In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well. This week: some great songs with prominent literary references.
Kate Bush, “Wuthering Heights” (1978)
Seeing as we live in the golden age of Kate Bush-influenced singer-songwriter-producers (see: this year’s releases by Joanna Newsom, Julia Holter, Grimes, Björk, etc., etc.), it’s easy to forget how new and unlikely a star Bush was in the early years of her career. Even Stevie Nicks, who worked pagan and romantic imagery with Fleetwood Mac, was still very much a rocker—and Bush, well, she was just sort of her own thing. As a teenager, she was signed by EMI, who didn’t have a clue what to do with her, but worried that another one of the Big Four record labels might; she was that kind of self-evident talent.
Idiosyncratic, original musicians almost never start out that way (see: the early singles of David Bowie, Scott Walker, etc.), but Bush was introduced as someone who more or less knew wanted to do with her art. Even if it would take a few more albums for her sense of sound to become as off-kilter and expressive as her voice, Bush’s debut album, The Kick Inside, stills feels strange and fresh. (Never underestimate the radical potential of a young woman’s sexuality, it seems.) The lead single, “Wuthering Heights,” really didn’t sound like anything that was supposed to be popular: highly dramatic art pop, sung in a powerful high-pitched yelp that can still make first-time listeners giggle (especially when accompanied by the wild gesticulations of Bush’s music videos and early TV appearances), until they find themselves captivated. It topped the British charts.
Kate Bush was all of 19 then. This is important, because though “Wuthering Heights” is a really confident piece of songcraft, it’s also unmistakably something written by a teenager in one sitting at the family piano. Bush was first exposed to Wuthering Heights through one of its many adaptations, having caught the end of a rerun of the BBC miniseries, which starred an unrecognizably young Ian McShane as Heathcliff, the complicated romantic anti-hero of Emily Brontë’s novel. (The Gothic and supernatural tradition in British film and TV is one of Bush’s big influences: This is, after all, a musician who titled a song “Hammer Horror,” opened “Hounds Of Love” with a sample from Jacques Tourneur’s Night Of The Demon, and wrote songs inspired by The Innocents and The Shining.)
“Wuthering Heights” is based on a moment in one of the early chapters of the novel, which, in the great rococo-framing-device tradition of 19th-century fiction, are narrated by one character (Mr. Lockwood) about another character (Heathcliff), but are really about an absent third, Catherine Earnshaw. Bush sings from Catherine’s perspective—which is to say, from the point-of-view of a ghost beckoning from a window, which is how Catherine first appears in Wuthering Heights, having died 17 years earlier. Re-tellings often say a lot about the teller, and Bush’s streamlining betrays identification: with the romanticized ghosts of Gothic fiction, with Catherine, and with Emily Brontë herself. (Possible contributing factors: Bush’s first name is Catherine, and she and Brontë share a birthday.)
This is the kind of claustrophobic self-discovery-through-art that is the unique domain of weird book-and-theater teens who express themselves mostly through affectation. Music made by teenagers is some of the purest stuff around, but it’s rarely backed by such a strong personality—young enough to be weird, confident enough to risk being off-putting, turning something as personal as a reader’s imagination into potent pop drama, a voice rising in pitch as though over a fog.