As Kate Bush turns sixty today, it bears reflecting on the milestone with an appreciative bent for all the English chanteuse of a theatrical, baroque persuasion has done to spread the ever diminishing gospel of literature in her music (that’s right, Lana Del Rey wasn’t the first). Perhaps as a direct result of being born in the very country that wrought something as dramatic and brooding as a quintessential novel of heartbreak and ill-fated love as Wuthering Heights (the only book Emily Brontë ever felt inclined to grace us with), Bush was always destined to continue the literary tradition of gloominess in her lyrics and aesthetics.
Starting with the historic single that miraculously launched her to fame–that’s right, “Wuthering Heights”–Bush was fortunate enough to have come onto the scene at a time when industry executives were still too clueless about this new medium of music videos to question what people–especially women–wanted to do. As is usually the case with writing of a romantic and poetic nature, that it was spun from the hand of a girl barely out of high school (Bush was put on retainer by EMI’s Bob Mercer for two years while she finished her studies) added to the earnestness of what would become her debut record, The Kick Inside (Bush had a karate background, mind you, so it’s not just a womb reference). That Bush was still in high school and therefore “forced” to read the classics thrust upon all of us during this period of adolescence also intensified the belletristic predilection of her compositions.
Still, even after fulfilling her scholastic requirements and entering what, for most, are “the less intellectual years” of their twenties and thirties, Bush held fast to her literary penchant, spreading erudite references like a bee injecting the philistine flowers that were (and are) modern audiences with all the self-effacement of Fanny Price.
The album that Bush would choose to close out the 80s–1989’s The Sensual World–with is, what’s more, a very deliberate homage to James Joyce’s Ulysses (we will forgive her this because she’s not a white man), rounding out a decade in which she herself was cast in the novel of her own extravagant, laden-with-semiotics videos. In fact, a video collection just for the album would be released to tie together all the Ulysses-oriented motifs. That Bush was given no choice but to write her own interpretation of Molly Bloom’s illustrious soliloquy (thanks to Joyce’s non-avant garde Estate refusing to let her use the original for the song) only further gave her listeners insight into just how much a woman of letters she herself is. Being that the record was the most unapologetically “female” of Bush’s career, it only made sense to centralize the theme of the content around the most sensual of all women, Bloom. In the original soliloquy, Molly muses in non sequitur stream of consciousness form:
I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish Wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.
It only takes two lines for Bush to deftly rewrite the sentiment as, “He said, ‘I was a flower of the mountain, yes/But now I’ve powers o’er a woman’s body, yes.'” Flush with the evocativeness that is a sensual woman, the title track remains one of Bush’s most redolent, particularly when paired with the video in which she takes on the persona of this more contemporary incarnation of Bloom, cavorting through the woods with that karate-tinged choreography of hers in a velvet, Shakespeare-approved frock. Not one for devoting something entirely to Joyce, Bush also makes room to allude to Romantic poet William Blake with the line, “And then our arrows of desire rewrite the speech, mmh, yes.” Appropriate, considering how many other writers’ speech Bush has managed to rework as her own.
And, on this note, one supposes that, even if you’re some kind of heartless monster that does not at least revere (if not obsessively listen to) Kate Bush, you can, to a certain extent, thank her for summarizing the themes and plot of Wuthering Heights so that you didn’t have to bother with SparkNotes or some other such reductive internet source to write your paper on the book.
While Bush might not be as prolific in her later years as another formidable Leo female artist of the 80s about to turn sixty, Madonna (Hounds of Love actually toppled Like A Virgin from its number one position when it came out in 1985), her careful discernment–always skewed toward schooling her audience in literature–is part of why her output is not necessarily as frequent as others from her era who have chosen to remain more consistently in the spotlight. Thus, it is no surprise that her often reclusive nature has, in turn, literarily branded her as the Miss Havisham of the music industry.
She is not, after all, the girl who asked, “Do I look for those millionaires like a Machiavellian girl would?/When I could wear a sunset, mmh, yes,” so much as a woman very much in the vein of one of the Brontë sisters’ or Austen’s upright, endlessly noble characters. As such, she will not put out work unless it is itself as literary as the novels and poems she so admires. Which is precisely why she once said of the songwriting process, “It’s hard to find something that feels sincere. The more electronic pop music becomes, the harder it is to say meaningful things about relationships, especially since the same things are being said so trivially in pop. Pop is a trivial art form. I want to say things clearly and somehow be compassionate with all this technology.” That she has, that she has.