From “Stranger Things” to TikTok: Kate Bush speaks to lonely children. Here’s why


 From "Stranger Things" to TikTok: Kate Bush speaks to lonely children.  Here's why

As a fan of Kate Bush, I’ve learned to be thankful for crumbs. Loving the work of a musician who doesn’t actually tour will do that to you. There was a rumor going around that Bush was going to perform at the London 2012 Olympics and I stayed up late watching the closing ceremony and waiting. A recorded remix of their song “Running Up That Hill (Deal with God)” was used in the performance. But that’s it.

When “Running Up That Hill” appeared in the new season of Stranger Things streaming on Netflix, I was surprised. If we’d only heard the song through Max’s headphones as the character hustles through the high school hallways, if the music had been used just once as an indicator of her emotional turmoil, that would have been fine.

But that is Not it, not the only scene. From Stranger Things to TikTok, Bush is back. And she’s here (again) for a whole new generation of listeners, younger than ever, like my own aspiring middle school student. Why is Kate Bush speaking to us now? And what is it about her and her music, which acts as a gateway to more and more different art?

RELATED: “The enduring resonance of Kate Bush’s ‘Running Up That Hill’ 35 years later”

I was a tween who couldn’t drive. I’d been dropped off at the mall, inevitably by a friend’s old brother, and made my way to the record store, where Kate Bush’s new CD and ruby-toed shoe cover seemed to be vibrant with color and light. I started with Bush’s 1993 publication The Red Shoes and worked backwards through their catalogue. In college my friend Stephen and I ran through the rugby fields covered in morning fog shouting “Heathcliff!” from her debut single “Wuthering Heights”, which was released when she was just 19 years old.

Bush was “discovered” even younger when a cassette demo she made of over 50 songs, rejected by several record labels, found its way into the hands of Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour. She had taught herself to play the piano by the age of 11 and played the organ in her family’s barn. She was eventually signed to EMI, and like many major artists, her work was initially misunderstood and underappreciated by those in power at the label and beyond.

The song is used over and over again to bring Max back, back to safety, back to himself.

But their first album The Kick Inside sold 1 million copies in the UK. Bush was the first woman to have a number one song in the UK with a song she had written herself. Her brother played on this album. She had already written some of the songs by the age of 13.

Maybe that’s partly what draws children to Bush’s music now. As a teenager, that was certainly part of the attraction for me. This girl did it. Maybe I could too? So much of childhood has no power. You can’t drive, you can’t choose. Your voice will not be heard. Your life experiences – and even your worth – are often not believed. Bush gave voice to this youthful longing, these great and valid feelings.

It makes sense that Stranger Things season 4 would use “Running Up That Hill” not only as an emotional reference to Max’s feelings, but also in another huge, pivotal scene where the girl narrowly escapes danger escapes.

It’s used over and over again to bring trauma survivor Max (Sadie Sink) back, back to safety, back to herself; to save them from the tentacles of the Upside Down, which we now know also captures the past. Dramatic, desperately sad, and catchy, the 1985 song from Bush’s Hounds of Love album craves a lover’s empathy — which won’t come — so badly that the singer is willing to switch places for one to make dealings with a divine power. It is the embodiment of powerlessness and hope in the face of hopelessness.

Like the “Stranger Things” kids and their love of fantasy and games, many of their early songs were heavily influenced not by life but by life read.

In “Stranger Things” the song accompanies the futility of trying to change the past and escape the trauma, the despair of childhood and adolescence (perhaps especially for a girl). Something terrible happened to Max’s stepbrother and she can hardly tell anyone the truth. The song is distinctive with a melodic chorus like all Bush songs – but with its own unique arrangement of spooky keyboards and pounding drums.

It’s no wonder the song made its way to TikTok, where the opening riffs alone are well known enough to surface the song video after video; that it reached #1 on iTunes (a format that didn’t exist when it was written, of course).

Listening to the song now, it feels both ancient and future, like something that has never happened before and keeps happening too. It’s haunting. And Max is being followed.

Sadie Sink as Max Mayfield and Caleb McLaughlin as Lucas Sinclair in Stranger Things (Tina Rowden/Netflix)Max is different too. Her life is arguably among the toughest of the Hawkins children, especially given the speed with which it changes. Her mother suddenly remarries with Billy’s father. Billy is terrible towards her and many others. But he sacrifices himself for her and her friends (no one can know). After his death, her stepfather leaves, and Max and her mother—doing their best but barely keeping their heads above water and drinking—move into a trailer, where a murder occurs across the street.

All Stranger Things leads are weirdos. Some, like Nancy Wheeler, fall out of favor or, in her case, into popularity. But Max never fit. She was always on the edge. And in Season 4, lonely and alone, she almost falls into the abyss.

For me, Kate Bush, like El, smashing her way through walls, opened the door to an upside down of sorts: to another world.

Though Bush rocketed up the charts in the ’80s, he stayed under the radar for several later generations. I’ve never heard “Running Up That Hill” on the radio, not like 80’s hits in rotation like Blondie’s “Call Me” and Ah-ha’s “Take On Me”. Bush was a dancer and mime artist, and many of her videos show her in a leotard performing interpretive dance, the queen of the mad, who never compromised and, like a truly visionary artist, was constantly experimenting, even if not everyone always saw the fruits of her labor.

She largely stopped touring in 1979, then at the age of 55 she made a surprise appearance at shows in London. She once took 12 years between albums. The press dubbed her reclusive and enigmatic as she disappeared from public view to get on with her life (she and guitarist Dan McIntosh had a son in 1998; fans didn’t know for years).

But from December Will Be Magic Again to King of the Mountain, her work shines with emotion and seriousness. Her songs resonate with a rich inner life, although many of her early songs, like the “Stranger Things” kids and their love of fantasy and games, were heavily influenced by life rather than by life read — the kind of things kids write about when they’re doing well, kids. Or protected. Or live in a small town like Hawkins.

Want a daily roundup of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter Crash Course.

Kate Bush is real, and as Stranger Things proves, she really is for everyone. For me, like El smashing her way through walls, she opened the door to a kind of Upside Down: to another world of creativity and art. After Bush I heard Peter Gabriel, PJ Harvey, OutKast, St Vincent. I’ve fallen in love with movies like Mandy and books like Octavia E. Butler and Terri Windling’s. I learned to create my own world through art.

“Maybe you should start listening to the whole ‘Hounds of Love’ album,” I said to my son as we walked to school the morning after Stranger Things finished; He’s been buzzing Kate Bush for days.

“Shouldn’t I start listening to Tori Amos?” he said. I’ve raised a tween long enough to know not to scream with joy, at least not right in front of him.

I hope “Running Up That Hill” is a similar gateway for its newest, youngest listeners. I hope they take from their songs not only that it’s okay to feel, but also to be yourself: whatever weird, wild, daydreaming person that is. In the ’90s, I often felt like Kate Bush was a secret. If you knew, you knew. Someone this good shouldn’t be a secret. I hope she opens the gate.

More stories like this

You May Also Like