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Music

The song Kate Bush wrote about a nuclear holocaust

As well as being one of the 1970s and ’80s best pop songstresses, Kate Bush was also an artful social commentator, using her music to address topical issues and casting them in a new light. Her 1980 single, ‘Breathing’, which sees the singer imagine a nuclear holocaust from the perspective of an unborn fetus, is the perfect example.

To live through the cold war was to live in the shadow of the bomb. The so-called last phase of the geo-political conflict – from 1979 to 1985 – marked a sharp increase in the hostility between the Soviet Union and the West. As such, the looming threat of nuclear annihilation became even more palpable. With news outlets broadcasting simulations of bombs hitting London, Paris, and New York, it’s no wonder so many felt crippled by anxiety. My own parents, who were students in the 1980s, knew a man who smoked too much weed in front of the nine o’clock news and decided to flee to rural Wales, where he set about digging a bunker and filling it with canned fruit.

While some readied their tin foil hats, Bush focused on her music, using tracks such as ‘Breathing’ to dig behind surface-level anxiety. ‘Breathing’ is a symphonic rendering of incredibly dark and undeniably relevant subject matter. Bush shows us an unborn child who, knowing that a bomb has exploded, decides that it’s much “safer in” than out. Being born would mean being forced to breathe radioactive air, making the child the perfect way for Bush to explore the debate surrounding humanity’s subconscious desire for self-destruction.

Speaking to Keyboard in 1985, Bush explained: “‘Breathing’ is about human beings killing themselves. I think that people smoking is one of those tiny things that says a lot about human beings. I mean, I smoke and enjoy it, but we smoke and we know it’s dangerous. Maybe there’s some kind of strange subconscious desire to damage ourselves. It would seem so if you looked back through history, wouldn’t it?”

During one of the recording sessions for the Never For Ever track, a representative from Bush’s label walked in and heard the chorus – in which the singer repeats the line “out, in, out, in, out, in” – out of context. As a result, he got the idea that the lyrics were somehow erotic. But listeners mistakenly interpreting the song as pornographic was the least of Bush’s worries. She was more concerned that fans would think the track too nihilistic.

Speaking to UK magazine Zig Zag, the singer confessed: “I was worried that people wouldn’t want to worry about it because it’s so real. I was also worried that it was too negative, but I do feel that there is hope in the whole thing, just for the fact that it’s a message from the future. It’s not from now, it’s from a spirit that may exist in the future, a nonexistent spiritual embryo who sees all and who’s been round time and time again so they know what the world’s all about.”

Had that baby been born in 1980, it would be 42 years old this year. The world, and the threat of nuclear war, is perhaps less pronounced than it was back then, but the relationship between East and West is now just as tense as they were when Bush’s imagined child was floating around the womb. Now that’s a scary thought.