Unpacking Kate Bush’s Improbable, Magical Pop Resurgence

Kate Bush, ’70s and ’80s alt-rock goddess, is officially Top 40 in 2022.

It’s an obvious, even stupid observation at first glance. “Running Up That Hill (A Deal with God)” — initially released in 1985 and currently resurging thanks to the fourth season of Stranger Things — has shattered all expectations. It peaked at #1 in the UK, her first in her home country since her 1978 debut “Wuthering Heights.” So far, it’s peaked at #4 in America, outperforming its original #30 placement in 1985. It’s charting and peaking in the top 10 of music charts worldwide. “Of course, it’s Top 40, idiot,” you might say.

I’m referring specifically to US mainstream radio, also known colloquially as “Top 40.” As of June 25th, “Running Up That Hill” is the 28th most played song on mainstream pop radio stations across the country. It is being played alongside modern hits by Drake, Doja Cat, and Olivia Rodrigo. Radio programmers aren’t playing Kate Bush as a throwback selection to appease older listeners. They are playing Bush’s 37-year-old song as if Dua Lipa had released it. The last time a decades-old song performed on pop radio this way was “December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night)” by the Four Seasons in 1994, when a remixed version peaked at #7. (The original version of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” peaked at #3 on pop radio in 1992, following its use in Wayne’s World.)

Kate Bush’s fourth album Hounds of Love (Courtesy: EMI Music)

“Running Up That Hill’s” impact is unprecedented, even if it goes no higher than #28. Several songs have seen resurgences in recent years, thanks to digital downloads and streaming. But nothing of this magnitude or severity. Those songs were either boosted by a viral TikTok moment, like Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams,” or a holiday or occasion, like Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You.” The songs’ moments were fleeting, their impact as ephemeral as the moments that re-birthed them. They don’t make long-term runs on the radio or sit atop Spotify for weeks.

“Running Up That Hill” is unique. The song has reached well beyond the context of Stranger Things, resonating with listeners across every important mode of music consumption. It has reached across the pop landscape like very few songs have this year. By the season’s end, it could be a contender for 2022’s “Song of the Summer.” This, a song released 37 years ago to muted fanfare in the States.

How, and what does it mean?

Kate Bush in the video for “Running Up That Hill” (Courtesy: EMI Music)

“Running Up That Hill” feels like a song outside of time and space. Its synth-laced drums are boldly ’80s, but it still sounds fresh, even ahead of its time. For the era of multiverses and metaverses, “Running” is a sonic time analogy, an incursion in Marvel terms. The song is just as relevant lyrically. The “deal with God” that Bush proposes is a trade between the genders, swapping places for proper understanding. It’s a deal grounded in compassion and appreciation for what we cannot understand without it. “Running” is magical realism realized, strengthened by humility that feels in short supply.

The song’s emotional and sonic tangibility contrasts with the majority of pop. Streaming playlists, TikTok videos, and distracted attentions favor shorter, easy-to-digest tracks. Today’s pop artists lean into major-key feelings and experiences that listeners can quickly latch onto, as opposed to the intricate and ornate of Bush’s oeuvre. That isn’t a judgmental call or criticism. “Running Up That Hill” is different for many of today’s casual pop fans. The song’s web of contradictions — thematically, lyrically, musically, and culturally — is exciting and compelling, and audiences have responded in kind. “Running” resists the impermanence of today’s society, and its consistent, persistent growth shows that people get the point.

Sadie Sink in the fourth season of Stranger Things (Courtesy: Netflix)

The next question is, how far and long can Kate Bush run up that hill? The song has no signs of slowing down on US radio, potentially cracking the top 20. If it does, Bush could do the previously unthinkable: she could reach #1 in the US. Even if she misses that peak, Bush is now a known quantity for younger music fans worldwide. Will the people who added “Running Up That Hill” to their playlists extend more slots to Bush’s other songs, like “Cloudbusting,” “Hounds of Love,” or “The Sensual World?” Will they go from being fans of one song to fans of the artist?

If Hounds of Love exceeds its current #12 spot on the US albums chart, it will cement Bush as the exception to pop’s current rule. She could point to a resurgence of the music superstar, a weakened force in today’s landscape. If “Running” is the extent of her comeback, it solidifies the gap between artist and song and the industry’s self-destructive relationship with the short-lasting.

Kate Bush performing in 1985 (Courtesy: Getty Images)

Bush is responsible for this very exciting time in pop music. It’s strange to position her as an underdog, but it’s just as easy to root for her resurgence. You want her to go further — to the US number-one, Hounds of Love topping the charts worldwide — and push the improbable into thrilling reality. Every upward climb she makes wrestles with pop’s rigid rules about age, gender, genre, and production. Even if she doesn’t manage to topple the institution, it’s still a necessary jolt. Top 40 needed something intangible, unprecedented, magical, something that only Kate Bush could genuinely deliver.

Leave a Reply