photo of rainbow under clouded sky

Kate Bush: Pretty Vacant

Don’t get me wrong, I love Kate Bush. She has a delicate sound, intricately powerfully feminine lyrics: a strength which is uniquely and strongly feminine. There is nothing wrong with that. No Chrissie Hynde posturing about “I can’t get from the cab to the curb without some little jerk on my back’, for Kate. The Middle of the Road might have come for Hynde, with her running down it, playing chicken with the cars and fleeing the middle of the road chasing her down like a hell hound on the hunt, and her turning one pale cheek and heavily kohled eye towards it and running away from middle class, middle life, middle boring mundane privileged dullness for all that her leather panted legs could carry her. Sometimes the middle catches up with the best and wildest of us. It hunts us down, ties us up with diapers and milk teeth, and forces a temporary laying down of the dagger earrings and vampire grin. I respect that. Hell, I even understand that. I have sat there slobby and exhausted, spent and tired. “Don’t harass me, can’t you tell/I’m going home, I’m tired as hell/I’m not the cat I used to be/I got a kid, I’m thirty-three!’ warns Hynde. I wish I was 33! Im way way past 33 and to be frank I might feel better now in my later middle age, than I did at the start of it.

Kate Bush, however, was middle of the road and going with it all the way when she was but a teenager working at recording her first songs, with that other middle of the roader, Dave Gilmour. She has never been anything other than firmly happy right in the MOR genre, with no signs of longing to be anything other than a successful juvenile poet and essayist, beloved of her English teacher, and never moving beyond that dull toothsome sweetness. Dave was only ever saved from middle of the road obscurity and dullness by Roger Waters. Without him, he drifts firmly to the domestic heaven of his little Von Trapp family recordings, wielding his acoustic like an accompaniment to the pipe and slippers that have always called for him. Waters nicknamed the Pink Floyd ace “Killer”….and no doubt, Killer could be persuaded to rip some killer lead guitar lines out of his six strings and amplifier, but when left to his own desires, is to be frank, fucking boring. Learning To Fly is a case in point. Any of the post Waters Gilmour material. Whereas the early Floyd was all about flights of acid drenched fantasy, hallucinogenic soaring, post Waters Floyd literally wrote a song about learning how to fly a plane. All the money and privilege, “think I’ll buy myself a Lear Jet” snarl of Dark Side of the Moon, giving way to, ‘whoopie, isn’t flying my own play just dreamy!” I am so bored of movers and shakers and the little things they do for kicks. It all feels so meaningless and apart from the common human experience. It all feels so drearily out of touch, without a message or direction, or fury or power, or any strength of emotion other than ‘isn’t it fun to be so rich and know other people who are too.” This is what privilege sounds like, and to be frank it is sickening and boring, if quite nice really on the surface.

Opposites usually attract, but not in this case, the nice, dreamy, floaty middle of the road drifting Gilmour found his musical female equivalent – Kate Bush. Her demo tape was produced by her family – wild, huh, and turned down by multiple record producers, Gilmour heard it, and championed her. He got a copy of her tape from Ricky Hopper, who also knew the Bush family. It might be one of the most refined, dull, nepotistic, mundane, ‘nicest’ discovery stories in rock and roll. No running away to New York for Kate. No dive bar playing. No slogging it up with a group of friends. No. Mommy and daddy help 16 year old Kate record her ‘compositions’ and uncle Ricky has a quiet word with his mate Dave who plays guitar a bit for Pink Floyd. Delightful. Irritating. Middle of the road. Dave, of course, helped her record it more professionally, he even paid for the endeavor. No slogging to make it in clubs and bars for Princess Kate. He performed backing vocals for Pull Out The Pin, and played guitar for her on Love and Anger and Rocket’s Tail. He is also named as executive producer on two tracks on her debut album, The Kick Inside.

I suppose all this would be well and good if Kate was not almost as irritating as Abba, and a lot more self aggrandizing and absorbed. She takes herself way too seriously. The expressive dance thing wears thin, and has aged poorly. Wuthering Heights, with it’s “groundbreaking” music video, is now 43 years old. Far from looking fresh, innovative and interesting, or even sufficing as a memory box for the late 70s music scene, instead it has the definite air of the experience of watching a cossetted five year old do a dance for mommy and daddy at her yearly ballet dancing gala. Of course, the Prima Donna. Of course precocious and somewhat talented, but you just know all the other kids hate her, and she sits and pouts for attention and adoration otherwise she might just ‘scweam and scweam until she is sthick”…lisping and raging like the little tyrant she clearly is.

While Patti Smith was on stage invoking Gloria and dancing barefoot for the goddess, while Hynde was drinking with the big boys and swaggering like Keef Richards, Kate was making pretty infantile, sparkly little tracks, casting herself as the Shakespearean heroine, a Juliet at the balcony, a vainglorious Goneril, but without the steel or the tragedy, merely a vague pastiche of importance and feeling. The ghostly Kathy at the window, knocking to get in, dressed in homemade faux ballet costume, prancing round a field squealing about being jealous. Men should run from women like Kate. They scare me. Wide-eyed, demanding, intense and all consuming. It is like the female independent power of the 70s just passed Kate right by. She is a Stepford housewife in chiffon. A pretty dancer playing at the dance of the seven veils without any of the sexiness that should attend it.

Babooshka, the story of a wife testing her husband’s fidelity, how the wife, dressed up pretending to be another woman, in order to test him, to see if he strays, and how the deceitful wife: “reminds him of his little lady, capacity to give him all he needs”, carries on as if feminism never happened. Kate prattles on, simpering about how his wife was when she ‘was beautiful’, before she ‘froze on him’, reminding women everywhere there is nothing as irritating as a handmaiden of the patriarchy and their selling out of the sisterhood, pandering to men and judging their own worth, and that of women around them, by their looks and desirability to men. It is all pretty vacant. All quite hopeless for any woman who does not define her life by a man. Kathy is nothing without Heathcliff, the moll in James and the Cold Gun is nothing if she is not defined by her gangster boyfriend. Babooshka is a song about a wife, not a woman in her own right, she is needy and manipulative in a fragile way. This is not girl power, this is porcelain desperation.

close up shot of shards of a broken ceramic plate on a wooden surface

The 1985 more mature offering, Hounds of Love is my favorite album from Bush, it shows a more grown up Kate, musically, her high pitched whine and squeal, which lacks depth if not power, is suffers from the 80s curse of the drum machine and overproduction: a little too much reverb, and it would have been an altogether better album for a human drummer. In Running Up The Hill, Kate makes deals with God, promising that the object of her desire ‘wont be unhappy’ with her. It is still ‘you and me’, still the same old desperation, still Kate begging, still Kate the supplicant. Still irritatingly desperate. The man at the center of Cloudbusting is not the lover of the song’s protagonist, but their father. This father figure, is based on the experiences described in Peter Reich’s 1973 memoir. Reich’s father tried to build a rainmaking machine, and was later arrested over fraudulent claims he made for his ‘orgone’ generators. This might be her finest hour as a songwriter – finally not playing Eve to her Adam, instead writing about a different kind of love and suffering. It suited her.

close up photo of crystals

In some ways, This Woman’s Work, from the 1988 album The Sensual World, is the companion song to Cloudbusting. Instead of the father/child relationship, she explores the process of becoming a mother, and the love, pain and suffering. Still she centers the man ‘now stands the craft of the father’ she sings. Kate just can’t stop putting men in the forefront and defining feminine experience by them. In some ways she is an eternal Eve, accepting her place below Adam, made from his rib, not the earth, and if that is your bag, then all well and good. There is a certain power in her joyous embracing of traditional femininity, even in the end for me, at least, it all feels a little hollow and restricting.

The Big Sky, shows Kate off at her most insane: the song and the video is all over the place. A mish mash of images, sounds, beats and overdubs, mixed in with some of the most insane editing to ever grace a music video, yet the final effect is freedom. She is free from the Man, free from the earth, free from those hounds of love that chase after her, free from James and his cold gun, free from Gilmour’s tethering influence and guitar. “You never understood me. You never really tried!” she declares, and my heart leaps for her. Perhaps this song shows real growth, and a realization that the men in her life never really got her, or even tried to, and all her devotion was for naught. A Kate who takes hold of her innate power and shouts ‘come on! Build me an ark!’, is a Kate who is spinning out of control, yet ultimately free, and though I do not particularly enjoy this mess of a song, I appreciate the call to freedom, and hearing her be so free. “Tell me sisters!” she asks. “Walking out in the Big Sky! That call out to her ‘sisters’, the women who understand and really hear are finally getting a moment with the fairy-like Kate and her wide eyed ingenue act.

Needing the power, the dark rage, the anger, the independence, the pick yerself up and dust yerself down, the confident sexuality of a Blondie or a Patti, is no crime. I suppose finding a friend in Kate Bush is understandable, if not entirely healthy. Kate Bush, pretty vacant in the middle of the road. It is a wonder she was never run over by the traffic of the patriarchy. I can’t but help feel she is somewhat of a traitor. But then, I “can’t get from the cab to the curb without some little jerk on my back……”


  1. Time Traveler of Life

    If I had ever heard any of those, I probably would agree with you, and I am not fond of loud music and bad singing. I dislike it even more when bad singing makes it to the top of the charts and swaggers like they did something great.

  2. Ariana

    I think life gets pretty complicated. It’s so easy to be unaware as a woman that you are supporting a patriarchal system that has scraped off your true value and stuck you in the half-off portion of the clearance isle. The messaging is subtle sometimes in its intensity, woven around us like silken seeming concrete since birth, and supported with the might of wealth, privilege, and power. That being said, as someone who goes both ways, women can be just as f*cked up as men sometimes. Just saying. Humans have a great deal of evolution still required to get to a point where oppression isn’t at the heart of nearly every plot line we produce…

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