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How Kate Bush pushed the parameters of pop

Kate Bush’s first single, ‘Wuthering Heights’, is everything you would want from a debut: a shimmering pop song that stemmed from the writings of England’s most accomplished writer, gifting the novel new life in a decade that was all about reform and rebirth. It showed Bush’s talents as a melodist, and it showed an understanding of the regiment, romance and ridicule that had long been the foundations of her native Britain.

But there was something angular to her work that was strangely similar to John Lydon‘s, that demonstrated that Bush was less solipsistic as it was empathetic to the under voiced and underserved factions of the world. Much like Lydon, her success stems from her connection to Ireland, a nation that has long revolted against the rigours of tyranny and championed other countries that were fighting to be heard.

Bush was deeply committed to her work, and every one of her singles is laced with a deep understanding of the world at large, no small feat considering that the 1980s was a decade of tremendous introspection and self-observation. Even when her work took the guise of a first-person narrative, as she did on ‘Wuthering Heights’, she did as a means of speaking up for a generation who would otherwise have been cast into the darkness by a changing geopolitical landscape.

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Consider the line, “Too long I roam in the night, I’m coming back to his side, to put it right,” changing Emily Brontë’s peculiar vision of a fading Britain, re-fashioned as a chilling account of a nation haunted by its past misgivings. But what drew listeners into the song wasn’t the thematic quality, but the punchy piano hook that stopped and started with the punch of the central leadership.

It was a song that summed up what was missing from British pop from the era, presenting a work that was rich with intellect, invention and swagger. Lyrically, perhaps, the song might have been different from the typical ‘boy-meets-girl’ schtick of the era, but Bush wasn’t impervious to the requirements of publicity and thrust herself into a video that showcased the artist in various guises of choreography and candour. The video has evolved into a number of permutations since, and even inspired a festival in Dublin: ‘Wuthering Heights Day’.

Bush was naturally disciplined, training herself in the mould of the work, whatever way it presented itself as. She inspired a sense of loyalty, despite being famously reclusive, and what few live performances she gave were brimming with excitement and potential. Her concerts were explosive, as the artist threw herself into the craft, every move laced in spontaneity and electricity. And then at the height of her success as a live artist, she disappeared, focusing her attention in the studio, feeling that the work was more important than the individual herself.

For the remainder of the 1980s, she spent her time in the recording studio, enabling her to inspire musicians from such idiosyncratic fields as synthpop and rap. Anyone with her intelligence and looks could have garnered a pop career in the 1970s, but it was her principles that made her such a legacy artist. By the end of the decade, Bush made the ultimate step into maturity and wrote from her place as a wife and a mother. The finished work, The Sensual World, continued the narrative of ‘Wuthering Heights’, showing Britain in a less flattering light, earmarking a voice for the stay at home wives who were growing tired of the bravado and brusque riffs that were commonly heard on the radio.

Bush was the ultimate collaborator, generously giving her time and voice to 1980s peers Peter Gabriel and Stuart Adamson as they wrote their own perspective opinions on the changing geography. Each song had its literary counterpoint, from the tabloids to the thrillers of the era, but for Bush, the songs weren’t hers to share, but the worlds to enjoy. As she explained in many interviews, it was the work, not the fame, that interested her, as she waved farewell to one part of her life for a new decade: the 1990s.

Thereafter, her work had more polish, coming from an artist who no longer intended to prove herself to the mass audiences, but did it to amuse herself. 50 Words for Snow, with its images of environmental destruction, was another perspective in a legacy that was ripe with viewpoint and opinion. And when she returned to the stages in 2014, it was on the proviso that the audience engage with the visuals, as members of the public were asked to leave their phones behind, and engage with the work as it presented itself on the stage.

It would be nice to see Bush onstage again, but in many ways, she doesn’t have to. She said her piece, and now we can all embrace it.