“What Sorts of Identity, or Identities, Does Kate Bush Explore in Her Songs, and How Are These Expressed Musically, Textually, and Visually?” by Stef Socher
Magnificat, April 2022
Kate Bush is an English singer and songwriter. She was discovered at a very young age by Pink Floyd. Based on Bush’s experience in the media industry that her body was a sex object and that she would be sexualised in the music industry to become a “product” that will sell well, she eventually became independent in writing her lyrics and performing her songs, so that the audience could see her as the artist who had a message to share. Due to her experiences Bush’s work is influenced by many topics, including sexuality, gender, and spirituality. While each album is devoted to one or two of those important topics, the albums also seem to build on each other. Starting with The Kick Inside in 1978, the story of a character’s advancement from one life stage to another is evident throughout the albums. Who is this character and what are the character’s different identities the listener gets to ‘meet’ in Bush’s songs? How do Bush’s music, text, and visuals immerse the audience into those different identities?
Analysing Kate Bush’s music, it is important to first understand that while she is writing about herself and performing her own music, she is representing a different Kate through her music. She creates a whole new reality in which she transforms herself into multiple different identities through a variety of songs. Deborah Withers terms Bush’s created self within her music as the “Bushian Feminine Subject” (BFS). The BFS is fluid throughout their experience told through the songs and takes on multiple identities.
One of those identities is a queer identity. Bush’s inclusion of queer identity in her music is not surprising considering that she once mentioned in an interview “I like to think I’m a man […] in the areas that they explore. […] I just think I identify more with male musicians than female musicians, because I tend to think of females musicians as…ah… females.” Her statement shows that Bush does not want to be limited in her music by what people would consider to be appropriate for a female. She wants to explore on her own terms. This identity exploration is expressed in the album Lionheart from 1978. The cover of Lionheart is the first sign that the Bushian Feminine Subject has undergone a change. Bush is portrayed in a lion costume which creates gender ambiguity. Her hair is long, but her staring fiercely at the ‘audience’ who sees the cover, with make-up that is suggestive of the individual being male, creates confusion and ambiguity.
The song ‘In Search of Peter Pan’ from the album Lionheart provides an opportunity to analyse the BFS’s exploration of queer identity. In the opening verse, the BFS seems to be a child or at least of younger age because they are told “when I get older / That I’ll understand it all.” Their high pitched and somewhat “squeaky” sounding singing voice supports the child identity. The high pitch creates a feeling of discomfort in the listener which might reflect how the BFS is feeling as a child being told they are “too sensitive.” Withers points out how being too sensitive is a common stereotype applied to females. This stereotype is juxtaposed with the BFS feeling “like an old man.” As Withers notes, this juxtaposition causes confusion in the listener but also clearly contrasts the BFS from the stereotypical societal female they do not want to become.
The chorus highlights a true wish and frustration about societal standards at the same time. The BFS wishes to be a man. At the same time, the BFS makes us aware that in our cliché-based society, they would have to be a man in order to become an astronaut. Them, trying to “find Peter Pan” (an androgynous figure) expresses the wish for freedom and self-actualisation in a world where they feel like this is only granted to men. Their shift to a lower voice for the pre-chorus “They took the game right out of it,” indicates a change of lyrical content which is emphasised with the lowest voice thus far on “out of it” in the second line of the pre-chorus. Following right after is the chorus starting with “When I am a man” for which the pitch increases again. Particularly on the word “astronaut,” the BSF returns to an uncomfortable high pitch which could highlight the metaphor of the astronaut by opposing the male-gendered astronaut with a female voice.
With the identities Bush explores through her music, a pattern of death and rebirth is discernible within her songs. One identity must metaphorically die in order for another identity to come to life. Through this exploration of identity, the BFS also suffers from an identity crisis. The collection of multiple songs in her album Hounds of Love – ‘The Ninth Wave’ – is an example of an identity crisis she goes through. The first song, ‘And Dream of Sheep,’ is an example of how an identity crisis is a critical part of the expression of identities. The identity crisis is resolved in the last song of ‘The Ninth Wave,’ ‘The Morning Fog,’ as Bush describes. The character is rescued and gains back their perspective to be grateful for the little things in life.
Focusing on ‘And Dream of Sheep,’ an analysis will shed light on how the Bushian Feminine Subject experiences a crisis. The song exhibits multiple elements of an identity crisis, both textually and visually. Throughout the whole music video, Bush as the BFS is floating on water with a life vest on that has a blinking light. The blinking light in the video supports the opening lines of the song “Little light shining / Little light will guide them to me.” Bush herself describes that the character in the song is struggling with not falling asleep because this would cause death. The lines “Let me be weak, let me sleep and dream of sheep” express their wish to let go. On the other hand, they are trying to stay awake which is described in the lines ‘I can’t keep my eyes open / Wish I had my radio.’ These lines pertain to a physical and mental struggle of the BFS to stay alive while barely afloat on the water.
However, those lines do not only support the idea of the real struggle to stay alive but also the metaphorical struggle. The described wish to die and let go can be interpreted as the wish to take on a new identity. The line “Let me be weak…” is the short chorus and follows the first two verses. They imagine white horses toward the end of the first verse. White horses can be used as a symbol for death, which expresses their first wish to die that is then magnified by the one-line chorus. In verse two they seem to want to hold on to life—or their old identity—again, hoping for distractions to keep them awake. However, the one-line chorus then indicates that they are dying a second time anew. This is supported in the music video by Bush closing her eyes after every metaphorical death. In the last verse it is unclear what the character imagines. Bush sings ‘…their breath is warm,’ but it is left open to the listener who “they” are. Nonetheless, the character finally decides to let go, ‘They take me deeper and deeper…’ The music video makes clear that the character has given up because they are not floating anymore but, despite the life vest, are drowning in the water.
Besides a transformation of identities and the discussion of social issues, in one of her most recent albums, Aerial, Bush creates an “invisible identity.” Contrary to previous albums in which Bush used her music, text, and body to immerse the Bushian Feminine Subject into a different identity or even reality, her songs in Aerial have the effect of disconnecting her body not only from the text but also from herself. With How To Be Invisible, Bush creates a space to exist, not for the body but rather for the mind or soul. The BFS’s identity remains spiritually and metaphorically, but not physically.
The BFS’s explanation of how to become invisible is described almost only through metaphors which seems to be one of Bush’s most prominently used textual tools in her songs. The almost one-minute-long musical intro before the lyrics set in builds suspense in the listener. It is soon clear that “tak[ing] a pinch of keyhole / And fold yourself up / You cut along the dotted line” is not a straightforward explanation but rather abstract.  The abstract textual description supports the abstract state of identity the BFS is reaching. A state you cannot grasp is described through metaphorical language that one cannot grasp.
The mysterious and untouchable identity of the BFS is reinforced through the musical accompaniment. In general, How To Be Invisible has a simple base beat provided by bass and drum, which allows for an emphasis on the electric guitar as the main instrument, including the application of specific techniques such as employing echo and offbeat reggae strokes. Emerging from surroundings, the echo amplifies the elusive quality of the Bushian Feminine Subject’s identity which emphasises disembodiment. Ron Moy describes the rhythm of the piece as “jolly” which helps the listener to not lose interest in an over five-minute-long track. The relatively mundane bass beat throughout the intro and the first verse allows for emphasis of the electric guitar which builds up suspense and induces mysteriousness right before the chorus. The chorus is then sung very quietly with a mystical touch in Bush’s voice, potentially to create a sense of invisibility to embrace the BFS invisible identity. Right after the chorus, the mundane, simple beat with a steady rhythm returns.
The chorus stands out musically and might thus be of high importance in understanding how to become invisible. As quiet and simple the accompaniment might be, the more complicated are the metaphors used and how to interpret them. The BFS compares four contradicting elements in the chorus, “Eye of Braille / Hem of Anorak / Stem of Wallflower / Hair of Doormat.” Braille is the writing system that blind people use in order to read with their fingers since they cannot see. If they cannot see, then why does the Braille need an eye? “Stem of Wallflower” is just as contradicting. Since wallflowers, as the name indicates, grow on walls, they do not have a stem. So, what would the stem of the wallflower be? Taking a closer look, the solution might lie in the contradiction. Possibly, those metaphors indicate that the solution to becoming invisible lies “in-between,” in-between what we understand and do not understand, what we can comprehend and not comprehend, in-between the possible and impossible. Thus, the “invisible identity” is created in a space that is removed from our physical world and body, existing in each listener’s mind according to their own discretion and interpretation of the metaphors applied in text. A safe space, where both the listener and the Bushian Feminine Subject become untouchable.
Bush’s lyrical, musical, and visual exploration of herself as a surreal character within her music is fascinating. The issues she assimilates in the 70s and 80s are still omnipresent topics around the world today. It is astounding that even though her music discusses similar, if not the same, topics as other very commonly known pop music nowadays, her media presence is so low. Other musicians receive praise for their works that raise awareness about the LGBTQ community, women’s rights, or other political issues. Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” is a very commonly known and popular song that summarises the positive as well as negative political events of the modern western past in four minutes. So do most people know Katy Perry’s “I Kissed A Girl” which destigmatises homosexual attraction. While Bush’s works seem to fall through the cracks of today’s popular show business, I do think her works have had a lasting impact. I wonder how many artists have been inspired by Kate Bush’s self-determination and authenticity as a woman in show business.
 Sheila Whiteley, Too Much Too Young: Popular Music, Age and Gender (New York: Routledge, 2003), p. 69.
 Ky Fuller, “‘Let’s exchange the experience’: Kate Bush’s Bodily Metamorphoses in Lyric and Voice,” (2021), pp. 1 ff.; Ian Ravendale, “Kate Bush (1978),” Rock’s Backpages Audio, 1978, https://www.rocksbackpages. com/Library/Article/kate-bush-1978.
 Deborah M. Withers, Adventures in Kate Bush and Theory (Bristol: Hammer on Press, 2010), p. 8.
 Withers, Adventures in Kate Bush and Theory, p. 7.
 Harry Doherty, “Kate Bush: The Kick Outside,” Melody Maker, 1978, http://gaffa.org/reaching/i78_mm2.html; Fuller, “Let’s exchange the experience,” p. 2.
 Withers, Adventures in Kate Bush and Theory, p. 104.
 Kate Bush, How To Be Invisible, (London: Faber & Faber, 2018), p. 163.
 Kate Bush, “In Search of Peter Pan,” in Lionheart (November 1978), Amazon Music, https://music. amazon.de/albums/B00QNWU90K.
 Withers, p. 109.
 Bush, How To Be Invisible, p. 163.
 Withers, p. 109.
 Bush, “In Search of Peter Pan,” Amazon Music.
 Richard Skinner, “Classic Albums interview: Hounds of Love,” Radio 1, 1985, http://gaffa.org/reaching/ ir85_r1.html.
 Kate Bush, And Dream of Sheep, (November 2016), YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v =_256xd9N27o.
 Bush, How To Be Invisible, p. 176.
 Skinner, “Classic Albums interview,” 1985.
 Bush, And Dream of Sheep.
 Fuller, “Let’s exchange the experience,” p. 11.
 Bush, How To Be Invisible, p. 188.
 Ron Moy, Kate Bush and Hounds of Love, (Abingdon: Taylor & Francis Group, 2007), p. 126.
 Kate Bush, “How To Be Invisible,” in Aerial (2018 Remaster) (November 2005), Amazon Music, https://music.amazon.de/albums/B07KSNPHN3.
 Bush, How To Be Invisible, p. 188.
Bush, Kate. Aerial (2018 Remaster) (November 2005). Amazon Music. https://music.amazon. de/albums/B07KSNPHN3Bush, Kate. How To Be Invisible. London: Faber & Faber, 2018.
Bush, Kate. Lionheart (November 1978). Amazon Music. https://music.amazon.de/albums/B00QNWU90K.
Bush, Kate. And Dream of Sheep. (November 2016). YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/ watch?v=_256xd9N27o.
Doherty, Harry. “Kate Bush: The Kick Outside.” Melody Maker, 1978. http://gaffa.org/reaching/ i78_mm2.html.
Fuller, Ky. “‘Let’s exchange the experience’: Kate Bush’s Bodily Metamorphoses in Lyric and Voice.” (2021). https://repository.wellesley. edu/object/ir1303.
Moy, Ron. Kate Bush and Hounds of Love. Abingdon: Taylor & Francis Group, 2007.
Ravendale, Ian. “Kate Bush (1978).” Rock’s Backpages Audio, 1978. https://www.rocksbackpages .com/Library/Article/kate-bush-1978.
Skinner, Richard. “Classic Albums interview: Hounds of Love.” Radio 1, 1985. http://gaffa.org/reaching/ _r1.html.
Whiteley, Sheila. Too Much Too Young: Popular Music, Age and Gender. New York: Routledge, 2003.
Withers, Deborah M. Adventures in Kate Bush and Theory. Bristol: Hammer on Press, 2010.