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Muso snobs don’t own Kate Bush

Hoary gatekeepers mocking teenagers for finding “Running Up That Hill” through Stranger Things forget this is how it’s always worked.

By Marc Burrows

Middle-aged music fans loving Kate Bush is basically a given. Like Bowie, Pink Floyd, the Pet Shop Boys or Blur, the eccentric, eclectic Bush has entered a kind of muso-canon of beautified, untouchable artists. Anyone who saw the hysterical reactions to her 2014 residency at the Hammersmith Apollo will understand. And it’s justified, too. Kate Bush is a once in a generation pop star. She’s special. She’s earned her place. Her back catalogue is incredible and her influence is far reaching. No arguments here.

There is, of course, a problem. A canonised musician stops being a pop star and becomes a sort of totem of art and integrity. They become sainted. In a sense they stop being the very thing that made them exciting in the first place – a pop star. They can become the property of the worst kind of muso snob. Or at least that’s what the muso snobs think.

We’ve seen that in the last week or two, with Bush’s 1984 propulsive pop masterpiece “Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)” and its use in the latest season of the spooky teen drama Stranger Things, which has caused streams and downloads to spike, and the song to climb the charts.

That many of that show’s younger audience would sit bolt upright, mouth “What. Is. This?” and run to Spotify to play the song on repeat for the rest of the day is hardly a shock when you think about it – “Running Up That Hill” is an incredible song. It’s strange and dramatic, but also velcro-catchy, unsettlingly emotional, and has a hook in almost every line. Equally unsurprising, alas, is the reaction from those crusty muso gatekeepers, the ones that hallow and worship and claim ownership over stars like Bush. “If you have children and they just discovered Kate Bush from a TV show… you have failed as a parent,” wailed one such on Twitter. “Gen Z thinking they ‘discovered’ Kate Bush… because they heard her most mainstream song on Stranger Things is a level of cringe so extreme that it’s difficult to put into words,” sobbed another. There’s pages of this stuff, each weirder and more bitter than the last.

[See also: Meghan Markle’s Archetypes podcast is toe-curlingly cringey – but insightful, too]

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There’s two issues with this. Firstly, there’s the idea that it’s somehow cheating or fake to discover classic music via a TV show. As if anyone who knew anything about music should have been born with the Great Artists hard-coded into their psyche. That if you’re not putting in the effort then you’re somehow unworthy to enjoy a singer or band.

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But you have to find out about music from somewhere. I grew up in a working-class family in a crappy East Midlands town in the Nineties, with no older siblings and parents who had pretty much disengaged with cutting edge pop around the time of my birth. Do you know how I discovered Kate Bush? Placebo covered “Running Up That Hill” in the mid 90s. Do you know how I really got into Bowie? Nirvana covered “The Man Who Sold The World”. I discovered Fleetwood Mac when they appeared on the 1996 Brit Awards. I discovered Lou Reed on the Trainspotting soundtrack, Bobby Womack on the Jackie Brown soundtrack, and Echo and the Bunnymen and the Doors through The Lost Boys. Obsessive repeat watches of The Young Ones gave me Motorhead, Madness, the Damned and Dexys, and I got most of my love of classic soul from The Commitments.

I’m not that unusual. That’s how it’s always been.

Technology and culture have moved on, of course, and people now have different routes into discovery, with algorithms rather than radio and TikToks rather than Top of the Pops. TV and films still play their part, though, just as they did ten, twenty, thirty years ago. How many younger people were bowled over by the sharp use of the Cranberries in Derry Girls or punched the air to Smashing Pumpkins’ “Today” in Yellowjackets? How many had already discovered Kate Bush herself through the devastating use of “This Woman’s Work” in The Handmaid’s Tale? Music doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It lives and breathes in context. That’s what makes a great needledrop in a TV show so affecting. It’s a symbiotic relationship.

The second issue with the backlash against new Kate Bush fans is about something even snobbier. Underlying these complaints is a sense that such a profound musical masterpiece shouldn’t be tagged on to a mere popular telly show. One that young people like! On Netflix! As if an artist like Kate Bush shouldn’t be sullying her songs on Stranger Things. The creates Proper Art, and this is mere kid’s stuff.

That, more than anything, misses the point. “Running Up That Hill” has plenty to analyse and appreciate, but at its heart it’s a belter of a pop song, and at her best Bush was a belter of a pop artist. She’s always had dizzying creative twists and drama, yes, but she also has a hell of a way with a tune. The genius of the Stranger Things inclusion is in recognising that, yes, this is a dramatic and powerful song, but also that it’s exactly the sort of thing a wary outsider teenage girl would be listening to in a mid-80s high school. The two pieces, song and show, work together because they both understand the link between making something broad and accessible and the power of being almost absurdly dramatic.

A lot of those Gen Z teens are going to be turned off should they decide to delve further into the Bush back catalogue; not all of it as accessible or as shiny, not all of it is as dramatic or as powerful. Some of them are going to find the likes of “The Dreaming”, “Babooshka” and, of course, “Wuthering Heights” over the top and daft. Not all of them are going to have the tolerance to make it through a ten minute epic about shagging a snow man. And that’s fine – a lot of people felt the same way in 1984. “Running Up That Hill” and “Cloudbusting” were proper hits – it didn’t mean everyone who bought them was going to be that bothered by the immersive, seven-song cycle that comprises side two of the Hounds of Love album.

But, just as their parents did almost forty years earlier, some teenagers are going to fall completely under the witchy spell of one of Britain’s most remarkable talents. And in another forty years, I’m sure some of them are going to be bloody tedious about her, too.

[ See also: Have we reached peak TV crime drama? ]

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