Today’s post is a review of Debi Withers’s Adventures in Kate Bush and Theory. I’ve actually been holding onto it for a while, as Withers was good enough to have her publisher HammerOn Press send me a copy (my hunch is that a previous entry on Bush’s The Dreaming, wherein I cited her essay on Lionheart, got me the free wares). I read it a little over a week ago but amid all the SXSW revelry, didn’t get a chance to review it. I wanted to have a clear head when drafting an appraisal, so here goes.
For those unfamiliar with her work, Withers is an English queer feminist cultural studies scholar who focuses on music culture. She also puts theory into practice as a contributor to musical projects like Drunk Granny and Voice Tribe. Much of her scholarship has focused on Kate Bush, out of which this book was formed.
Adventures is a fun read that embraces feminist and queer theory while making it accessible to folks who haven’t gotten down and dirty with Luce Irigaray. As someone who doesn’t consider herself much of a theoryhead and always looks for a practical application when reading such works, I appreciated that Withers provided such an interesting subject to attach theoretical abstractions to. Importantly, Withers makes clear that she will not be talking about Kate Bush the musician, but rather Kate Bush the personae, which she refers to throughout as the Bush Feminine Subject (BFS). While I think the term potentially turns the subject into something of a monolith, the distinction must be made and the use of the musician’s given name cannot suffice. As Withers is astute to point out, there’s a big difference between Kate Bush and “Kate Bush.” Never a strictly autobiographical writer, Kate Bush penned songs about girls in incestuous relationships with male siblings, Houdini’s wife, unborn babies, Wilhelm Reich, Karen from The Red Shoes, Peter Pan, Catherine Earnshaw, burglars, aborigines, gay bon vivants, and mothers of dead soldiers. “Kate Bush” embodied them, often modifying her own singing voice to do so. She often recorded and performed these characters with a flair for the dramatic and drama’s inclination toward camp.
Withers cherry-picks from Bush’s catalog, forming a life cycle out of thematic elements in The Kick Inside, Lionheart, Never For Ever, The Dreaming, and The Red Shoes, as well as the final movements of Hounds of Love and Aerial. According to Withers, Kick represents the birth of the BFS, along with coming-of-age preoccupations like menstruation (“Strange Phenomena”) and young love, whether doomed (“Wuthering Heights”) or forbidden (the title track). Lionheart is a showcase for the artist’s preoccupations with performance, disguise, camp, maturation, and sexuality, which all often take on queer associations. Never For Ever marks a transitional period, demonstrating at once her interest in costume and mistaken identity (“Babooshka”) while at the same time insinuating a politicized awareness toward modern life, best exemplified with “Breathing,” a song delivered by a fetus who is aware of the nuclear fallout its mother is trying to live through.
From here The Dreaming comes to represent the artist’s ongoing personal evolution. Withers argues this is attained through politicized awareness of other cultures (the title track), the reinvigorated investment with one’s own (“Night of the Swallow,” which acknowledges Bush’s Irish heritage), the commitment to being receptive to knowledge (“Leave It Open”), as well as struggle (“Sat In Your Lap”) and resistance (“Get Out Of My House,” an anti-rape song that draws The Shining, turning the house into a metaphor for the female body). In addition, The Dreaming is also concerned with the process of metamorphosis, most often involving people turning into machines. As this was Bush’s first sole production credit, this theme takes on personal connotations about the artist’s relationship to her work. Finally, Withers argues that The Red Shoes (and Bush’s accompanying short, The Line, The Cross, and The Curve) symbolizes the suicide of the artist, drawing from the lore of the Hans Christian Andersen tale as well as the 1948 movie by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (for an in-depth reading on the movie, Matthew Dessem’s essay for Criterion Contraption is as good a place as any to start). As Withers argues that artistry transcends mortality, the subject is reborn with Hounds of Love‘s “The Ninth Wave” and disappears with Aerial‘s “A Sky of Honey,” the final movement off Bush’s most recent album, which was released twelve years after her previous studio offering, The Red Shoes.
I’m not sold on structuring the artist’s work this way, as I think that at times Withers pushes the interpretation of the life cycle onto Bush’s work, though I do understand from working on a master’s thesis that the process of organizing a larger body of work to fit a document is a problematic one. And while I understand why Withers wants to focus attention away from Hounds of Love, Bush’s best-known album, I feel she does a disservice by glossing over certain albums. The omission of The Sensual World is particularly troubling, as Bush believed it to be her most feminine work. Furthermore, it contains songs like “Deeper Understanding,” which is concerned with the potentially humanizing and dehumanizing connotations of digital interactions and fits nicely into Bush’s work on The Dreaming.
As subjectivity is a key theme in Withers book, I’m pleased at how she unpacked the identity politics evident in Bush’s ouvre. Withers is quick to point out Bush’s interest in camp, performance, and ambiguity, as well as the matter of vocality, all of which suggests elements of queerness in her work. Vocality is a particularly interesting matter, as Bush often sang as multiple subjects and tended to sing across age ranges, gender and sex catagories, and orientations depending on her subject in any given song.
In addition, it’s important to note that Bush has a big queer following. Men like Rufus Wainwright and Alan Cumming have professed their fandom, as have publications like Out. More importantly, Withers brings in her own sexuality into the discussion and argues that lesbians also have quite an affinity for Bush, a fan base and culture that Bush acknowledges and celebrates in certain songs and music videos.
I also appreciate Withers interrogation of race and nationality and how Bush’s position as a middle-class, white British woman is a problematic one. At times, Bush is something of a fetishist and voyeur of the other (particularly of East Asian, South Asian, Middle Eastern, and African/African American culture). Given her country’s problematic history with colonialism, this obsession takes on even more troubling dimensions. The matter of the nice white lady is a problem I run into all the time as a feminist (and nice white lady). It’s a matter I brought up when discussing Joanna Newsom’s latest album and it’s an issue that informs my ambivalent feelings toward other white feminist icons like Liz Lemon (for more recent offerings on her, I’d recommend reading Sady Doyle and Amanda Hess’s recent conversation following Doyle’s Tiger Beatdown piece on the subject).
While I enjoyed Adventures, I wish Withers would’ve contextualized the subjective nature of Bush’s fame. In the UK, Australia, and parts of Europe, Bush is a pop star of considerable renown, achieving commercial and critical success I’d estimate somewhere between Björk’s slightly-left-of-mainstream status and Madonna’s superstardom in the states. But in America, Bush is strictly a cult phenomenon. She did receive some recognition for minor hits like “Running Up That Hill,” “Cloudbusting,” and “Rubberband Girl.” Early videos like “The Man With The Child In His Eyes,” were a part of MTV’s original rotation schedule. “Don’t Give Up,” a duet she recorded with Peter Gabriel, has been featured in television and film and has been covered extensively. Similar things can be said of “This Woman’s Work.” Maxwell’s cover of the song was used in a routine for So You Think You Can Dance? that was meant to raise awareness about breast cancer.
Yet, Bush never really crossed over in the United States. She may have been on Top of the Pops but she was a hardly a fixture on the American late night talk show circuit. She never landed the cover of Rolling Stone, much less been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Many people may not have heard of her, though her influence has carried over to contemporary acts like Tori Amos, Bat for Lashes, and Joanna Newsom. In short, she’s a cult figure here.
Thus, when reading the book, it was hard for me to take Bush’s celebrity as a given. By putting such a focus on the albums and what they suggest about the BFS’s trajectory, I kept wondering about the actual Kate Bush behind it and how such an eccentric, challenging musical figure was so widely accepted in her home country. While Withers acknowledges the anomalous conditions that allowed for Bush’s success, I was left wanting to greater sociohistoric context. What other artists were popular at the time? How was Bush able to produce her own material? What was her recording contract like? Who did she work with? Did early supporters like Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour sway the buying public? How were her videos received, and how did they intervene as the musician became more reticent to grant interviews and tour following the release of Lionheart? Did her unfounded reputation as a reclusive madwoman sensationalize her and thus make her a (shudder) hot commodity?
Also did much of Bush’s fame rest not only on her ability to meld feminized forms like piano-based folk singing with the masculinized practices of punk’s commitment to DIY ethics and confrontational sexual politics, but also with her clear indebtedness to glam? It’s no coincidence that she studied dance with Lindsay Kemp, who worked extensively with David Bowie, most notably during the Ziggy Stardust era. Yet like Bush, glam was far less ubiquitous in American popular consciousness in its time than it was in Great Britain. While Withers does provide some context, I think she presumes her reader to be British. Thus, I wonder how accessible this book would be to other audiences outside of Western Europe.
That said, for those who are die-hard Bush fans, nascent appreciators, or life-long feminist theorists, this book is one to add to the shelves. Open the book, throw on a record, and let the debate continue.
This post is really two posts. The first section preoccupies itself with why album covers matter culturally, so as to set up a discussion of a particularly interesting album cover, in this case Kate Bush’s 1982 release, The Dreaming, which I focus on in the second section. I intend to discuss more album covers throughout the duration of this blog’s livelihood. If you would like to throw out suggestions or contribute a piece, feel free. Contact me at email@example.com.
One thing that I fear is leaving our popular consciousness in the digital age is the album cover. I don’t consider myself a technophobe and hardly think music videos (once on TV, now on the Web) contributed to the downfall of album packaging (I actually think that’s the fault of record labels who keep raising their retail prices). Yet I do worry what we’ll lose if we stop caring about album covers. Growing up, Madonna had some of the most interesting album covers ever. So imagine how bummed I was when I saw her slapped-together, clumsily Photoshopped cover for Hard Candy. Sigh.
Now I know that avering my love for album covers may cast me as a bit of a commodity fetishist (which I kinda am, despite how problematic it is). And I get why album covers don’t take priority. For one, market imperative — covers cost money and the more elaborate they are, the more expensive they can become (just ask the folks at Factory Records; for every sold copy of New Order’s “Blue Monday” — lavishly designed by Peter Saville to look like a floppy disc — the label lost money, though was more concerned in releasing a well-made, lovingly-crafted piece of popular art than in turning a profit). Also, the reliance of plastic for packaging can be less than environmentally friendly (though kudos to many musical acts, artists, and record labels for realizing this and phasing it out with more paper printing).
But album covers reveal so much — who the artist is, what the music is going to sound like, what the theme or concept behind the album might be, who made the cover art, the evolution of print technology, the history of album packaging, indeed how valuable packaging may have been to the people and companies responsible for release. And obviously, in terms of representational politics, album covers can tell stories, share folklore, provide commentary, project alternate realities, or rebel. Bottom line: they’re texts and we shouldn’t overlook them or what they may reveal about the artists, the markets, and the fan bases. If interested, I highly recommend Steve Jones and Martin Sorger’s essay “Covering Music: A Brief History and Analysis of Album Cover Design.”
Treatise endeth. New treatise begineth.
One such album cover I’d like to look at is Kate Bush’s The Dreaming. Now, I’m a bit new to her, but not exactly. I have kind of a greatest hits awareness of her. As a girl, I made up dance routines in my room to “Rubberband Girl” and “Running Up That Hill” when they (rarely) got played on the radio. I know she was discovered by Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour at an early age and recorded her first album, The Kick Inside, as a teenager. I know that she produces her own material. I know that she’s a trained interpretive dancer and worked with Lindsay Kemp, David Bowie’s choreographer. I know that she directed and starred in a short film called The Line, the Cross, & the Curve co-starring Miranda Richardson based on songs from her 1993 album The Red Shoes. I know she’s done some bugged-out music videos. For example:
And then I know what other people think of her. I know a lot of negative things. Characters in books like Bret Easton Ellis’s The Rules of Attraction and Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity hate on her music. Likewise, people like to throw around rumors that, due to her perfectionism in the studio and her penchance for writing songs about female suffering and neuroses, mythological women, and the paranormal, she is crazy. It’s all crazy sexist. On that tip, I was friends with a girl who said of Bush, “Ugh, Lilith Fair.”
And then the positives. I know that a lot of people mention her when they talk about Tori Amos (and now, St. Vincent and Bat for Lashes). I’ve read some academic work (specifically Debi Withers’s piece on queer subjectivity in her second album, 1978’s Lionheart, and Holly Kruse’s “In Praise of Kate Bush,” which considers Bush’s authorial status, from the anthology On Record: Rock, Pop, and the Written Word). I know that Ann Powers, a rock journalist I idolized growing up, is writing a 33 1/3 book on The Dreaming (expect a future post upon its release next year — I’m way stoked).
And then I know male artists who have sited her as an influence. There’s L.A. outsider art rocker Ariel Pink, who borrows her treble-heavy, lo-fi, avant pop production sensibilities and clearly positions himself as a fan.
Hmmm. Guess I knew more than I thought. Yet, I’d never actually listened to an entire Kate Bush album. So, I thought I’d start with The Dreaming, which is really great. It’s kinda crazy how influential and varied and timeless this music is — I haven’t had a listening experience with so many “aha” and “so this is where ______ came from” moments since I first heard The Velvet Underground’s debut album the summer before college. But that was all happy accident. I picked it because a) it’s widely regarded by music critics as a masterpiece, b) indeed, Powers is writing about it, c) it marks a transition for Bush as producer as well as singer and instrumentalist, and d) the cover.
This cover (made by Kindlight) knocks me out. I’ve stared at so much in the past few weeks — after several years of looking at it in various record stores — and only recently figured out that it’s supposed to be Houdini and his wife (indeed, there is a song called “Houdini” on the album, told from his wife’s perspective). The shackles around him are to be broken using the key, which Bush (as Bess Houdini) has in her mouth. But I always thought she had a wedding ring in her mouth and was internally debating whether or not to put it on (and perhaps be shackled) or swallow it and flee.
I suppose it could work either way. It’s also possible that Bush and Bess Houdini have suddenly become self-conscious about the inherent performativeness of their careers (musicians, like magicians, trade in trickery). There’s also the possibility that the key takes on some sort of sexual, Freudian design as a symbol and that the juxtaposition of the key, the shackles, her tongue, and her lusty proximity to Houdini may be at odds with her Victorian dress, coinciding at once with Houdini’s era, Bush’s origins as a Brit, and Bush’s lyrical preoccupations. All readings are valid, as they peak curiosity and dialogue with the music. Indeed, they are part of the music. Part of this woman’s work.