opinion

Why Kate Bush stands as an LGBT icon forty years on from 'Wuthering Heights'

Matthew Barton explores how the queen of quirk left a lasting impact on the gay community.

2018-01-25

“Out on the wiley, windy moors,” sang Kate Bush over deceptively delicate piano notes forty years ago, as her debut single 'Wuthering Heights' permeated the airwaves, penetrated the public consciousness, and made its 19-year-old creator an instant star.

The impact of this timeless evocation of Emily Brontë’s gothic novel – a little bit musical theatre, a little bit prog-rock – was keenly felt at the time, as punk and disco fought for mainstream attention, but four decades on it remains as enduring as ever. But how and why did 'Wuthering Heights', and indeed its precocious architect, become a cornerstone of LGBT culture?

For a start, and fundamentally, Kate’s spectral otherness set her apart from the pop artists of the time. Her clearest antecedent was David Bowie, whose incorporation of sophisticated characterisation and visual stimulus, and whose subversive approach to gender and sexuality ushered in a whole new movement in mainstream pop,

But Kate was something different, something else, something even more strangely out of time.

Beneath some of the AOR production of her classic debut LP, 1978’s The Kick Inside, lurk finely-crafted songs that bear some of the chordal influence of her favourite singer-songwriters including Elton John and Joni Mitchell, but her subject matter weaves glorious, unorthodox webs that, coupled with her swooping, ethereal, neo-operatic vocal textures, position her material firmly off-kilter.

Kate was unabashed and steadfastly open in her songs of sexual abandon, desire, and romance; she sings of the carnal lure of “the feeling of sticky love inside” on the languorous 'L’Amour Looks Something Like You', posits incest as a beautiful, doomed quirk of nature on 'The Kick Inside', and sings of unbridled physicality on 'Feel It'. She kicked down doors that were sealed off, sang passionately of subjects that no other songwriter, male or female, felt compelled to explore, and all with a grace and sensuality that both belied her years and set up her career trajectory to come.

'Wuthering Heights' remains an incredibly strong force in popular culture. Written under a full moon in March 1977, Kate had only seen the climax of the 1967 BBC TV adaptation of Brontë’s novel, and hadn’t even read the novel. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it has a visceral, visual quality to its lyric, as Kate inhabits the ghostly Cathy, haunting her lover Heathcliff over the windswept moors. Musically, its Gothicism is offset by a late ‘70s AOR-rock sheen.

Cathy, the outsider looking in, demands of Heathcliff, “I’m so cold, let me in your window.” It is that very outsider status that strikes such a chord with the LGBT community, of unbridled passion, perseverance in the face of adversity, and persistent hope. It is that desire for acceptance that Kate Bush explores so radically and so beautifully, making “the other” something of a cause celebre.

Queer people identified with Kate Bush because of that otherness, because of her bravery and defiance, her fearless examination of previously ‘taboo’ themes, and her often high-camp performance style. As Rufus Wainwright told The Guardian in 2006: “She is the older sister that every gay man wants. She connects so well with a gay audience because she is so removed from the real world. She is one of the only artists who makes it appear better to be on the outside than on the inside.”

The magnificent, lushly exotic 'Kashka from Baghdad' from 1978’s Lionheart, is one of the prime examples of Kate’s celebration of the joy of the outsider status. “Kashka from Baghdad,” she sings over sensual piano chords, “lives in sin, they say, with another man – but no one knows who.”

Kate fixes her gaze firmly on an outcast couple, the music alternately romantic, enigmatic, and menacing, as male backing vocals chant aggressively behind her as she shrieks “at night / they’re seen / laughing / loving” but, by the time the narrator observes that “they know the way to be happy,” the aggression has subsided into regal elegance.

It’s a powerful statement of approval, and Kate herself put it simply when she told Interview Magazine in 2011: “I just liked the idea of this couple. Nobody really knew much about them—and they’re obviously having a great time.”

Observational songs like 'Kashka' highlight Kate’s keen eye for detail and empathetic lyrical style; her warm, graceful acceptance – and endorsement – of homosexual desire marked her out as an LGBT advocate from the outset.

Her frank openness and recognition of a gamut of gender norms and of the reality of sexual fluidity became a recurrent theme in her work; 'Wow', a biting satire of the theatrical business, finds Kate singing “He’ll never make the scene / he’ll never make the Sweeney / be that movie queen / he’s too busy hitting the Vaseline.” If we were in any doubt as to her underlying meaning, her performance in the video removes all doubt as she taps her buttock on the payoff line.

Kate’s deep and thoughtful understanding of men in her songs is an underrated value in her arsenal; there are the men sent to war in 'Army Dreamers', or the kindly but increasingly distant father figure in 'The Fog', the misunderstood mathematician in “Pi,” and, most of all, the exquisite 'This Woman’s Work', where she sings about parenthood and birth from the male perspective. And no one could inhabit Peter Gabriel’s lyric as the voice of reason and comfort in 'Don’t Give Up' better than Kate Bush.

Perhaps most poignant of all, the father-son narrative of 'Cloudbusting' climaxes with the Shakespearean pun “your son’s coming out.” The rush of hearing Bush equate positivity, happiness, open-mindedness, and the promise of good things with the emergence – sexually or otherwise – into the world at large remains a profound thrill.

Kate made hits of these songs, and they remain enduring in the public consciousness. She brought the joys and sorrows of hidden human life to the forefront through normalising phrases and ideas, and streamlined all elements of her craft into a unique musical and visual style.

She studied movement with the choreographer and mime artist Lindsay Kemp at his dance studios in Covent Garden; Kemp had worked with Bowie and had a small but memorable role in 1973’s The Wicker Man as a sinister pub landlord. Bush had seen Kemp’s production of Flowers and was rapt.

Her theatricality didn’t just extend to her music, be it the cabaret Weimar camp of 'Coffee Homeground' or the flamboyant 'Hammer Horror': Her wide-eyed facial expressions, interpolation of mime, and her swooping, balletic movements made not just 'Wuthering Heights' but all of her early performance films iconic.

Today, the Kate Bush of 'Wuthering Heights' is a continuing beacon of pop culture. Take 'The Ultimate Kate Bush Experience' in Brighton in 2013, where hundreds of Kate Bush lookalikes donned wigs and red dresses to stage a warm-hearted recreation of the 'Wuthering Heights' video; further such events took place in London’s Brockwell Park and at Dublin’s St. Anne’s Park in the ensuing years.

And who could forget Noel Fielding’s good-natured parody on Let’s Dance for Comic Relief in 2011, a performance that garnered the attention of the lady herself, who sent a good luck message.

The fact that the Kate of 'Wuthering Heights' – a figure of incredible talent but, at the time (and to a lesser degree to this day), somewhat roundly mocked – blossomed into the art-pop auteur of 1982’s The Dreaming and 1985’s Hounds of Love, a woman of universally-acknowledged originality, creative excellence, and innovation, indeed an artist who changed the landscape of pop music forever, chimes with the gay audience too.

What at first the public may mistake for novelty, or frivolity, reveals itself over time to be intelligent, compassionate, and wise.

Kate Bush is an LGBT icon for several reasons, not least because she built a successful career, without compromise, on her own terms, with thorough originality, ingenuity, and, crucially, trueness to herself. She did, and continues to do, things her own way, and is undaunted in her distinctiveness and navigation of the peculiarities of life.

Who else could make a song about intercourse with a snowman ('Misty') seem plausible? Who else would find both eroticism and melancholy in the humdrum as Kate does in 'Mrs. Bartolozzi'?

Anohni Hegarty told The Guardian in 2005 that her first glimpse of Kate, singing 'Wuthering Heights' now forty years ago, was a seminal experience.

“She was so magical: the world she inhabited was, especially poetically, a sort of fairyland. It was very sensuous and very pagan, and she sang so high - it was madcap,” she said.

And it is that sensuality, magic, and poeticism, that otherness and courageousness, that has carried Kate Bush, for forty years, through the choppy, murky waters of pop music and carved a firm place in our hearts.

She is, and always has been, herself, with no apologies. And for that, we salute you Kate Bush.