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Kate Bush, “Running Up That Hill,” and the End of Music Charts As We Knew Them

Thanks to ‘Stranger Things,’ one of art pop’s most reclusive figures has almost inadvertently found herself with a top-10 charting hit. Is it a fluke or a sign of the times?

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Kate Bush is being born again. It’s the last song of her 1985 masterpiece Hounds of Love—the finale of a seven-song suite titled The Ninth Wave, which tells the story of a castaway in a life jacket drifting through the open ocean. Close to death, the castaway experiences a Christmas Carol–like series of past, present, and future hallucinations before being rescued (or appearing to be, at least). “D’you know what?” she sings on “The Morning Fog,” newly appreciative of the people in her life after going through such a harrowing experience. “I love you better now.”

Rebirth has always been central to Bush’s music. A star since she was 19, when her 1978 debut single “Wuthering Heights” hit no. 1 in her native U.K., Bush has pushed back against traditions as much as any major pop star, with every new album a departure, every new sound a twist. (Imagine, if you can, a top young musician of today following up their first no. 1 album with something as out there as The Dreaming, Bush’s 1982 LP that at one point features her impression of a donkey.) Waiting to see how the next chapter will unfold is part of the appeal of being one of her fans—and part of the challenge.

It was par for the course, then, that the latest unexpected rebirth of Kate Bush’s career arrived this past week not with an album drop but with a music sync. Her song “Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God),” the lead single from Hounds of Love, has stormed back onto the charts after its central inclusion in the fourth season of Stranger Things, topping recent daily streaming lists in the U.S. and U.K., and reaching no. 8 on both the formal U.K. Singles Chart and the Billboard Hot 100 (Bush’s first time ever on the top 10 of the latter chart). Thirty-seven years after its initial release—when it reached no. 3 in the U.K. and no. 30 in the U.S.—the song is by some metrics doing better than contemporary smash hits by the likes of Harry Styles, Lizzo, and Bad Bunny. “[‘Running Up That Hill’] is the biggest song in the country right now, if you ask me,” says Charlie Harding, the cohost of Switched on Pop, a podcast about pop music.

Old music returning to the charts after a soundtrack feature is not exactly a new phenomenon. In the U.S., Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” charted higher in 1992 (no. 2) than it did in 1976 (no. 9) after Wayne and Garth headbanged to it in Wayne’s World. (Freddie Mercury’s 1991 death also contributed.) Seal’s “Kiss From a Rose” didn’t even make the Hot 100 when it was released in 1994, and then shot to no. 1 in 1995 after soundtracking the nipple suits in Batman Forever. But by and large, old music appearing on the charts had been rare. That’s changing—fast.

“You have double, triple, quadruple the older songs returning not only into our consciousness but onto the charts,” says Jason Lipshutz, the executive director of music at Billboard, who recently covered the “Running Up That Hill” anomaly. There are new avenues for old songs—particularly those that came out only a few months or years back—to break through, Lipshutz says, largely due to how streaming and social media have changed the way people listen and impacted the charts. Lipshutz brings up Lizzo’s 2017 single “Truth Hurts,” which parlayed a soundtrack inclusion (on the movie Someone Great, for those keeping score, because you probably don’t remember) into TikTok buzz, and ultimately steamrolled into every wedding reception for the whole summer. By the time the song hit no. 1 in 2019, Lizzo was promoting an entirely different album.

Even when considering the way charts are changing to include more older music, though, the Kate Bush resurgence is still an aberration. “We have songs that kind of bubble up and then bubble back down,” Lipshutz explains, “and then you have the other instances like this, where it’s, like, a monumental leap on the charts.”

Some of this success can be explained by the placement itself. “Running Up That Hill” is the central mystical motif of this season of Stranger Things—used numerous times, and written diegetically into the plot itself. (The character of Max, played by Sadie Sink, lovingly carries around the Hounds of Love cassette and listens to “Running Up That Hill” in the first episode as she walks through Hawkins High; the song and cassette are used during crucial sequences in later episodes.) Drenched in gated reverb and woozy synths, the song is also an ideal track to sonically fit into the retro sound that the show has so carefully curated. “It’s working on all of these levels of reference, both internally to the episode, to the larger series, to our sort of collective nostalgia of what the 1980s feel like,” says Harding.

Add that to the fact that Bush’s whole thing often dabbled in horror-movie-adjacent world-building—listen to that demon voice on “Waking the Witch” and tell me you don’t hear Vecna—and you have yourself a killer needle drop. Ann Powers, NPR music critic and noted Kate Bush scholar, brings up the song “Hammer Horror,” from 1978’s Lionheart, which is named after the British studio behind classic horror movies like Dracula and The Curse of Frankenstein. “She’s been writing songs that are like the stories that a show like Stranger Things tells for her whole career,” Powers says. “This is her wheelhouse, this is her territory. She already rules this queendom.”

But a renaissance doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and the Bushassaince is no exception. Pop stars tend to hang around until they overstay their welcome, which is what makes Bush’s notorious reclusivity particularly alluring. (She has largely avoided live shows her entire career, and rarely grants interviews. Just the fact that she posted a brief statement about the Stranger Things flurry was notable industry news.) For decades, discovering her discography has felt like discovering a secret stash that was hiding in plain sight. “There isn’t the acoustic bluegrass project she did at 47 or something like that,” as Powers puts it. “That doesn’t exist.”

Bush is a musician’s musician—one that artists name-check and cover—and “Running Up That Hill” always seems to be the song to come up. Maybe your introduction to it was when The O.C. used Placebo’s cover to set the mood as Ryan runs away from his troubles again. Or maybe you heard the recent covers from Car Seat Headrest or Meg Myers, or caught Fiona Apple’s reference in “Fetch the Bolt Cutters.” Maybe you heard the rerecorded version Bush did for the London Summer Olympics 10 years ago, and it’s been in the back of your brain ever since.

Big Boi from Outkast is, wonderfully, one of the biggest Kate Bush fans on the planet, and a few years ago he tried to get to the bottom of what makes “Running Up That Hill” such a perfect song. “One, it was good to pedal [your bike] to,” he said to Pitchfork. “It made you go fast.” But more than that, he added, it encapsulates the mysterious, cinematic experience that is being a fan of her work: “You didn’t know what was coming around the corner,” he went on, “and when that song ended, you didn’t know if it was going into another song, or if that was like a B- or a C-section to that one particular song. It was just one cohesive body of work that took you on an adventure.”

“Running Up That Hill” sounds like a You Can Do It anthem, but that wasn’t really what Bush was going for when she wrote it. “Sometimes you can hurt somebody purely accidentally or be afraid to tell them something because you think they might be hurt when really they’ll understand,” Bush explained to the London Times in 1985. “So what that song is about is making a deal with God to let two people swap place so they’ll be able to see things from one another’s perspective.”

“You don’t want to hurt me,” Bush sings on the track, her voice booming over an extraterrestrial synth line, “but see how deep the bullet lies.” Like The Dreaming, Hounds of Love was largely composed and recorded by Bush on a Fairlight CMI, a complex, then-cutting edge “digital audio workstation” that looks almost like a parody of the Gary Numan–ass devices people were using in the ’80s. (Peter Gabriel, who featured Bush’s vocals on “Games Without Frontiers” in 1980, introduced her to the instrument.) Bush’s regular collaborator (and boyfriend at the time) Del Palmer programmed the massive drum machine part that anchors the song.

In recent years, the song has been used in the soundtrack to a number of prominent television shows (On Becoming a God in Central Florida, Vanity Fair) and a few of the appearances are on programs (GLOW, Pose) that nod to the fact that “Running Up That Hill” also functions as a popular gay anthem. That inclusive interpretation of the work is more in line with the literal lyrical context Bush sang about—the hope that true empathy could be fostered by something as simple (and unfortunately unattainable) as a walk in someone else’s shoes. But it’s a song that’s served listeners in a variety of ways, partially because of how infectious it is, and partially because of how universal the language is.

“What it ultimately means is, we can’t actually truly understand each other, but we are going to continue to try,” says Powers. “And so in a way, even though the reason for the sentiment is different than what most people thought, the sentiment itself is contained in the song.”

Max wasn’t worried about any of that when Vecna is closing in on her—and neither was Nora Felder, the music supervisor on Stranger Things, who was the one to pinpoint “Running Up That Hill” as the right track for the show (and, thankfully for the Duffer brothers, had the budget to pull it off). “In Max’s situation,” Felder told Variety, “the need for a ‘deal with god’ can perhaps be metaphorically understood as a desperate cry for love.” It means whatever you want. Kate Bush is being born again.

The supernova pop-cultural moment surrounding “Running Up That Hill” has been building for decades, in a sense. And it might turn out to be a pure outlier incident—serving a uniquely talented artist at just the right moment—which people shake their heads at for years to come. It also might not.

For some time now, the trend has been solidifying: Old music is growing more valuable than new music. According to data from Luminate, formerly known as MRC Data and Nielsen Music, at the beginning of 2022, old music—that is, music that had not been released within the past 18 months—accounted for 70 percent of the market in the U.S. in 2021, a jump of 5 percentage points from the previous year. (2021 also marked the first time since it was monitored by MRC Data that streaming of new music declined, not just in relation to old music, but overall.) “Never before in history have new tracks attained hit status while generating so little cultural impact,” Ted Gioia wrote in The Atlantic in his assessment of the data.

There are some important caveats that might explain some of this. The most obvious one is that streaming is the increasingly predominant way that people consume music, and because of that, the statistics are starting to include older demographics at a faster clip. And as the streaming user base grows older, so, too, will the age of the music being listened to. (Another consideration not to be overlooked: In previous eras, it was much harder to account for a population’s broad listening habits outside of the physical, new music they purchased in record stores; these days, streaming charts offer a more nuanced window into the day-to-day reality of what people play in their homes, cars, offices, etc.)

It’s also just possible now for people to scratch a musical itch without getting off the couch. “This is the democratization of listenership,” says Lipshutz, the Billboard editor. “Before the streaming era, and way before the TikTok era, if you watched Stranger Things and were like, ‘Oh, I love this Kate Bush song “Running Up That Hill,” I’ve never heard it before,’ you would have to go out and buy a CD of Kate Bush or the Stranger Things soundtrack. And that’s just completely flipped.”

But in general, the trend is not a fluke: Especially fueled by how TikTok can lift up a random old track basically from nothing and send it into the stratosphere—see: Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” by way of cranberry juice—catalog music of boomer acts is booming. “There’s so much opportunity out there for all these legacy labels, even for songs that are out of cycle to have another life,” Danny Gillick, then TikTok’s senior manager of music content and label partnerships, told Rolling Stone. “There’s a whole treasure chest of these earworms that I grew up with that you can see now are having a second life.”

It’s no coincidence, then, that legacy acts have begun to sell the publishing rights to their entire life’s work for absurd amounts of money. Springsteen: $550 million; Bob Dylan: over $300 million; Paul Simon: $250 million; Stevie Nicks: $100 million (and that includes only her share of Fleetwood Mac’s catalog); even Justin Timberlake got $100 million for god knows what reason. “If you just think about the impact of legacy music [right now],” says Harding, “the strongest indicator is that hedge funds are literally buying up publishing.”

How alarmed we should be about the reverse trending pattern of old and new music is a matter of some debate. It’s difficult to quantify, but one could reasonably presume that part of the motivating force behind the rise of old music is the increasing hurdles placed in front of new musicians trying to break through into the larger public consciousness. Industry revenue has been on the rise lately—an 18 percent overall bump in 2021—but the numbers on the working-class margin still appear to be dangerously low; according to a Creative Independent survey from 2020, only 12 percent of musicians reported that 80 to 100 percent of their income came from music-related work. No matter how talented a musician you are, it’s difficult to fight for plays with Kate Bush and Bob Dylan when you’re working a day job on the side. And if things continue this way, the gulf will only get wider, with repercussions that may be staggering to the industry.

Still, Harding thinks the trend is more reflective “of what record stores have always known, which is, legacy acts sell well,” he says. “Like, if you walked into Best Buy in the year 2000, they would have been merchandising Dark Side of the Moon, because that album sells extremely well. They’re merchandising Thriller, they’re merchandising Beatles records.”

Powers concedes that it’s “a confusing time for artists,” but doesn’t think it’s necessarily bad that older music is getting increased attention. “Mostly it messes with the conventional music industry,” she says, “which is, I think, locked into a less-than-optimal system or framework anyway. Like, why do we always assume that the most recent work by an artist is the only thing they have to promote?”

One byproduct of what’s going on with legacy catalogs is that there appears to be a distinct, expanding willingness for soundtrack usage from huge artists. It wasn’t long ago that, if a music supervisor wanted “Running Up That Hill” in their production, they’d have to use that awful Placebo cover, or just find something with the same vibe on the cheap. Nowadays, there are multiple Pink Floyd needle drops in something like the new season of Russian Doll—including a sprawling, multi-minute use of “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” in the finale—and nobody bats an eye. (Of note: Pink Floyd member David Gilmour mentored Kate Bush in the early years of her career; last week, with impeccable timing, Pink Floyd announced that they’re joining TikTok.) “I’ve noticed that even the Beatles’ catalog is showing up in more places,” Powers considers. “The final frontier.”

Part of the new willingness is no doubt due to the fact that money is harder to come by than it used to be for even the big-name artists. (Overall industry revenue is up lately, yes, but it was still down 46 percent in 2020 when adjusted for inflation compared to its late-’90s peak.) And if you think the finance groups buying up these catalogs won’t monetize them every way they can, I’ve got a “Drivers License”–caliber bridge to sell you.

But a key part of why you’re hearing more big-name needle drops is also due to artist estates beginning to chase in earnest the exact situation currently happening with Kate Bush (however futile that chase might be). Whatever she was paid for the Stranger Things spot—which would no doubt be life-changing for most artists—was eventually beside the point: The real rock star money is in the chain of events that led to this current level of virality that can’t be bought—that led to you reading this right now.

Most needle drops—even the heavy-hitting ones—have no substantial secondary impact. (Is anyone talking about Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer” because of its inclusion in this season of Stranger Things?) The show airs, some viewers discover/rediscover the song, checks are sent out, end of story. If this story starts to get out of hand with one of your favorite artists, though, it may be tough to swallow, as some die-hard Kate Bush fans are now discovering.

“[It’s] annoying because now im gonna hear it everywhere and people are gonna call me a tiktok shill for listening to the queen of art pop,” reads one comment in a thread about the situation on the Kate Bush subreddit. “I’d make a deal with god to stop tiktok getting this song,” reads another.

In the conversation about cultural gate-keeping, there’s often more high-horse pushback against the gate-keeping than actual gate-keeping itself, but nonetheless, in this case, agony from die-hards is legitimately out there, if you look for it. In response, it’s easy to take the objectively more mature approach and say, “Let people enjoy things,” which, sure, fine, you’re right. It’s a little tougher, though, to take a moment to run up that hill and empathize with people who feel hurt by an artist they admire becoming a tool for corporate advertisement—who feel like they’ve lost a special relationship.

Once upon a time, Ann Powers was a die-hard Kate Bush fan who briefly lost that special relationship herself. In the late-’70s, Powers stumbled on Bush’s music as a teenager, and became obsessed, based on how different it was from everything else: “She was huge in England,” Powers explains, “but in Seattle, Washington, she wasn’t fitting in with the proto-versions of Mudhoney that we were going to see on a Friday night.” Powers says she “clung to that fandom and felt special because of it. She’s the kind of artist that engenders that kind of fandom because her work is so idiosyncratic.”

When Hounds of Love came out, Powers’s initial reaction was to feel that she “was no longer my Kate,” as she explained on Bandsplain—that the mass appeal of the new album betrayed the progressive pop approach from the first four albums. For some time, she left her Kate on the shelf. But eventually she came to her senses: “Years later, when I returned to Hounds of Love, I realized she had not abandoned all the things I loved about her,” Powers explains. “What you learn later when you return to that work [that broke through] is almost always: The artist is still the artist. Maybe they’ve put a different frame around their work, or maybe one song has allowed a bigger audience into the work, but they’re still who they are. And usually, the arc of the artists—and this happened with Kate—they kind of go back to the weirdness eventually anyway.”

What will come of all this for Bush is anyone’s best guess—but it’s hard to imagine it will, after four decades, meaningfully change how she goes about her career. If she wanted, she could turn this all into much bigger, stranger things: unparalleled hype for a new album, a sold-out world tour, features, remixes, Eggo commercials. But anyone expecting any of that clearly still has a lot to learn about the enigma that is Kate Bush.

In 1979, when she was still playing into the more traditional path expected of a young pop star, Bush allowed for a documentary to be made in conjunction with her tour—a tour that ended up serving as the final live dates of her career until a residency in 2014 at the Hammersmith Apollo in London. Sitting in a recording studio, an impatient interviewer asks a barrage of rapid-fire questions.

“What’s the most satisfying thing you do?” the interviewer eventually asks.

“The most satisfying thing?” Bush replies, searching for an answer. “I guess when you’ve actually written a song, and you think about what’s going to happen to it in the future.”

She starts to elaborate, mentioning strings and vocal parts—and perhaps she had something else enlightening to add, but is quickly cut off for a new question. It was purely out of her control.

Nate Rogers is a writer and editor in Los Angeles. His writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, Stereogum, and elsewhere.

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