing but awesome for me, but it could also be strange.

A lot of adolescents begin to form their identities and differentiate themselves by developing oppositional tastes in music, movies, and clothes from their parents. For me that would have meant going totally pop, and yes, I did have a “Whitney Houston, New Kids on the Block, Mariah Carey, Enya”-phase in elementary school, but I couldn’t ever steel myself to Hanson or the Spice Girls. Instead I formed a much more personal relationship to the music I might have heard first from my parents. It became my music.

As a sensitive, intense, poetic, introspective, “no one understands me” teenager, I started to envelop myself in music by powerful women, whom I saw my future self being like, or at least being friends with. This meant that I listened to a ton of Björk, PJ Harvey, Tori Amos, Poe (remember her?), and later on, Sleater-Kinney. I also had an affinity for anything I perceived as odd or new. Or, something I could discover before my dad, though I’d find out later that he’d probably gotten there first anyway, like with my love of Aphex Twin and everything the Warp label ever produced. However, I always looked at my musical competitiveness as a good thing, because it made me think about why I like what I like and has most definitely led me to write about music now.

While I was discovering these new female songwriters, it led me back to Kate Bush—the first one I had known and loved, and her music opened up for me in a new way. I would watch the VHS of music videos for The Whole Story, and each viewing would bring me a greater understanding of both her as an artist and what it meant to be an artist, period. At first I gravitated to her early romantic works, probably most fitting for where I was developmentally — the doomed love of “Wuthering Heights”; the ingénue-like tone of her voice in “Man with the Child in His Eyes”; or later, the frantic “Hounds of Love.” How I obsessed over the imagery of running through the forest with, or away from (I couldn’t tell), a mysterious love, and I adored the lines about the fox — “his little heart / it beat so fast / and I was ashamed of running away.”

As my socio-political conscience grew, I was drawn to songs like “Army Dreamers,” “Cloudbusting,” “Experiment IX,” and “The Dreaming.” Bush could be everything — an activist, a dancer, an actress, a poet, a monster, an appropriater, a clown. She leapt from Celtic folk to ballads to electro pop to rhythmic drumming like it was nothing. She constantly redefined herself and shirked off any definition prescribed to her.

To me, at that time, the two most important songs of hers were “Running Up That Hill” and “Suspended in Gaffa.” I was an anxious kid, and I would keep myself up late at night, worried sick and sobbing, thinking of death. What if I go to sleep and don’t wake up?, I would think. I can still remember that, the paralyzing panic of wishing I could stop thinking and just go to sleep. But instead I leaned into it and tried to work out my feelings about death and God.

To be honest, I’m still working it out, but I found solace from these worries in art, and when the insomnia takes hold, the music goes on. The lines from “Running Up That Hill” hinted to me that Kate Bush had these thoughts and worries too: “If I only could / I’d make a deal with God / And I’d get him to swap places / I’d be running up that road / I’d be running up that hill / With no problem.” My worldview began to broaden, and I started to realize that I was not alone in the fear of mortality, and that music and art were good, perhaps the greatest, distractions on the journey from cradle to grave.

For “Suspended in Gaffa,” the connection was less clear. The song starts as a light-hearted jig. In the video, Bush dances around a sunlit barn in a bandaged jumpsuit, and it’s almost silly. Then the bottom drops out of the song and the video, as Bush floats in space, before rising into a powerfully-sung, deep chorus: “Suddenly my feet are feet of mud / It all goes slow-mo / I don’t know why I’m crying / Am I suspended in gaffa? / Until I’m ready for you / Until I’m ready for you / I can’t have it all.”

I wanted the chorus to last forever because it sounded like it was building to something miraculous. There was something hopeful in the melody, but fragile and fleeting, and too fast. The song would be over. I would burst into tears listening to that song, because it felt like I was grasping pure, embarrassingly earnest beauty, only to have it slip through my fingers. Years later, I learned that the song was about having an experience that allowed for a glimpse of God, before losing it as one gains consciousness of what is happening. Somehow I had felt that meaning without realizing it.

If you grew up in the UK, Kate Bush was as known as Madonna. In the US, her name recognition has steadily grown throughout my lifetime. It makes me smile when I see fliers for Kate Bush dance parties or Kate Bush tribute shows around my city. My boyfriend has come home to find me doing my own singalongs to her discography, usually over a bottle of wine. But for me, her music isn’t purely positive nostalgia.

After thirty years, the relationship of my parents, once two music-loving twenty-somethings, came to a less than idyllic end. Their break-up has me grasping for what is still constant and stable, and it’s funny how the values that exist in my currently fractured family are reflected in the music of Kate Bush. I find the value of intersectional feminism my parents instilled in me in Bush’s influence on countless subsequent female musicians, but also on black male artists like Maxwell and Big Boi from Outkast, with whom she is rumored to be collaborating.

The artists I currently love — FKA Twigs, Grimes, Janelle Monae, Kendrick Lamar, to mention only a few — seem to me to have a similar strain of experimentation in using dance, theatrics, cinema, persona, and storytelling as Bush, as well as the instinct that risk in art is important enough to occasionally flirt with failure. This is another value I find in Bush’s art that carries over to life, and that originated for me with my parents.

What interests me now is the depth and breadth of her musical ability, how she could pen a nearly perfect ballad like “This Woman’s Work” in addition to the experimental, almost proggy and often instrumental compositions on Side B of Hounds of Love. As an adult, I’ve gotten more interested in music production, and I am curious to explore her work as a composer and a musical innovator. On her album The Dreaming, she was an early user of the Fairlight CMI synthesizer (Matthew Lindsay’s article of the making of The Dreaming over at The Quietus is excellent and highly recommended), and I ponder how the tools she used allowed her to move from the pop singer she started out as to the songwriter she became.

The music of Kate Bush has taken on a new importance for me with my parents’ divorce and my own personal growth that I carry to what I’m building with my boyfriend and his son. It isn’t as important to me to claim music as my own these days because, through the music we shared, I have a concrete connection to what my family once was, and what it could become.

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(Images courtesy of the author and EMI.)