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Last week, I logged into Slack with a confession: I'd just wept while watching the latest season of Stranger Things, during a scene involving Sadie Sink, a tentacle monster, and a Kate Bush song. A coworker who hadn't yet seen the new episodes asked which song before immediately answering her own question. "'Running Up That Hill'?" Yup! Another added, "I feel like every Kate Bush song would be a good soundtrack for running away from a monster to escape the Upside Down."
We are, respectively, a gay man and two women all born in the 1980s, and it's a testament to Bush's enduring spell on a certain segment of our generation that we could quickly identify what Bush song should score even the most esoteric Mad Lib. What's perhaps more surprising is that almost 37 years after "Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)" topped out at 30 on the Billboard Hot 100, Gen Z would launch it back onto the charts—and onto No. 1. The song, which was the first single off of Bush's acclaimed 1985 album Hounds of Love, is currently the top track on iTunes in the US, UK, and Canada, bumping the likes of Lady Gaga, Harry Styles, and Lizzo. As of today, it's the top song in the US on Spotify and the number two song globally. It's also ranked number 191 (not counting remixes) on TikTok, which might not sound that high, but it was at 761 before Stranger Things dropped new episodes over the weekend.
So people are finding out who Kate Bush is thru….stranger things pic.twitter.com/cqJqMn6j0S
— ✨ (@heyjaeee) May 29, 2022
As someone whose first exposure to Janis Joplin was via a montage in "Look Who's Talking," I'm gonna say any way people find out about Kate Bush is fine and good.
— Joe Reid (@joereid) May 30, 2022
Twitter, being Twitter, initially broke out into all-out generational warfare, with side-parting, skinny-jean-wearing, avocado-toast-loving Millennials rolling their eyes at how Gen Z just discovered Kate Bush. But Kate Bush, being Kate Bush, can only inspire togetherness. The world is her coven, and there's plenty of room for more people to appreciate her witchy wiles.
We asked Nora Felder, the show's music supervisor, how the song became the season's defining anthem. "[Show creators] Matt and Ross Duffer asked me to help brainstorm Max’s special song," she says. "When I landed on 'Running Up That Hill,' it struck me right away. I felt that [its] poignantly expressed themes and powerful melodic flow could align especially well with Max’s story."
Sink plays Max, a tomboy outcast who finds her people amongst the Hawkins kids only to be emotionally scarred when her step-brother Billy dies at the hands of a monster they call the Mind Flayer. (Spoilers for season four ahead.) She spends the first four episodes of the new season withdrawn, hiding her PTSD from her friends. This makes her vulnerable to the series’s "big bad," a being they call Vecna that possesses and kills humans by feeding on their pain, isolation, and insecurity. (That's where those tentacles come into play.) In the real world, Max enters a trance; meanwhile, her psyche is trapped in an otherworldly realm, the Upside Down, on the verge of being killed by Vecna. That is, until her friends open a small escape hatch for her by blasting her favorite song through a walkman. The song, "Running Up That Hill," becomes her talisman for the rest of the season, always faintly wafting through her headphones on a loop.
Bush’s song was originally written as a plea for empathy, for men to better understand women by stepping into their shoes: “If I only could, I’d make a deal with God, and I’d get Him to swap our places,” she intones. But in this scene, it's Max’s friends—three adolescent boys, one of whom, Lucas, is crushing on her hard—who are trying to make her see things their way. When Bush first sang the words “Be running up that road, be running up that hill, with no problems,” she was imaging a romance freed of pain and powered by true mutual understanding. Over the rousing beat and soaring synths, it's easy to hear those lyrics and imagine that it's Bush specifically who's freed in the bargain; she's jettisoned the burdens and traumas men place on women's backs. But when Max runs towards her friends to those same lyrics, she's kept aloft by the support that those dweeby but loving boys send her way from the other side of reality.
When I pose that interpretation to Felder, she approves. "The song does indeed capture the emotional disconnection between Max and Lucas and her friends. It's the spiritual power of love that allows us to switch places and step into the shoes of those who matter to us," she says, "that helps us run up those hills in life."
Bush's music has been the special sauce for many soundtracks over the decades, often subverting what's on screen or taking on new meanings. What makes her music magical is that it's so thematically rich and universally affecting that even when she makes clear the intentions she had while writing a song, it still appears to us as an emotional Rubik's Cube. You can spend hours turning it this way or that, puzzling over the moods it evokes.
Take for example when "Running Up That Hill" was deployed in the series premiere of FX's Pose. It scored the doomed romance between a buttoned-up '80s corporate type and the stunning transgender sex worker who beguiles him. (The john works for, who else, Donald J. Trump.) When they kiss to the song playing over a car radio, they agree it'll be their song. Cut to the next scene, and he's violently brushing his teeth to rid her taste from his mouth before joining his wife in bed. Yet the song plays again when they reunite in the episode's closing scene. It's their song, an ode to an achingly optimistic fantasy. It's also a trick they've pulled over on one another.
Or consider when "This Woman's Work" opened the second season of Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale. The show took a song full of twinkling chords and lilting vocals, written for a John Hughes movie, and played it over the horrifying image of 45 bound and muzzled handmaids being fitted with nooses on a gallows. In Hughes's 1988 romcom She’s Having a Baby, "This Woman's Work" scores a scene in which Kevin Bacon's character waits for his wife, played by Elizabeth Montgomery, to come out of the complicated delivery of their first child. Bush wrote the lyrics from a man's point of view as he reflects on his love and longing for a wife in the middle of her "woman's work"—that is, childbirth: "I stand outside this woman's work, this woman's world," she sings. "Oh, it's hard on the man, now his part is over." In Handmaid's Tale, set in a dystopian—and not too unimaginable—future where reproductive rights are a nonstarter and women are chattel, the song is played for wrenching irony. Versions of the song have played in everything from Love & Basketball to It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia.
That a new generation could find the song and catapult it to new heights shows the potency of both Bush's music and Stranger Things. "Running Up That Hill" has been interpreted as many things over the years—an ode to understanding, a paean to spirituality, a song about grief and longing. Now it's become an anthem to friendship and chosen families, whether that's rooted in the nostalgia of growing up in the '80s or in the necessary togetherness-against-adversity of a new generation facing myriad crises. Either way, Kate Bush has us covered. "That’s the power of a great song," says music supervisor Felder, "connected with a great story."
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