When Wuthering Heights took Britain by storm in 1847, it blew readers and reviewers away. Set in northern England’s merciless moors, Ellis Bell’s novel detailed the brutal intertwined fates of the Earnshaw and Linton families. The novel’s central romance was vexed and tumultuous. Its expressive writing felt almost supernaturally charged. Even today, its powerful narrative arc defies clear categorization. With such a work of genius at their feet, the British people could only agree on one thing: The novel surely couldn’t have been written by a woman. And yet, it was: The novel was by Emily Brontë. She wrote it when she was 27 years old.
A Love Letter To Kate Bush’s Complex FemininityVeronica Litt
Over a century later, in 1977, a witchy song paid homage to Brontë’s masterpiece. Titled “Wuthering Heights” and sung by 19-year-old Kate Bush, the tune captured the pop charts with its unlikely meld of Gothic novel, kooky interpretive dance, and impossibly high vocals. A massive hit, the song launched Bush’s decades-long career in music. However, as critic Margaret Talbot noted, Bush’s success had a dark side.
A version of Brontë’s fate befell her young protégée. As reviewers tried to understand how a teenage girl conquered the British charts without a) sexualizing herself b) bending to domineering producers or c) compromising her artistic vision, they fell back on a reductive trope that has plagued women artists for centuries. Kate Bush didn’t make music. Instead, the music somehow “happened” to her. The press pitched Bush as a pseudo-supernatural nymph rather than an intelligent young artist. She was a conduit rather than a creator, inspired rather than inspirational, ethereal rather than hardworking. In sum, Bush wasn’t allowed to take the credit for her own achievement.
Revising the Narrative
In 2019, with Bush’s cult of fans still as fervent as they were in 1977, those critics have been proven wrong. Bush is one of the most brilliant, original, and ambitious musical artists England has ever produced. Not only does she write all of her own material, she pioneered the use of the Fairlight synthesizer and headset microphone. Over the years, she has directed her own music videos and produced her own albums. She has meticulously overseen every aspect of her creative output, from stage costumes to album covers. In 2005, she received some of the best reviews of her career for Aerial, an ode to the natural world in all its weird glory. Then in 2011, her most recent album 50 Words For Snow received widespread critical acclaim. Music did not happen to Kate Bush—Kate Bush happened to music.
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman
But even before the critical praise and widespread recognition, Kate Bush recognized that her work merited serious attention. Nurtured in a bohemian household, Bush grew up confident in her intelligence and artistry. She allowed herself to become passionate about diverse topics. She delved into everything from James Bond and campy horror movies to the Bible and Russian folklore.
Bush pursued her interests vigorously and when she finished her research, she challenged herself to create something that could join her beloved poems, films, and novels in the artistic pantheon. Without being egotistical or aloof, Bush became steady in her convictions and confident in her abilities. It is a rare and beautiful thing, to watch early Kate Bush interviews and see a young woman own her artistry with such grace.
The Woman Artist’s Dilemma
When Bush signed with EMI, they knew they had a major talent on their hands. What they didn’t realize was that Bush would not be an overly compliant starlet. In a notorious music industry anecdote, she went against the will of her label and insisted that “Wuthering Heights” be the lead single from her debut album The Kick Inside.
In one clip, a sly interviewer asked Bush about her “aggressiveness.” Bush evenly replied: “I don’t think I’m aggressive about my business. I do feel strongly about how I want to see it presented. It is an expression of me at some point, though once it goes out into the world, it should leave me and my expression behind.” This answer is at once a masterclass in diffusing tension, and a prescient summary of long-standing debates over art and identity.
Bush simultaneously owns her decision to prioritize “Wuthering Heights” while also making a point that she will repeat during her long career. She wants her art to speak for her, but also for itself. In other words, she wants to be taken seriously as an artist. But here’s the rub: she’s not interested in abandoning her femininity in the process. She wants to be both a woman and an artist—and that cultural tightrope is almost impossible to traverse.
Alternative female artists have always had to navigate fame with their gender in mind. Bush’s contemporaries and successors have provided various methods for negotiating their images. Annie Lennox opted for androgynous cool. Florence Welch almost transcends her body, becoming more of a woodland sprite than a living, breathing woman. Billie Eilish intentionally disavows her femininity, opting for baggy clothing that disguises her body. Meanwhile, FKA Twigs goes the other way. She relishes in her sexuality, asserting pole dance’s validity as an art form and an athletic enterprise.
Bush dabbles in each of these strategies. While her scruffy paperboy in the “Cloudbusting” video doesn’t have the same gender-neutral hauteur as Eilish or Lennox, it confirms Bush’s similar ethos: Appealing to the male gaze is not her priority. And yet, Bush insists on owning her sexuality. Sometimes, this means transforming into a fierce Viking princess in a metallic bikini (see the “Babooshka” video) in the vein of Welch’s supernatural goddess. Other times, this means setting the stage for FKA Twigs by frankly discussing how her “sexual need” facilitates the artistic process. Heck, Bush rewrote Molly Bloom’s breathless soliloquy, the most erotic lines in literature, so well that it even impressed the Joyce family.
Pop Image Alchemy
Bush refused to enter the pre-packaged “female pop star” mold endured by starlets like Jessica Simpson and Britney Spears. Instead, Bush revels in her body on her own terms. She is both fascinated by and proud of being a flesh-and-blood woman. Yet, this is only one part of Bush’s identity. She’s also an avant-garde nerd, swaying hippie, and furious activist.
Over the years, she’s sung pi up to its 78th decimal place, low-key wrote a brilliant sci-fi short story in song form, and reprimanded colonizers with a horrible Aussie accent. In other words, Bush defies categorization. She’s a heartthrob, try-hard theater kid, unapologetic weirdo, and rabble-rouser. Oh, and a female artist: The label that ambitious women want to reclaim (or want to want to reclaim?) or just want to throw out the window.
“This Woman’s Work”
In songs like “This Woman’s Work” and “Running Up That Hill,” Bush explores the contradictory, impossible expectations placed on women by men who have never had to walk a day in their shoes. At once, Bush affirms the link between her gender and her artistry, while also refusing to be reduced to a “woman artist.” Bush’s gender doesn’t define her, her artistic efforts do. But, amid all her coy answers about wanting the work to speak for itself, Bush is never ashamed to be a woman. Over a century after the world couldn’t believe “Ellis Bell” could possibly be Emily Brontë, Kate Bush offers us a nuanced, bold, complex way of being both a woman and an artist.
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