A mere 10 seconds into the new Kate Bush documentary Running Up That Hill—aired by the BBC last week in honor of the reclusive singer/songwriter’s first shows in 35 years—she’s described as “waiflike.” For decades, words like that have been used to sum up what Bush is all about. Too often, those attempts fixate on her physicality. Bush’s body of work , from her 1978 breakout hit “Wuthering Heights” to her latest album, 2011’s 50 Words for Snow,gets examined—but so does her body. And her gender. And, ironically, her introverted nature, which is probably why she prefers not to be examined at all.
Others in Running Up That Hill speak of Bush in terms that range from gender-coded (The Sex Pistols’ John Lydon calls her “hysterical”) to patronizing (her former collaborator Peter Gabriel calls her “a strange creature”). In their defense, they’re clearly trying to be complimentary–like anyone else, the friends and admirers who appear in the film are often at a loss for words when describing her music. And there is something intangible and otherworldly about Kate Bush; her vivid, innovative music videos from the ’70s and ’80s only boost her image as some dimension-traveling elf, hovering overhead while singing songs of magic and moonbeams.
But Bush’s presence hasn’t defined her for the past 35 years; her absence has. She hasn’t toured since 1979, when she was all of 21 and just beginning to mature as an artist. That maturity hit hard on her most beloved album, 1985’s Hounds of Love. It both spawned her first U.S. hit, the haunting “Running Up That Hill,” and marked the point where her retreat from the public eye seemed to have become permanent. As her studio prowess grew in the late ’80s, her participation in the pop world shrank.
After 1993’s The Red Shoes, Bush took a twelve-year break from recording. Her reasons were never made entirely clear, but the general impression was apparent: a platinum-selling artist, adored by listeners and fellow musicians alike, decided to reject the performance anxiety and media scrutiny that had plagued her for years in order to live a quiet life with her family.
Her retreat was remarkable, not only because it happened relatively early in her career but also because showmanship had been such a huge part of her persona. Her lone tour (that is, until this week)—1979’s ambitious, extravagant The Tour of Life—was captured in the film Kate Bush Live at Hammersmith Odeon. It shows a Bush who’s as accomplished at modern dance and generous theatricality as she is at singing and songwriting. How could someone with such command of the stage just give it all up?
That mystery only added to Bush’s already stunning mystique. But her music itself has continued to fill the void she left in the pop firmament. Songs like 1985’s “Hounds of Love” and 1989’s “This Woman’s Work” have seeped into the music groundwater. Scores of musicians over the past three decades have cited Bush as a major influence, and a new generation of Bush disciples seems to come of age every couple years. Most recently, indie-rock notables such as Annie Clark of St. Vincent and Natasha Khan of Bat for Lashes—both of whom appear in Running Up That Hill—have said that Bush’s lavish mix of art-rock, folk, and avant-garde pop inspired them.
Outkast’s Big Boi has also frequently sung her praises, and has hinted at an yet-unveiled collaboration. And it’s hard to imagine up-and-coming, concept-loving artists as varied as Grimes and Janelle Monáe existing as they do without at least some trickle-down influence from Bush. She’s even influenced creators outside the realm of music; web artist Molly Soda’s Wuthering Heights Project has given a forum for dozens of filmmakers to show off their video interpretations of one of Bush’s signature songs.
Bush’s comeback couldn’t have come at a better time. Her music, a timeless fusion of the personally intimate and the poetically imaginative, is as relevant as ever. And yet, as Running Up That Hill proves, the discussion surrounding Bush remains rooted in old perspectives. In the film, Elton John gives a glib testimonial—”She’s kind of an enigma,” he says—while actor Steve Coogan, who’s lampooned her onstage, declares, “Liking her makes you feel a bit clever.” Author Neil Gaiman accuses her of making “banshee music,” although he means that in a supernatural sense rather than the pejorative. Coogan hypothesizes that Bush writes from her imagination rather than from life experience; trip-hop artist Tricky, on the other hand, praises the emotional openness and vulnerability of her music.
Appreciating Kate Bush is an exercise in agreeing to disagree. Those who love her work have different reasons for doing so, and they’re all right. Her upcoming shows might change some perceptions, but even her recent plea asking fans to refrain from taking pictures or videos during her tour has been construed in different ways. Her innate shyness might compel her make such a request, but the explicit reason she gives in her statement is that a camera-free crowd “would all allow us to share in the experience together.”
The link that Bush is able to forge with her listeners is what’s made her music endure. Her songs, sonically and lyrically rich, are as open to interpretation as poems or paintings. “Come on angel / Come on, come on, darling / Let’s exchange the experience,” she sings on “Running Up That Hill.” She’s not asking for intimacy, empathy, and connection; she’s demanding it. Her voice is fierce, as sharp as steel. There isn’t a trace of a waif to be found.