Thanks to 'Stranger Things' and Queer Fans, It's Kate Bush Summer
Netflix has given the singer a new fanbase, but are her die-hards "Kate-keeping"?
No one could have guessed that the 2022 song of the summer would have come out 37 years ago, but if TikTok remains any inclination as to what will rule the charts these next few months, the evidence is overwhelming: We are in the throes of a Kate Bush Summer and "Running Up That Hill" is the rallying cry.
The English multi-hyphenate has been revered as a trailblazing pop musician across the world since her debut more than 40 years ago, but her fame in the states was always a bit more subdued. A little too out there for the American pop charts, Kate Bush was treasured mostly by the outcasts. Alternative crowds and queer people, in particular, have claimed her as one of their own since her start, drawn in by her flamboyant personality and penchant for theatrics. That is, until "Running Up That Hill" became a pivotal plot point in the first half of Stranger Things Season 4. Now the world is playing catch-up to what the rest of us knew all along, and once one becomes indoctrinated into the church of Kate Bush, it is near-impossible to stray.
The fame and celebrity lore of Kate Bush is a peculiar one in 2022. She hasn't released an album since 2011's 50 Words for Snow but is consistently name-dropped as an inspiration across the board by musicians, actors, and multimedia artists. A strange phenomenon over the last few years has made her fanbase grow stronger than ever, led by multiple memes and fan pages on social media. Bush's artistry already exudes an air of mystique, and combined with her cult fanbase on the internet, it can be hard for the uninitiated to find an entryway into the boundless worlds she builds in her songs.
Some might even say that the mystery and enigma of Kate Bush is intentional—new fans just discovering her in this tidal wave of recognition are accusing old fans of trying to gatekeep her music, and some established fans are getting their kicks by trying on the role of "Kate-keeping" by shaming newcomers on the internet for only just now coming around to the venerated artist.
The popular fan page on Twitter @cloudbusting is one of the most notable Kate Bush accounts, run by 22-year-old Coral from Ireland. Growing up close to the UK music scene that warmly regarded Bush from the beginning, Coral was always aware of Bush's singular artistry from her parents and relatives that grew up listening to her on the radio. She began to share old television performances, press photos, and memes after writing a paper about Bush in college, coinciding with the early days of the pandemic.
The account has amassed a fierce 12,000-person following, connecting Kate Bush devotees all over the world and introducing her artistry to the uninitiated. The name of the stan army is a bit up for debate; some have identified themselves as Lionhearts, Love Hounds, Cloudbusters, Little Babooshkas, and so on—all references to Bush's discography—but the moniker doesn't change how a now-63-year-old artist has a following on par with the main pop acts today.
At the forefront of the trend in recent years, Coral is uniquely familiar with how intimate a relationship Kate Bush fans hold with their favorite artist. "I think Kate's status as an eccentric individual is the driving force why fans cultivate such a personal relationship with her," she says. "Her musical world provides them shelter from judgment and a form of acceptance that they may not experience in their daily lives."
Though Coral attests to seeing some references to Kate-keeping on the internet, she admits that Bush always held a very tightly-knit fan community. The Kate Bush Fanclub newsletter published 24 issues of fan art, news, and even personal ads of people hoping to make friends within the fandom through the '80s and '90s, which the Gaffaweb platform collected and cataloged in the late-aughts. She hints that because Bush’s fans feel so connected to her personally that it makes them guarded when discussing their favorite artist's 44-year career.
It should be said that "Running Up That Hill" was already a success when it was first released in 1985. It was the lead single off of her fifth studio album, Hounds of Love, often considered one of the best albums ever made, and became her most successful single in the US at the time at #30 on the Billboard charts.
With the help of Stranger Things and TikTok, however, those rankings were blown out of the water after "Running" hit #4 on the Hot 100 in mid-June, becoming her first Top 10 hit in the US, dethroning the likes of Harry Styles to reach #1 on the global radio charts. Bush has shirked away from the public and famously lives a private life, but the renegade success of "Running Up That Hill" was enough for her to agree to her first interview in six years.
"I thought that the track would get some attention, but I just never imagined that it would be anything like this," she said of all the renewed interest in an interview with BBC Radio 4. "I mean, the whole world's gone mad!"
It's an unexpected journey to success that feels surprisingly fitting for such an unparalleled artist. It was as if she was conjured out of a spellbook when her debut single "Wuthering Heights" hit number one in 1978, making her the first and youngest woman to become a chart-topper in the UK with a self-written song. She fleshed out her first song with interpretive choreography and a symbolic gauzy red dress (in a now-iconic video that's celebrated annually) as one of the first artists to achieve mainstream fame while making music a multi-sensory experience.
She even pioneered the use of new audio technology, literally changing the course of music history in the process. Bush prototyped an early headset microphone out of a wire hanger and a radio microphone so she could perform with her entire body while on her 1979 Tour of Life, before the invention became adopted by the world's biggest pop stars today. Electronic musicians and record producers are also indebted to Bush's use of the Fairlight CMI synthesizer, an early sound processor and sampler that became the primary writing tool on all her albums from Never for Ever though to Hounds of Love.
Recently, she's broken records as the oldest woman to have a global number-one single, previously held by Cher for "Believe" in 1999 when she was 52, and for the longest journey between release to the number-one spot. The trailblazing artist continues to break records over 40 years into her career, and she's regularly listed as an influence by everyone from Big Boi, Florence + the Machine, Lorde, FKA twigs, and so on; her inspiration has been all over culture well before this resurgence.
For those familiar with Kate's singular oeuvre, "Running" is most people's point of introduction, and a prime one at that. A pulsating drum beat grows louder and forbidding like an anxious heartbeat until the broken synths come in. "It doesn't hurt me," she warbles in self-affirmation before she flips the power stance, "Do you want to feel how it feels?" The song is a core example of what makes a Kate Bush song uniquely hers: her ability to build entire worlds out of such specific, detailed emotions, and how she can take influence from seemingly every genre and still make something never heard before.
Because of her penchant for the eccentric and esoteric, her fandom on the internet has taken on undertones of unabashed queerness. According to Coral, Bush has released a number of songs over her career that speak of queer relationships, like the songs "Wow" and "Kashka from Bagdhad," both from her second album Lionheart. Since both songs were written when she was only 19 in a time when queerness wasn't openly discussed as it is today, Coral considers it radical how she "embraced the concept of LGBTQ+ romance with earnestness, with no mockery or disapproval to be seen."
A number of fans I talked to told stories of how Bush's music entered their lives at significant times, soundtracking first loves and heartbreaks. For the large subset of LGBTQ+ fans who respond so deeply to Bush's emotions told through theatrics, campiness, and drama, discovering the singer was like finding a guiding light towards queerness.
Alex Duffy, 25, is a lifelong fan from Liverpool who shared that some of his earliest memories involve him wrapping himself up in a blanket and copying the choreography from the "Babooshka" music video in front of the TV as a child. "That was one of my earliest memories of being different than other kids and made me realize I resonate more with female role models than male ones," he said.
Bush often examines ideas of gender in her music, sometimes taking on the perspective of a man in songs like "In Search of Peter Pan" and "Hammer Horror." The tension in "Running Up That Hill" is the most unambiguous example, written from the perspective of a woman literally begging God to swap bodies with a male lover in order to understand him more. Bush has gone on record saying "Running" is about empathy at its core, but many fans today read it as an allegory for being transgender. According to Duffy, "Kate Bush embodies this feeling of otherness that feels somewhat inherent to queerness."
Over time, Kate Bush continued to help Duffy come to terms with his sexuality. "I've never fully been able to describe it or how it's shaped me as a queer person, but perhaps that's exactly it," he said. "Kate's music is so vast in its scope, so constantly different and exciting, that it can't be defined with a single label. Perhaps like a lot of queer people, it can't be pinned down in a single way."
It's a historical trend that mainstream culture borrows from marginalized communities, LGBTQ+ people included, which could potentially be stoking the desire for fans to protect the artist that has meant so much to them. Coral adds that it's possible that gatekeeping behavior "stems from a fear that the more popular she becomes, she moves from being an 'outsider' to a pop-culture figure and aspects of what makes her so loved, especially in the queer community, will be watered down or lost in the process."
Despite Kate Bush's proximity with LGBTQ+ fans, it seems that everyone can understand the deeper message of "Running Up That Hill" no matter their identity. The song was already a major needle-drop moment in the pilot episodes of Pose and HBO's It's a Sin, both of which took place during the AIDS crisis of the late '80s, and became an anthem of resilience for the show's characters. Even for Max in Stranger Things, who listens to Kate Bush to help her cope with the death of her brother in Season 3 before "Running Up That Hill" actually saves her life in a later episode, all these characters get saved by Kate Bush in some form, much like the real-life queer people she saved through her music.