In the seven years I’ve been a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame voter, Kate Bush has been nominated three times. I have stubbornly voted for the British art-pop legend each time, even as I’ve been cautioned by well-meaning Rock Hall observers that she stood a snowflake’s chance in hell of getting inducted. So far, the doubters have been proved right, but it feels like a self-fulfilling (or self-defeating) prophecy. Each time Bush’s name is put forward, the word from prognosticators—the trait that makes her cause purportedly hopeless—is she’s “too British” for the Rock Hall, which, after all, is an American institution.
Mind you, this is what they used to say about the band Roxy Music, the debonair pioneers of British glam-rock led by Bryan Ferry—“too British,” they said. And, to be fair, Roxy Music only ever had one American pop hit, “Love Is the Drug,” which peaked at No. 30 on Billboard’s Hot 100 in 1976. But the “too British” line on Roxy was ultimately disproved in 2019. That year, the art-rock band made their first appearance on the Rock Hall ballot and waltzed into the Hall in just one try. Now, here’s a fun but frustrating statistic: That No. 30 chart peak? Until very recently, that’s as high as Kate Bush had ever gotten on the Hot 100—her American track record was identical to Roxy Music’s. And yet, unlike Roxy, Bush is still uninducted. Which pisses me off, not least because it’s depressingly sexist.
But what’s even more frustrating is that Bush was clearly the victim of bad timing. With hindsight, if Netflix and TV showrunners the Duffer brothers had only released Stranger Things Season 4 a few months earlier this year, when Rock Hall ballots were in voters’ hands, Bush would surely be preparing an induction speech by now.
Because that one No. 30 hit was “Running Up That Hill.” It’s still Kate Bush’s only American Top 40 hit. Only now, thanks to Stranger Things, it’s finally a Top 10 hit. Talk about “A Deal With God.”
You may have already heard about the improbable chart feats Kate Bush is pulling off with her 1985 hit—full title “Running Up That Hill (A Deal with God)”—in virtually any country that has Netflix. Bush’s ethereal banger reenters charts in more than two dozen countries including Australia, New Zealand, most of Europe, Canada, and Kate’s British homeland. But there’s something extra-special about what Bush pulls off in my homeland, a country that’s largely given her the cold shoulder for 40-plus years. “Running Up That Hill” makes an eye-popping Hot 100 comeback, 22 positions higher than it peaked in November 1985, all the way up at No. 8. (By contrast, in the U.K., “Hill” is also back at No. 8, but there the song peaked higher in ’85, at No. 3.)
Of course, the title of this long-running Slate series did not change this week to “Why Is This Song No. 8?” But with “Hill” topping several of Billboard’s metrics this week, including Digital Sales—and with the rarity of this Halley’s Comet–like achievement—it’s worth explaining exactly what happened here. Not unlike the odd sets of circumstances that recently brought a quarter-century-old Mariah Carey song to No. 1 or put a Disney ensemble song on top earlier this year, the rebirth of “Running Up That Hill” is a reflection of our accelerated hitmaking metabolism in the age of digital consumption. Simply put, buzz is so much faster now.
More than most TV or movie “syncs” (in Hollywood parlance), “Running Up That Hill” plays a truly pivotal role in the latest season of Stranger Things. Bush, who rarely approves syncs of her music, is a fan of the Duffers’ show and enthusiastically approved its use as part of the plot concerning the character Max, played by Sadie Sink. In this season’s 1986 cosmology, Max is not only a huge fan of Bush’s song, she can actually be broken out of her prison in the Upside Down when she hears it on her Walkman. Netflix’s blockbuster fantasy series has made ample use of period-specific ’80s music before, but in this season, “Hill” is central to the show’s action, driving the plot and recurring in several episodes.
Almost immediately after these new episodes dropped at the start of Memorial Day weekend, the buzz on Bush’s song began. By that Sunday, “Hill” was already No. 1 at iTunes. That was impressive but not all that significant—the iTunes chart only measures dollar-downloads, a form of music consumption that’s now small and still shrinking. But within a day, Spotify was reporting that “Running” was No. 2 overall on its U.S. streaming chart. Streaming is the big dog nowadays, and if Bush’s classic was soaring that high at Spotify, a return to the charts suddenly seemed plausible. More surprising yet, last Friday, Billboard reported that “Hill” was exploding in U.S. radio airplay, with Bush’s label pushing the song to pop stations (i.e. the ones that report to the Hot 100, not just the ones that play oldies or classic rock). Sales, streams, radio: these are the components of the big chart, and Bush’s song was blowing up in all of them. When this week’s chart was announced on Monday (with Harry Styles’s “As It Was” still No. 1), Billboard reported “Hill’s” 18,300 weekly digital sales, easily the top download of the week; 17.5 million streams, placing it just outside the streaming top five; and a radio audience of 392,000, too small to make the Radio Songs chart but sizable for a 37-year-old hit.
The combined speed and strength of this comeback is unparalleled—especially at the start of the competitive summer-song season. Among revived hits, the most famous recent example was Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams,” the subject of an explosive 2020 TikTok trend. But even with all that virality, the Rumours single only debuted at No. 21 and rose as high as No. 12. More recently, The Batman used Nirvana’s “Something in the Way” as a recurring motif, putting that deep cut into belated circulation, but even a box-office blockbuster couldn’t get the Nirvana joint above No. 46 on the Hot 100. A combination of the inherent power of Kate Bush’s song and its deeply resonant use in Stranger Things made it connect like nothing in the Gen Z charts era.
Stranger Things’ music supervisor has said that they didn’t have a Plan B if Bush didn’t approve her song, so set were their hearts on it. And I get it: Almost no ’80s song sounds, speaks, or feels like “Running Up That Hill.” That word, feel, is the song’s crux: “Do you want to feel how it feels?” Bush’s female narrator challenges her male counterpart. “Do you want to know—know that it doesn’t hurt me?” At root the song is about overcoming miscommunication between the genders, a persistent theme in Bush’s songwriting. “I was trying to say that, really, a man and a woman can’t understand each other because we are a man and a woman,” Bush told the BBC three decades ago. “And if we could actually swap each other’s roles, if we could actually be in each other’s place for a while, I think we’d both be very surprised! And I think it would lead to a greater understanding.” This switcheroo is the “Deal with God” invoked in the song’s subtitle (“If I only could … I’d get Him to swap our places”). Bush actually wanted to title the track simply “A Deal with God” until her label convinced her that invoking the Almighty could be a radio dealbreaker (which, in 1985, they may have been right about).
Musically, though, the miracle of “Hill” is what Bush paired these intensely personal, finely observed lyrics with—a positively massive sound: pounding drums and a Fairlight synthesizer riff that echoes with a pronounced delay, as if from the top of a mountain. It’s both an intimate tone poem and a fist-pumping anthem, and indeed, when Bush performed it live, she’d deliver the chorus with one hand to the skies.
Even at the time, nothing on the charts sounded like it—running down the Nov. 30, 1985, Hot 100 on which it peaked, the songs that come closest to matching its intensity are Tears for Fears’ nerdishly lovelorn “Head Over Heels,” Lionel Richie’s cinematic ballet anthem “Say You, Say Me,” and the inscrutable “Election Day” from Arcadia, a Duran Duran side project. “Running Up That Hill” outclassed everything in the Top 40 that week, but that wasn’t enough to get it past No. 30.
So how is it No. 8 now? It’s the TV, obviously, but also a combination of how the chart has changed and how pop listeners have evolved. The digital era has sped up the reactivity of songs to shared cultural moments. Back in 1986, when the hit films Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Stand by Me revived, respectively, the Beatles’ “Twist and Shout” (No. 23 in ’86) and Ben E. King’s “Stand by Me” (No. 9 in ’86), those songs took weeks to get restocked in record stores and added back into radio playlists. Even the 1992 blockbuster Wayne’s World was three months past its box-office peak when the revived “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen reached a new peak of No. 2. Thanks to streaming, a hit sync can make chart landfall within days. Moreover, digital consumption has lowered barriers to entry for global pop anthems: Not for nothing are our biggest boy band from South Korea and our most-streamed star from Puerto Rico. The idea of an Anglophone pop song like “Running Up That Hill” being “too British” for U.S. ears in 2022 is laughable. Kate Bush was always meant to be a hitmaker.
Which, by the way, she always was! For those who are only now catching on to the wood nymph from Bexleyheath, Bush was, for your information, a teen-pop sensation—the Lorde/Billie Eilish/Olivia Rodrigo of her day. Discovered by Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour, who co-produced and played guitar on her debut The Kick Inside, Bush was a self-taught prodigy writing her own material at the Taylor Swift–like age of 14. She went straight in at No. 1 on the U.K. chart on her first try, with her wide-eyed Brontë homage “Wuthering Heights”—the first single in U.K. chart history self-penned by a female performer, and a song so resonant, flash mobs still imitate her arms-flailing, balloon-sleeved dance moves from the music video.
In England, she was omnipresent, hosting a Christmas TV special and fending off leering interviewers who were trying to reshape her as a sex symbol (while she cleverly played with the male gaze in her videos). In America, however, she was largely invisible: “Wuthering Heights” bubbled under the Hot 100 at No. 108, and the first version many Americans heard was by Pat Benatar. Bush only began to cross Americans’ radar in teamups with her frequent collaborator and fellow British eccentric Peter Gabriel. Bush got her first major exposure on U.S. rock radio singing the hook on Gabriel’s 1980 AOR hit “Games Without Frontiers” (the French lyric “Jeux sans frontières”—that’s her). He then brought her back as a duet partner six years later on So’s moving hit “Don’t Give Up.” By then, Bush had amassed on the British charts a streak of Top 10 albums—three of them No. 1s, including 1985’s masterpiece Hounds of Love, whence came “Running Up That Hill.” Even with “Hill” cracking the Top 30, in America, Bush fandom was like a secret handshake for Anglophiles.
All the while, Bush’s influence spread like ripples on a massive pond. Her 1989 ballad “This Woman’s Work became an improbable R&B standard when neo-soul singer Maxwell covered it on MTV Unplugged and eventually scored an R&B hit with a studio version. Much of Lilith-era ’90s rock directly echoed Bush’s work, from Sarah McLachlan to Fiona Apple to, most obviously, Tori Amos. OutKast’s Big Boi is a devoted Kate Bush fan, speaking rhapsodically about her work and pointing to its influence in his music.
And that’s even before you get to this latest, Gen Z wave. Few 1985 songs sound more right next to ’20s music than “Running Up That Hill.” Picture it popping up in a current teenager’s Spotify mix next to the sadboy synthpop of the Weeknd or Glass Animals, or the self-assured sighs of Taylor Swift or Billie Eilish. Seamless, right? Almost everything that once sounded arch or subversive about Bush’s work now just sounds like the red-hot center of American pop. Which doesn’t mean “Running Up That Hill” will stick around the Top 10. Last week’s cloudburst of attention will be hard to replicate in the weeks ahead, once Stranger Things is fully binged. But it will be interesting to see, even after “Hill” takes an inevitable tumble, if it hangs around the charts longer than “Dreams” or “Something in the Way” did. Bush has the sense of listener discovery on her side, more than the well-trafficked Fleetwood Mac or Nirvana did.
I find it charming that the same week Americans went back to 1986 with Tom Cruise, they traveled back to 1985 with Kate Bush. But the cultural compulsion in each case is quite different. Top Gun: Maverick is trading on unabashed nostalgia, rebooting (and, OK, maybe improving upon) the whole ethic of Reagan-era moviemaking. To be sure, there’s nostalgia at work with Stranger Things, too, given its period recreations. By pitching itself to a generation too young to remember the ’80s, the show tries to rebrand songs that never reached their chart potential, from the Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” to Limahl’s “The NeverEnding Story.” But even those ’80s chestnuts haven’t had the impact of “Running Up That Hill.” Kate Bush finally has an American Top 10 hit this week, not because her music reminds us of the past, but because it still sounds like the future.