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While Kate Bush Walked Away From the Spotlight, ‘Running Up That Hill’ Only Got Bigger

‘Stranger Things’ has helped propel her 1985 hit back to the top of the charts, but both the song and its elusive singer have only grown in stature in recent years

“Love is a wonderful, powerful thing,” Kate Bush said in 1989. “In many ways nearly every song I’ve ever written is a love song. It’s very important to try and learn to love people as much as you can. But we all get so scared. It’s only when people are at points in their lives when they get such shocks that they take it as it really should be. The rest of us just seem to piss about.”

Turning 64 this summer, Bush doesn’t write as many love songs as she used to, mostly because she doesn’t put out much new material anymore. Her last studio album was in 2011. She doesn’t do many interviews. She barely tours. But as sometimes happens when a musician goes away, her legacy has only grown in her absence. In some ways, Bush is bigger now than she was in 1985, which is when she put out Hounds of Love, her most beloved record. That she’s back in the news for a 37-year-old song isn’t all that surprising. Her past still haunts our present. And, of course, it’s a love song.

“Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)” was popular before Stranger Things boosted its visibility. After all, indie artist Meg Myers had made a splash on alternative-rock radio just a few years ago with a punchy, electronic-soaked cover. But the new season of the hit Netflix series prominently features the Bush song, and even if (like me) you don’t watch Stranger Things, clips like the one below are affecting enough to explain why “Running Up That Hill” has become such a big deal. As Variety explains, “In the new season, Max — played by Sadie Sink — is grieving her half-brother Billy’s death. She’s left feeling vulnerable and listens to the Bush classic on repeat. The song eventually saves her life.” The season’s emotional highpoint wouldn’t be quite the same without Bush underscoring it.

You can’t measure Bush’s reach by the charts. Although she’s had a spate of Top 10 hits in England, she’s only landed in the Top 40 once in America, with “Running Up That Hill” peaking at No. 30. “[I]n the U.K., Kate rules as Madonna does here,” Rolling Stone’s Rob Tannenbaum rightly put it back in 1985. For us in the States, she’s always been an acquired taste, a highbrow favorite, an art-rocker you maybe find pretentious or insufferable, that “weird” singer your Goth-y cousin is into. That she’s quietly accumulated a legion of fans over the decades was something you may not have noticed. But the recent groundswell of Kate Bush adoration proves her supporters can grow larger still. And “Running Up That Hill” is the gateway drug for the uninitiated.

She grew up outside London playing piano and violin, recording demos as a young teen that didn’t get her anywhere. But in the late 1970s, Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour heard her songs, impressed by her voice but underwhelmed by the recordings. “The demo was not saleable,” he’d say later. “The songs were too idiosyncratic: just Kate, this little schoolgirl who was maybe 15, singing away over a piano. You needed decent ears to hear the potential and I didn’t think there were many people with those working in record companies. But I was convinced from the beginning that this girl had remarkable talent.” 

Her first record, The Kick Inside, came out in 1978, proving to be a sensation in the U.K., with its single “Wuthering Heights” going to the top of the charts. Her singing was intensely dramatic, and in an interview at the time she admitted to a bit of affectation. “I deliberately heighten it,” she said, “just because it’s what the song calls for and it’s comfortable as well. I didn’t take lessons to do that, but I do have a teacher who I haven’t seen for months, he keeps an eye on my voice.” At a moment when disco, punk and new wave were in vogue, she seemed to be beamed in from another planet, her music a little more magical and eccentric. Establishing a pattern she’d follow for the rest of her career, The Kick Inside was filled with bittersweet love songs. “Oh, to be in love,” she sang, “And never get out again.”

She went on to have a series of commercially successful records in her homeland, experimenting with her sound and adding synthesizers, part of a group of art-rock practitioners, including a post-Genesis Peter Gabriel, who were bringing a theatrical flair to their music. But by 1982’s The Dreaming, Bush was seeking a fresh start after delivering a collection of dark tunes that hadn’t been as well-received as her previous work. She got out of the city, decamped to the country, and started writing. One of the first songs that came out of this change of scenery was “Running Up That Hill.”

Bush had wanted to call it “A Deal With God.” “I was trying to say that, really, a man and a woman can’t understand each other because we are a man and a woman,” she once explained. “And if we could actually swap each other’s roles, if we could actually be in each other’s place for a while, I think we’d both be very surprised! And I think it would [lead] to a greater understanding. And, really, the only way I could think it could be done was either … you know, I thought a deal with the devil, you know. And I thought, ‘Well, no, why not a deal with God!’ You know, because in a way it’s so much more powerful, the whole idea of asking God to make a deal with you.”

Concept in mind, she turned to her romantic partner and collaborator Del Palmer. “I had an idea of what I wanted to say in the song,” she recalled, “and I actually asked Del to write me a drum pattern, and he wrote this great pattern in the drum machine. So I just put the Fairlight on top of it, and that was the basis of the song, with the drone, which played quite an important part.”

Where The Dreaming was often dense and dark, “Running Up That Hill” had a dreamy, ghostly quality, while remaining as cinematic as her earlier material. There was an air of mystery and romance to the song, and Bush applied her usual bewitchingly arch vocal style, which made the track feel like it could fit comfortably inside a stage musical. But if the arrangement was atmospheric, the lyrics were fairly direct:

It doesn’t hurt me 
Do you want to feel how it feels? 
Do you want to know, know that it doesn’t hurt me? 
Do you want to hear about the deal that I’m making?

It’s you and me

And if I only could 
I’d make a deal with God 
And I’d get him to swap our places 
Be running up that road 
Be running up that hill 
Be running up that building
Say, if I only could

You don’t want to hurt me 
But see how deep the bullet lies 
Unaware, I’m tearing you asunder 
Oh, there is thunder in our hearts 
Is there so much hate for the ones we love? 
Tell me, we both matter, don’t we? 

The 1980s were packed with keyboard-driven love songs by new wave bands, often chilly or ebullient, but “Running Up That Hill” had an edgy, anguished tone, with Bush yearning for some sort of miracle to help her and her lover figure a way through their impasse. It’s a song about being empathetic to the other person’s position, trying to see things from another’s perspective. But the outcome is far from certain in “Running Up That Hill” — the title alone, which was imposed on Bush by her record label, fearing that a song called “A Deal With God” would confuse or scare off potential listeners, suggested a mighty task, one not easily undertaken. It’s a love song about fighting to keep love going. 

Bush has said that, on Hounds of Love, whose opening track was “Running Up That Hill,” “it was important for me to get across the sense of power in the songs that I’d associated with male energy and music.” No one would accuse Hounds of Love of being especially aggro, but it was often more overt and hit harder than her previous albums, her flair for the dramatic accentuated by more accessible tunes. And America finally took notice: The Dreaming was her first album to crack the Billboard charts, but Hounds of Love went to No. 30, her best showing until 1993’s The Red Shoes peaked at No. 28. Hounds of Love was her only album to place in the Top 40 of The Village Voice’s annual critics poll, with “Running Up That Hill” landing at No. 10 on that year’s singles poll. There were still grumblings from some reviewers that she was too ornate, too pretentious, but for those that loved her, those adjectives were attributes — not criticisms. And if you found her songs pretentious, well, you probably weren’t going to like the video for “Running Up That Hill” either.

Directed by David Garfath, this was a dance video, but not in the way MTV viewers would consider a “dance video.” Rather, this was a mixture of ballet and interpretive dance, with Bush and Michael Hervieu acting out the song’s romantic tension through symbolic, graceful movements. In another bold stroke, Bush didn’t sing the lyrics, which supposedly displeased MTV executives who were worried the video was too “esoteric.” Nevertheless, the clip opened the door for later “artsy” videos, like R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion,” encouraging musicians to think of the medium in more imaginative ways, resisting the urge to provide a literal interpretation of their songs. 

After Hounds of Love, Bush continued to gain prominence, dueting with Peter Gabriel on his So hit “Don’t Give Up” the following year. (Initially, he had wanted Dolly Parton on the track, but she turned him down.) But the albums started coming more slowly. In the next eight years, she released only two. After The Red Shoes, the follow-up, Aerial, didn’t arrive until 12 years later.

“It’s very frustrating the albums take as long as they do,” she said in 2011, which is when her most-recent record, 50 Words for Snow, dropped. “I wish there weren’t such big gaps between them.” She insisted it wasn’t because of perfectionism, though. “People have said this, but I don’t think I really want anything to be perfect. I think it’s important that things are flawed.” Still, she couldn’t say when she’d release new music. “Even if I was able to talk about it now,” she confessed, “it might completely change in a few weeks and so would no longer be relevant.”

As for touring, her last concerts were in 2014, her first in decades. “At the moment, my family life is incredibly important to me and it comes first,” Bush said. “Then my work fits in around it, which is quite easy to do with the recording process, but something like doing shows would be incredibly disruptive and I just can’t see that would be something that would work at this stage.” 

But as she’s withdrawn from the public eye, a couple generations of new Kate Bushes have sprung up — artists like Björk, Tori Amos, Fiona Apple and Paula Cole who, either directly or subconsciously, have been influenced by her idiosyncratic style. (Cole, a huge Hounds of Love fan, thanked Bush when she won her Best New Artist Grammy, later saying, “She was so unique, and nothing sounded like [her]. I’d turn over her cassette tapes where it would say, ‘Produced by Kate Bush.’ That was radical — totally radical to be produced by the same artist, rather than the star producer who does five or 10 projects a year.”) And it’s not just female artists who respond to her work: OutKast’s Big Boi raves about Bush, particularly The Dreaming, declaring, “Man, her vocal range is incredible. And the music. Once again, me being a producer, I listen to all aspects of the music, and take the product as a whole. It was just a well put-together record. She killed it. … Her first four or five albums are crazy.”

And what might once have sounded avant-garde about Hounds of Love has, over time, been absorbed into the mainstream. Dance outfits to indie bands have covered “Running Up That Hill,” amplifying the original’s tenderness or playing up the starkness of the narrator’s desire to transform her circumstance. Placebo did a memorable version in the early 2000s, adding a little menace to the proceedings, and were grateful that the song’s creator wasn’t displeased. “Kate Bush, [frontman] Brian [Molko] and I actually got to meet, hands trembling,” bassist Stefan Olsdal later said. “She was really sweet and really liked our version.’”

But it’s not just the song that’s spread its tentacles across the culture. The video’s high-art dancing is occasionally echoed by other acts, with the National’s 2017 clip for “Dark Side of the Gym” immediately springing to mind. The influences aren’t always intentional, though: In Season 13 of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, when Mac comes out as gay, he punctuates his announcement by doing an elaborately choreographed ballet number. An enterprising YouTube user noticed the similarities between Mac’s routine and the one in the “Running Up That Hill” video and decided to lay the song over his dance. It’s striking how well they work together.

Even before Stranger Things’ “Running Up That Hill” needle-drop, Bush’s modern relevance wasn’t in doubt. When Seattle’s influential independent radio station KEXP had its listeners vote in 2019 for the greatest albums of all time, Hounds of Love placed at No. 50, higher than any other female artist. This year, it conducted a poll on the best songs of the last 50 years: “Running Up That Hill” was at No. 9, placing higher than any other female act. In 2020, Rolling Stone revised its list of the 500 best albums, and Hounds of Love landed at No. 68. And after NPR selected in 2017 the 150 greatest albums made by women, readers were asked to submit their choices: Hounds of Love was at No. 4. Eschewing the spotlight, outside of occasionally dropping a brief post on her website, Bush is in the enviable position of watching her stature grow without doing anything, her elusiveness only making her music more captivating.

Of course, though, the main reason everyone’s talking about her at the moment is Stranger Things. However, the show didn’t necessarily use “Running Up That Hill” because it’s a love song — ironically, it’s the track’s original title that’s more aligned with what the producers were thinking. “Kate Bush’s lyrics can mean very different things to different people,” music supervisor Nora Felder told Variety. “In the face of Max’s painful isolation and alienation from others, a ‘deal with god’ could heart-wrenchingly reflect Max’s implicit belief that only a miracle of unlikely understanding and show of support could help her climb the hills of life before her. In Max’s situation, the need for a ‘deal with god’ can perhaps be metaphorically understood as a desperate cry for love — to manifest the extraordinary understanding and support Max needed while feeling so painfully alone.” 

But Stranger Things needed Bush’s permission to use the track and, as it turns out, she was a fan of the show, which has now propelled the song into the public consciousness, becoming a huge hit on iTunes and on the charts — not to mention annoying longtime Kate Bush fans who can’t believe so many people had never heard of her before.

It’s amusing to think that, while a lot of folks are just now learning about Bush, she’s busy doing her own thing, happy not to be out promoting herself. Even back in 2001, she admitted, “If I’m really honest what I find so exciting is that people want to listen to my music when I’m not thrust in their faces. In this fast-moving world, people do forget, but they’re incredibly patient with me.” 

At the turn of the century, Bush had wanted to disconnect, feeling burnt out and no longer loving what she was doing. So she just stopped and had a family, marrying musician Danny McIntosh and raising their son Bertie, who’s now in his early 20s. “I am really happy,” she said in that 2001 interview. “I feel I’ve got the balance right where Bertie comes first and then the album. Some people say the best work comes from suffering: I don’t agree with this. Hounds of Love is one of my best albums and I was very happy then. I’m very happy with Danny. I feel very lucky.” 

That sort of contentment was something Kate Bush was chasing in her early albums, not enamored with the touring life and wanting to find an equal partner. “Running Up That Hill” pinpoints what’s so hard about relationships, how two people can love each other and hurt each other at the same time. At the song’s end, she talks about wishing that she could “Be running up that hill / With no problems.” Sometimes, running up a hill can be exhausting. But when your heart’s light, it can be pretty exhilarating, too.