There are few things in life that I can enjoy uncritically—totally surrender to—and yet also appreciate as intellectually complex, finely-wrought works of art. The music of Kate Bush is one of those things. Her preternatural voice, sublimely ridiculous costumes, dance, and gesture, and haunting, literary lyricism immediately captivate the ear and eye—and work their magic on the mind not long after. It’s an unusual—I’d say extremely rare—set of qualities that set her apart from every pop star in the era of her prime and in our own. At the risk of drawing a perhaps too-easy comparison, but I think an apt one: as a solo artist she rivals maybe only David Bowie in her ability to own the spotlight and remain in total control of her sound and image. (Both of them, in fact, trained with the same dance teacher, Lindsay Kemp.)
But while Bowie made it look easy, and found ways to stay nearly-ever-present in every decade since the 70s, for Bush that control was hard won, and meant withdrawals from the public, including a 12-year break that, writes The Guardian, reminded some of “the mythological resonance of Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes hiatus.” She has toured only twice: once at the very beginning of her career in 1979 and again, 35 years later, in 2014. Critics and die-hard fans have long speculated about the reasons for Bush’s withdrawal from performance and her general public reticence, but statements from the artist herself have made it clear that part of her struggle with stardom had to do with feeling exploited in the way so many women are by the music industry.
By the end of her lavish, 28-night 1979 extravaganza, she recalled, “I felt a terrific need to retreat as a person, because I felt that my sexuality, which in a way I hadn’t really had a chance to explore myself, was being given to the world in a way which I found impersonal.” “Bush,” The Guardian writes, “did everything she could to prevent herself being exposed in that way again.”
The move was both a loss and a gain for her fans. While her live shows might have become legendary in the way Bowie’s did over the years, her retreat into a private sphere all her own allowed her to continue writing and recording consistently brilliant, challenging music that never became compromised by industry hackwork, as she herself never became someone else’s product.
Her ability to assert herself so early in her career is also a testament to her creative confidence. Bush was only 19 years old when she released her first album, The Kick Inside, an age at which many emerging pop stars allow themselves to be commandeered by overbearing management. But she has remained relevant by remaining her—odd, enigmatic, totally original—self. “Artists shouldn’t be made famous,” she once remarked, “it is a forced importance.”
Before launching that first tour, and deciding it wasn’t for her, Bush made her first television appearance on a German program in 1978—see it at the top of the post. Rather than opening with “Wuthering Heights,” the song that did make her famous, she instead starts with the B-side, “Kite.” But then we hear that familiar, tinkling piano intro, and she delivers the big single, wearing the flowing red gown she donned in the oft-parodied American video for the song (above). The weird and wonderful dance moves are a little subdued, but like all of her performances—in very rare stage appearances, numerous videos, and ten amazing albums—it’s glorious.
In her first American TV appearance, on Saturday Night Live later that same year, Bush sang “The Man With the Child in His Eyes” in the gold lamé bodysuit she wore in the song’s official video (above). Just one of the many fashion choices that, along with those uninhibited dance moves—“those weird, spastic, fantastic interpretive dance moves,” writes Matthew Zuras in an appreciation—later gave us unforgettable classics like the “Babooshka” video (below). We have this unique, uncompromising body of work both because a more adventurous music industry decided to invest in developing Bush’s talent in the early 70s, and because she refused, after all, to accede to that industry’s usual demands.