A Daughter of Albion?
Kate Bush and mythologies of Englishness
Senior Lecturer, Department of Media and Cultural Studies, Liverpool John Moores University
Within the popular music world, Kate Bush is a longstanding commercial and artistic success. Her body of work is a rich terrain that allows for the critical exploration of a range of socio-musical dimensions. This essay will refer to one of these dimensions — the artist's relationship to English identity. It will pay particular attention to Hounds of Love, yet also reflect back upon earlier works, and look forward to works produced since 1985.
Some of the dilemmas surrounding English identity are well expressed within a society that now counts Chicken Tikka Masala as its national dish, American hip-hop culture as its linguistic and style referent, and the French and Spanish coastal domicile as its eventual aspiration.
There is a sense within cultural studies that whilst constructions of identity within our ever more hybridised society have, quite rightly, focussed upon immigrant groups, different races and religious groupings, there are other groupings that have been overlooked. We do not even have a term to describe the English ethnic 'majority' without causing controversy or accusations of racism through constructed connections to the far right wielding the cross of Saint George. Nevertheless, it is this 'marginalised group' (at least within popular music discourse), consisting of aspects of ethnic Southern English identity, that I am investigating through one of its best exemplars — Kate Bush.
As with concepts of Englishness, blanket terms such as 'North American music' need refining. Many writers have explored the intricacies and nuances of industry ownership, globalisation or 'major v indie' in great detail (see Negus, 1996: 36-65, by way of overview). In terms of the relationship between Kate Bush's music and 'globalised pop', I am using this term to refer to the economic, cultural hegemonies operated by 'mainstream' (broadly) American interests. These hegemonies derive, to an extent, from an industry dominated by a small number of multinational North American companies operating in areas such as recordings, studios, marketing, film, television and video.In his Guardian article of 21-04-1992, Adam Sweeting draws upon an Adornian distrust of standardisation when he refers to:
Essentially, I am interested in how Kate Bush's music stands in relation to the power of the North American mainstream, and the way that many aspects of her recordings subvert these globalised musical values. In particular, my focus lies within an analysis of a different marginal ethnicity (southern English) to those typically employed in this argument (whether African American or Anglo Caribbean, to give two more usual examples).
Within 'mainstream pop', there is, of course, a long lineage of English bands and performers, who, as a consequence of both artistic intent, and critical construction, have come to mythically re-present so-called 'quintessentially' English traits and musical archetypes. To name some salient examples: the Kinks, Ian Dury, the Jam, many of Britpop's acts and near-contemporary acts such as the Libertines, Kaiser Chiefs, Arctic Monkeys and Babyshambles, whose 2005 album was fittingly entitled Down in Albion. To an extent, however, all these English acts do achieve success and notoriety for 'going against the grain' — literally, within hegemonic globalised pop styles. In terms of this essay's thesis, I am employing the concept of hegemony in its Gramscian sense, as a process that persuades a group to accept an ideology (in this case that North American pop is the global norm and model by which all other forms shoud be measured) so fully that the very process itself becomes naturalised, and denies its own construction (see Bocock, 1986, Burman, 1991).
The success of British, and in particular English musicians in aping, popularising or transforming North American idiomatic styles has resulted in a situation where it is the norm to sing in an American, or transatlantic accent (anyone from Cliff Richard and Dusty Springfield through Rod Stewart and Elton John to Mick Hucknall and Lisa Stansfield, thence to Robbie Williams and Rachel Stevens in the present era), or to operate within an American genre (from jazz, blues and country through r'n'b and soul to urban and hip-hop today). This phenomenon is echoed in many other aspects of culture. It is significant, and to my mind annoying that English writers have to 'ask' their computers to spell in Standard English, rather than its American-English derivative; the 'default setting' — within language, as in accent is determined by the economic and cultural forces of hegemony.
It is an indictment of the marginalised nature of English identity in popular music that certain artists are actually lauded for doing nothing more than embodying their own ethnic, or geographical roots and traditions. Thus Kaiser Chiefs' 'I Predict a Riot' (2005) gains critical currency for its use of everyday, idiomatic expressions such as 'lairy', and 'I tell thee'. As previously indicated, these traditions are often mythical constructs that essentialise or stereotype Englishness (or, more accurately, English regionality, in this case), but should not be condemned as a result. Roland Barthes's groundbreaking work on myth (1972), which he regards as a culture's attempts to disguise historical and ideological processes behind a mask of what is 'given' or 'natural', encourages us to not simply condemn the process, but rather to reflect upon it as a signifying, deconstructive practice. Mythical constructions of Englishess do have resonance, and can become self-fulfilling in a positive, as well as a negative fashion.
Within the partial global hegemony of North American pop and culture, myths of England actually function as much-needed counter-hegemonies. However, critical shortcomings can result. Michael Bracewell's wide-ranging account of what he subtitles 'Pop Life in Albion from Wilde to Goldie' encapsulates the problems faced by the mythologizing project when he refers to 'that tic in England's hymning of itself that believes the past to be a somehow better place, with its Englishness less diluted by progress.' (Bracewell, 1997: 7). Within this scenario, the wider connotations of 'hymning' — myth making — do little more than serve the needs of a neo-conservative cabal. It is not a sense of mythical England that we should be celebrating, but rather the cultural diversity that exemplars of this ethnicity seek to maintain. Kate Bush has herself suffered myriad examples of journalistic mythologizing. In relation to this section, Stephen Troussé's reportag of her in Uncut, December 2005 'in the role of Grand Recluse — the mad woman in the attic of British pop, a last spectral link to that Old Weird England' (Troussé, 2005: 98) neatly summarises this widely adopted critical conceit.
In addition, the overt anti-Americanism that resulted as part of the myth-making process (see Colls, 2002: 189-190) was at its best chauvinistic, and at its worst blatantly racist. Bearing in mind these shortcomings, myths of Englishness within popular music have to be rescued from narrow self-interests and placed in a wider context of shifting and fluid ethnicities. English ethnicity may be a construct (and I am only focussing upon one aspect of its construction); it may be more of a construct than other national ethnicities, and for complex reasons, but it is a much-overlooked area of study within popular music. Kate Bush is one of the most resonant exemplars of Englishness in popular music, but we must break down this statement into its constitutive factors.
Fred Vermorel's 1983 exploration into both the art and genealogy of Kate Bush is a quixotic, often annoying, sometimes illuminating account of 'the fragile chances and distillation which produced her' (Vermorel, 1983: 12). His exhaustive delving into the Bush family ancestral vaults, whilst often fanciful and florid, does provide us with useful historical data relating to geography and class in particular.
The paternal Bush line can be traced back a long way, especially considering the family's humble roots in agrarian Essex, to John Bush, born 1769 (Ibid: 18). The family line continues through his descendents, and the associated evidence of poverty, disease and premature death familiar to all in their class until the Bushes move, in both physical and class terms when Bush's father, after winning a scholarship to a grammar school and graduating as a doctor in 1943, marries Hannah Daly, a staff nurse and Irish daughter of a farmer. The couple settle in the comfortable suburbia of Bexley, in Kent and move into the 350 year old East Wickham farmhouse that becomes the family home for them, and their three children (Ibid: 52).
Despite Vermorel's attempts to at least partially account for the artist's subsequent career through the significance of genealogy, his mythologizing attempts remain incomplete and partial. Almost all the research explores (and, much of the time unnecessarily) the paternal line, and at the absent expense of the maternal line. This is a major oversight, not least for considerations of ethnicity and other more specific dimensions that result. Whilst the paternal Bush ancestors are evidenced to be Protestant, and non-conformist (Wesleyan Chapel), the maternal ancestors are, we assume, Catholic. Indeed, the young Catherine Bush was educated at St Joseph's Convent Grammar School and refers to its importance: 'school was obviously quite religious... A lot of Catholicism is still in me, deeper than I can see.' (Bush, In Vermorel, 1983: 85). For more insight into her genealogy and the impact of her Anglo-Irish identity upon her life, work and sense of ethnicity, we have to lok to other sources.
Jovanovic's account of the Bush family primarily focuses upon the years since the birth of Catherine, (later Kate) Bush in 1958, although we do learn that both her parents have differing musical talents. Mother Hannah was the winner of several folk dance competitions in Ireland, and father Robert reportedly sold the publishing rights to one of his compositions in order to purchase an engagement ring (Jovanovic, 2005: 12). However, this author's account of the artist's relationship to Catholicism differs slightly from Vermorel. He quotes Kate Bush as claiming a more ambivalent connection to her faith:
This essentially emotive, symbolic dimension is echoed in her sense of ethnicity:
This Irish/folk dimension is also doubtless inculcated from the passions of her brothers, particularly Paddy, who stated 'our uncles played on accordions and fiddles and stuff... we were always hearing Irish dance music... I happened to go to school, here in England, with a guy called Kevin Burke, who's considered the best fiddler in Ireland!' (Bush, P. in Swales, 1985). Paddy Bush subsequently devoted much of his life to a wide variety of traditional music, becoming a musical instrument technologist specialising in mediaeval devices.
These accounts all add up to a coherent construction of ethnicity based upon a hybrid Southern English/Irish genealogy, both of which are linked through a love of folk sounds, styles and instruments in particular. Kate Bush has gone on record as extolling the Irish take on music as a joyful and vital aspect of everyday life. In Simon Reynolds' Pulse article of December, 1993, this is then brought into contact with English reserve: 'It's hard for us to learn to enjoy ourselves.' (Bush, in Reynolds, 1993). All these root influences are then complemented by the artist's own choices of sounds and styles as she begins to actively construct her own sense of ethnicity.
Kate Bush's referenced musical influences stand as quite consistent with the ethnic picture being painted, although still highly informative in what they tell us about the creative process. By far the most insightful account of the artist's influences comes within Peter Swales's interview in Musician, Fall 1985, that took place just after the recording of Hounds of Love was completed. The notoriously guarded interviewee seems very eloquent within this environment, aided perhaps by both the presence of her trusted brother and ally Paddy, and also the 'musicianly' nature of the questions, which steer clear of the more biographical journalistic probing that the artist finds uncomfortable. When questioned on the relationship of her music to American sources, the artist replies:
This is actually understating the extent and breadth of the American influence upon both British pop musicians and audiences. Not only is the ethnically American influence huge, but in addition many British musicians in genres as diverse as soul, blues, jazz, rap and disco are measured by their ability to adequately 'ape' American idioms.
The artist proceeds to list her musical and vocal influences, as well as the aforementioned, the list includes: Bryan Ferry, (also Brian Eno's groundbreaking sampling techniques), Elton John, T. Rex, Incredible String Band, Billie Holiday, more generally folk (especially Irish) and classical music and, rather surprisingly, Captain Beefheart, Frank Zappa, Steely Dan and Rolf Harris (Jovanovic, 2005: 124). Possibly the brave experimentation and left-field feel of such artists are the points of inspiration here — very little direct connection can be made between such music and Kate Bush's own work. It should be noted that Zappa and Beefheart, whilst both American, are influenced as much by the European modernism of Stravinsky and Varèse as by indigenous models.
Despite the transatlantic inflections of Elton John (and the artist seems to value his playing and songs specifically, rather than his voice), Bowie and Ferry are two of the classic proponents of what is possible when making the active (self-conscious) choice to sing popular music vocals in an English accent, or variations on such. Ferry, in particular, is offered as being deeply influential within Tom Doyle's Mojo article of December, 2005:
Her choice of Ferry as possessing a voice to be loved is highly unusual when we consider his mannered use of singing styles.
On the Roxy Music debut album (1972) Ferry can sound cod-American ('If There is Something'), but he can also sound very English ('2HB'). On 'Bitters End' this is pushed to the point of parody when the singer seems to pastiche the clipped, exaggeratingly English tones of Noël Coward. On other albums, Ferry develops a vibrato-laden European 'croon', as on the aptly-named 'A Song For Europe' (1974), which climaxes with echoes of Charles Aznavour and Edith Piaf in his cry 'jamais, jamais, jamais, jamais'.
Much later Bush was to fall in love with the Slavic harmonies of the Trio Bulgarka, who, even more than Bowie and Ferry are operating far from the hegemonic terrain of transatlantic American vocal styling. Amongst the few artists whose work Kate Bush has contributed to, special mention should be made of Peter Gabriel and Roy Harper. Although Gabriel's work did move into a transatlantic generic style during the mid 1980s, for the most part his music and vocal style are very English in terms of accent and subject matter. Roy Harper is even more maverick in his explicit Englishness, and Kate Bush, an admirer, contributed vocals to several Harper albums. He returned the favour by singing on 'Breathing' (1980). As a final comment on influences, it should be noted that the artist has referenced the overwhelmingly male nature of her creative influences (see Jovanovic, 2005: 24-26). Kate Bush has spent much of her career as often the only woman in a male world of musicians, engineers and creatie collaborators, but by 1985 she was the titular and artistic 'queen' of this domain. I return to this phenomenon in my forthcoming book (Moy, 2007).
Less explicitly referenced, but also important to considerations of Bush's ethnicity are the classical composers that have come to be associated with the construction of an overtly English, pastoral tradition: Elgar, Delius, Butterworth, Grainger and Vaughan Williams. I do not have the space within this essay to adequately explore this whole separate ethnomusicological terrain, but certain dimensions of the English pastoral have both timbral and ideological resonance within the Kate Bush oeuvre, particularly as her career progresses.
The English pastoral project, allied to the development of other areas such as William Morris's Arts & Crafts movement and the English Folk Dance & Song Society comes into being as, to an extent, a reaction to changing social conditions and rise of political and cultural rivals such as the United States and Germany in the decades preceding the First World War. Composers in other European countries, such as Debussy and Bartók, were undertaking similar experiments based on diverse ethnic influences. In 1934, Vaughan Williams published the text National Music and Other Essays, in which he stated:
The English challenge to this baroque and classical world of Bach, Mozart, Handel, Haydn and Beethoven, with its tendencies towards an ordered, rational structure and the clear resolution and recapitulation of themes, came through pieces that connoted a less grounded, more 'impressionistic' terrain often expressed through 'washes' of sound. In sonic terms, despite a wide variety of imbued moods, the broad adoption of strings and wind as dominant elements over brass sections is a unifying characteristic in the pastoral tradition. Such softer, or more ethereal timbres are echoed in Kate Bush's use of string synths, drone samples of cello-like sounds resting on a keynote, or the Celtic pipes of The Ninth Wave (1985).
It is no accident that landscape and seascape are frequently employed as inspirations or accompanying texts. George Butterworth's adaptations of A E Housman's bucolic narrative poem cycle A Shropshire Lad (1991) conjure up many mythically English settings which diverge from the pomp and stridency associated with the Teutonic tradition. One particular vocal cadence on 'The Lads in Their Hundreds' is almost precisely echoed within the triple-time ascending melody on the later album Aerial's 'Bertie' (2005) — accident, coincidence or homage? Equally, both in mood and naming, the undulating restlessness of Elgar's 'Where Corals Lie' from Sea Pictures (1987) finds echoes in both Kate Bush's song cycles The Ninth Wave and A Sky of Honey, as well as the track 'A Coral Room'. The importance of topography and the symbolism of dreams are both shared by Elgar and Bus. Vaughan Williams's The Lark Ascending (2005) has its title referenced within the lyric of Aerial's 'Prologue'. The fragment 'Delius: Song of Summer' (1980) on Never for Ever is another example of a concrete, if nebulous connection to the traditions of the English pastoral.
Stephen Banfield, when situating the work of Arnold Bax claims that both the history of Irish political struggle and the Irish landscape had a huge impact upon his pastoral works (Banfield, 1995: 186). This mixed Anglo-Irish inspirational lineage is made manifest throughout Kate Bush's career (for instance, within the Irish vocal inflections and implied suggestions of 'the troubles' in 'Army Dreamers', 1980), but registers particularly strongly on Hounds of Love. Equally, the figure of the wanderer, or 'spiritual pilgrim' (Ibid. 187-188), which Banfield associates with Vaughan Williams and Elgar can be equally applied to the narrator of The Ninth Wave, or later the principal narrative voice in A Sky of Honey.
Because of the lack of corroborative biographical evidence, we must be careful not to make the connections too concrete. When Swales tries to establish the artist's literary influences he refers to her as 'a sort of Doris Lessing of rock', to which Kate Bush replies: 'I'm sorry, Doris who?' (Swales, Bush, 1985). My point here is not to criticise the artist's lack of knowledge, but to make the point that, for the most part, both musically and creatively, Kate Bush is an autodidact, often fashioning material from anecdotal, impressionistic or fragmental knowledge, 'Wuthering Heights' (1978) being a classic example. But in this diffuse process, heavily influenced by Irish inflections of genealogy, music and terrain (many of Hounds of Love's lyrics were written staring out on an Irish 'big sky'), the artist manages to construct a musical terrain that is strikingly British, and more specifically Southern English. The relatinship of Kate Bush's music to American pop does carry notable echoes of Elgar and others' challenge to the Teutonic tradition, as both are essentially counter-hegemonic.
At this juncture it is worth reiterating that literary influences include Brontë — and particularly relevant for Hounds — Tennyson: a classically English late-Romantic poet. Amongst the many (usually English) films and directors to influence the artist, the figure of Michael Powell looms largest, particularly with the later work The Red Shoes (1993), but at this point it should be noted that Powell's work is seen, for the most part, as inhabiting an archetypically English terrain. Ethnically English genres such as gothic 'Hammer Horror' (1978) and militaristic 'heist' narratives (The League of Gentlemen, within 'There Goes a Tenner', 1980) are also directly or obliquely referenced in the artist's oeuvre.
Kate Bush has been drawn to particularly English forms of comedy, specifically the surreal, postmodern parodies produced by the collective 'The Comic Strip'. This group of writers and performers (including Rowan Atkinson, Ade Edmondson, Dawn French, Rik Mayall, Peter Richardson, Jennifer Saunders and Alexei Sayle) can be viewed as carrying the torch of 'Pythonesque' comedy forward into the 1980s. Not only do songs such as 'Coffee Homeground' (1980), inhabit a similarly parodic terrain, but also Kate Bush was to contribute the song 'Ken' to The Comic Strip's TV docu-comedy GLC in 1990. In addition, one of the artist's very rare later stage performances came within a charity performance featuring many of those already mentioned. Peter Richardson was to appear in the film The Line, The Cross and The Curve (costumes designed by Hazel Pethig, from the Python team), in 1993 (as well as co-directing the video for 'The Sensua World' 1989 track) and comic Lenny Henry contributed backing vocals to The Red Shoes album.
What all these extra-musical influences and collaborations do is to further emphasise the fundamentally English world that the artist inhabits.
Accent and 'The Grain of the Voice'
Almost every English singer in popular music sounds, if not actually North American, then at least 'transatlantic'. The reasons for this are varied: they are something to do with hegemony; something to do with style and genre indicators; something to do with mythologies of 'coolness', and something to do with linguistic factors such as poetics, metre and accent. All of these factors impact upon what Barthes refers to as 'grain' (Barthes, 1977: 179-189).
We must be careful not to stretch Barthes's theories too far — the binary aesthetics of post-structuralist critical theory can be too reductive and quasi-scientific for wide application in popular music. But certainly, some critical dimensions relating to grain are of great use in analysing both singing voices and their wider relationship to concepts of ethnicity and national identity.
The principal counter argument to Barthes's theories is the postulation that all individual voices have grain — materiality, physicality and, to a varying extent, individuality. What we are in fact dealing with is the degree of grain, rather than the binary opposition of presence or absence. However, there is some intrinsic link between the degree of grain and the affective response imbued in that voice. In the case of popular music we can extend Barthes's theories to include the importance of accent upon jouissance. It can be argued that an overtly English, particularly Southern English accent is very unusual within the entire body of popular music, and as such assumes a greater degree of individuality and uniqueness. This accounted for much of the exaggerated criticism of her voice when she first emerged, with a reviewer in Melody Maker 'offering that she sounded like " a cross between Linda Lewis and Macbeth's three witches"' (Jovnovic, 2005: 73). In addition, bearing in mind the historical imperative towards (working class) authenticity within popular music discourse, her polite diction may well have triggered a class-based response relating to assumed 'poshness' or 'contrivance'. Interestingly, Kate Bush's spoken voice is typically a more proletarian mix of precise diction, 'estuary English', and occasional use of a cockney or working class glottal stop.
When we hear Kate Bush pronounce the long vowel sounds in words such as 'dance', or the r-less pronunciation of 'far', or the un-flapped t-sounds in 'water' we are experiencing both a hegemonic challenge to the norm and also a personal and ethnically related physicality to sounds. There is thus a degree of both plaisir (detached, analytical, unemotional response) and jouissance (ecstatic, blissful, irrational response) present in this critical reading, but a greater degree than that made possible in a more standardised, transatlantic delivery. In addition, the artist's wide and varied adoption of non-literary sounds, which go far beyond the standard 'do-dos' and 'la-las' of popular music do encourage a response that focuses upon grain, rather than explicit meaning.
We can substantiate this conclusion by focussing on physical, linguistic distinctions between Standard and American English. Many in this field (see Bryson, 1990; Elmes, 2001 and Freeborn, 1998) have researched some of the crucial differences, such as the American 'flapped' t (as in 'budder', for the Southern English 'butter') and the greater degree of 'enjoinment' or 'slurring' between American syllables, as opposed to the more clipped and divided English style. An important caveat is to note that many working class English accents are closer to the North American norm. In a sense, this observation only bolsters Bush's distinctiveness, as she typically employs linguistic techniques removed from both North American, and more indigenous regional and working class models. Received Pronunciation in popular music goes very much against the grain.
Another distinction, less noted, is that Americans open their mouths wider. This empirical observation is corroborated when we observe original American adverts that have been dubbed by English voices. We notice the disparity not because the lip-synching is bad, but because the American mouths are opening too wide for the linguistically 'alien' sounds appearing to emanate from within.
What all these linguistic distinctions suggest is that it is actually easier, or perhaps even more 'natural' (a dangerous term!) for many English vocalists to sing global pop in a modified, or American style. Not only does American diction and metre give a more smooth, melismatic flow but also the wider mouthings add scope for a greater degree of physical, oral dexterity. It is surely no accident that many lead vocalists possess very large or wide mouths — Kate Bush being one clear example. We might conclude with the final observation that pronouncing t-sounds in the un-flapped mode requires more care and more breath than its transatlantic variant; and breath is the vocalist's 'finite energy resource'. Yet again, as the result of a variety of factors, to sing global pop in southern, clipped English is to disorientate the listener, to remove their aesthetic experience from the 'default setting' that hegemonic forces establish as mythologies. But of coure, to counter the rigid distinctions of Barthes, we are experiencing (or, more fittingly 're-presenting') the jouissance of Southern English grain and materiality through the plaisir of detached rationality. We need the structure of language in order to critically engage with concepts of this mythical pre-linguistic state.
It is a cliché that certain singers use their voices like a musical instrument — all do — but again, the real issue is the extent and ambition involved in this process. By the time of Hounds of Love, Bush's voice had matured, gaining physical thickness (actual, not just symbolic grain) in the process. Her adoption of a deeper, 'choral' voice for harmony sections, often abetted by technological pitch shifting allowed for a huge tonal range to be employed, with clear aesthetic implications the result. In addition, unlike on earlier albums such as Lionheart, the battery of vocal devices — squeals, growls, and whispers — was being employed more sparingly, but more effectively as a result. At various points Bush has drawn upon foreign tongues — another clear victory for jouissance over plaisir if this device denies the reader narrative comprehension. On Hounds the use of German is a very effective demonstration of this concept,as is the employment of backward-taped words at the end of 'Hello Earth' (1985).
The issue of grain and gender must also be considered. Jeremy Gilbert & Ewan Pearson (1999) note that many appropriations of Barthes's theories relating to grain seem to intrinsically connect the concept to 'gravelly' voices. Within this paradigm:
These authors are attempting to problematise a partial adoption of the term grain as symbolic of maleness and 'rockist values'. As they rightly say, grain is an important aspect of timbre, and is central to instrumental dance music, as much as it is to vocal rock. My own take on grain is to dismantle its role as guarantor of gender-based and timbre-based authenticity. A 'pure', or trained female voice is as capable of conveying grain as any other in its more holistic application. Furthermore, Kate Bush's voice has the flexibility to sometimes growl and have 'grit', whereas the voices with inherent 'dirt' often do not have the ability to be 'pure'.
The folk musicologist A L (Bert) Lloyd makes an important critical intervention into vocal styles when he divides Europe into two main geographical and singing traditions. In brief he sets up an opposition between centre and fringe that is echoed in what he terms the 'plain syllabic tradition' and the 'elaborative tradition' (Lloyd, 1971). For Lloyd the plain syllabic tradition dominated in areas such as Germany, northern France, the Netherlands and southern Britain, for the most part these countries have strong links with either the reformation or an organised nation state, which results in a vocal style that is orderly, structured and has precise pitching and clear intervals. At its most pronounced this results in the 'one note per syllable' approach of some English folk, pastoral orchestral music, and many nursery rhymes. This can be contrasted with the elaborative traditions of areas on the geographical fringes of Europe: 'Celic' Britain, the Balkans, Spain etc. In these areas drone notes rather than chord progressions can dominate, along with vocal styles that meander melismatically and chromatically (even micro tonally) in stretching one syllable over several notes. This can be heard demonstrated in the work of the Trio Bulgarka. Indeed, some might argue that some of this tradition filters via emigration and slavery into the construction of the gospel, blues and soul tradition of North America (and thence into the vocal inflections of a young English singer such as Joss Stone, herself heavily influenced by African-American styles).
As with all binary oppositions we must be wary to temper the rigidity that the process can imply. Most singers employ elements of both these traditions, but the degree varies. In the case of Kate Bush, it is fair to judge her vocal work to fall, in the main, within the plain syllabic tradition — phrasing is precise, sounds and tones are rendered in a clipped and accurate fashion, and there is relatively little recourse to excessive melisma or 'blue' notes that are found in African-American music to a greater extent than within typically English pop. In fittingly, mythologically English fashion, melisma and slurring of notes is used sparingly, for effect, in much the same way that strong outbursts of emotion are broadly 'contained' within the constructed English psyche. It is interesting to note that one of her most prominent uses of melisma comes within a rare cover version, in this case the Irish traditional tune 'My Lagan Love', (1985) which was included asa bonus track as part of the re-mastered Hounds of Love album. On the original album elaborative melisma assumes greater significance as a direct result of its sparse and infrequent incorporation. On 'And Dream of Sheep' the line 'My face is all lit up' is repeated, the first line in plain syllabic mode and the second time the melody arches up and then down into a brief melismatic cadence that adds both emphasis to the lyric and dynamism to the melody. Were the device to be employed more regularly it would not have the same impact — the constructed notion of English restraint and economy remains the watchword.
All of these aspects contribute to the degree of uniqueness and individual grain of Kate Bush's voice. Her independence, and relative 'isolation' from the wider pop world may well have helped her maintain or even strengthen this important dimension in both her career and her physical expression of Englishness. Particularly in the period around Hounds her vocal style was assuredly, rather than exaggeratingly southern English. Some earlier tracks such as 'Oh England, My Lionheart' (1978) do over-emphasise the diction to the point of parody. This does perhaps reinforce the lyrical message, but still comes across as contrived. On the other hand, certain tracks on the albums after Hounds do see a noticeably transatlantic inflection emerge. In common with some ill-advised attempts to 'get on down' in a funk mood ('Constellation of the Heart', 1993, for example) these vocal modifications do not ring true. Perhaps more tellingly, even withn material as un-American as 'Bertie' on Aerial, the vocals in the verses demonstrate a rootless, geographically vague phrasing that can be found throughout mainstream pop, regardless of ethnicity (clear echoes of Sweeting's Adornian response to standardisation resurface here). The reasons for these accentual shifts can only be guessed at, but the reality of the resulting compromised timbres cannot be read as anything but a 'retreat'.
I suggested earlier that there is a fluidity in terms of singers' choices of accents, but one aspect of Hounds that Bush's vocals exemplify is the wilful bravery of the artist in going against the grain (via 'grain' itself!). Her later work does tend towards the more conservative and mainstream in all aspects, not least in the move towards transatlantic inflections. Other constructed Southern English singers, such as Paul Weller echo this shift. His vocals move from the almost caricatured working class 'angry young man' of his Jam period, through the more measured and smoother tones of the Style Council 'soul' period, to the more recent, gruffer Americanised transatlantic rock stylings of his solo career. This process may be to do with the ageing process and the less polemical quality of his songs, but it again suggests an artistic conservatism. Weller and Bush both seem to have ceased restlessly searching for new terrain, one they partly achievd through the affirmation of a distinct regional identity. When Weller reverts to an overtly English delivery for 'From the Floorboards Up' (2005) it seems self-parodic and out of step with most of his other recent performances, as can be observed on occasions within Bush's last three albums.
Language and register
In common with the hegemonies of accent, the idiomatic use of language in popular music discourse is hugely indebted to North American models. This factor is as much influenced by the demands of a market-led structural model built around standardised 3-minute pop songs as it is around American standardisation, but this aspect will be explored below.
In her book that seeks to function as some kind of composer's guide to lyric composition, Pamela Phillips-Oland (2001) sets up certain 'rules of thumb' that must commonly be adhered to in order to write a commercial song lyric. These include advice to always make the title prominent in the lyric, to always include hooks or refrains, not to twist word order out of the 'conversational', not to use archaic phrases, and not to be too personal (Phillips-Oland, 2001: 3-4). The overall intention seems to be to set up a sharp delineation between the lyric and the poem. The important issue is not that many of the rules are prescriptive, contradictory, and frequently broken even within the standardised field that the author inhabits, but rather that many of them either implicitly or explicitly express North American values or idioms as the generic norm for the popular song form.
Kate Bush's lyrics do, as a body of work, often inhabit a relatively standardised terrain, in structural terms. However, never has any British artist more stridently placed issues of poetic and ethnic register before a pop audience than within the first few stanzas of Bush's debut single, 'Wuthering Heights'. Not only is the word 'wiley' archaic, but also the following phrase 'we'd roll and fall in green' is so redolent of the English poetic and pastoral tradition that its challenge to dominant values cannot fail to be explicit.
In a more conventional manner, as well as broadly fulfilling Phillips-Oland's criterion that no more than two sections in a row should have the same structure, most of her songs do concur with the 'rules of thumb' outlined above. The first two albums, in particular, consist largely of 3-minute songs conventionally structured around verses, choruses and b-sections. The lyrics, although unusually explicit, (particularly in terms of what 'the market' expected from a young woman), did also deal with many standard pop tropes such as romance, love, desire and feelings. However, as her career developed, her song structures, production processes and her lyrical concerns broadened out beyond the stereotypes moulded, to an extent, by the commercial pop industry dominated by 'tin pan alley' models, and their descendants. Examples would include the complete eschewing of chord progressions and the extensive use of drone notes on 'The Dreaming', or the lyric-ess choral modality of 'Night Scented Stock' (both 1982).
With Hounds of Love Kate Bush moved beyond the accepted pop album structure — separate songs — into what can best be described as song-suites. Particularly in the case of The Ninth Wave the models for this process come from outside the pop world, as will be referenced in the section on influences below. With regard to both language and lyrical structures, by this point in her career Kate Bush, as a lyricist is skilfully combining 'low' and 'high' registers in a way that stretches and challenges the conventions of pop, yet without dispensing with them. The very opening track demonstrates this process. In the second verse of 'Running up that Hill (A Deal With God)' (1985) the lyric runs thus:
The first line is standard pop in every respect, and has doubtless been employed in many songs in a similar form or order. The second line is more unusual, but her use of a powerful, emotive metaphor, whilst more 'poetic' is still a well-employed device within pop. However, to reflect back upon on one of Phillips-Oland's rules the word order is changed from the more everyday and prosaic 'the bullet is lying deep'. The third line employs a term — 'asunder' — which whilst not archaic, is not a feature of conversational, contemporary English. The fourth line is standard pop discourse and is almost a cliché (As I write this section a record entitled 'Thunder in My Heart (again), (2006) is number 1 in the UK single chart). Lyrics assume coherence from both their selection and combination and it is true that this fragment is being taken out of context of both the song, and the whole album. Nevertheless, this example (picked, to an extent, at random') does demonstrate the distinctiveness of Kate Bush's very English approach to lyrical construction. Two of the lines have a noticeably colloquial 'global' register, but they are juxtaposed with two other lines that do not. We must also be aware that one of the reasons for using the word 'asunder' may be to offer the rhyme for 'thunder' in the middle of the next line. Again, rhymes coming within the couplet, rather than at its end are unusual by pop standards, but far from unknown. What is more unusual is that none of the line endings rhyme. This is less important for verses than for choruses, but the chorus within this song is similarly unconventional, with the line endings being 'road', 'hill', 'building' and 'oh'.
Examples of this clash of rules, conventions and registers abound in the work of the artist. Within 'Waking the Witch', (1985) we have the archaic phrase 'What say you, good people?' On 'Mother Stands for Comfort', the couplet 'Am I the cat that takes the bird?, To her the hunted, not the hunter' is similarly removed from everyday, colloquial speech. On 'Cloudbusting' the narrator sings of 'When you and sleep escape me'. We can focus upon the thrilling friction engendered by the line 'Let me grab your soul away' on 'Wuthering Heights'. Part of the power of this line comes from the insertion of the everyday term 'grab' into a narrative that in other respects demands the term 'steal'. On 'Running up that Hill' the b-pattern includes the idiomatically American line 'C'mon baby c'mon darlin'' (printed with apostrophes anddeliberate 'slang spelling') before the couplet is completed with 'Let me steal this moment from you now'. As with the previous example, the choice of 'steal', 'expected' in 'Wuthering Heights', comes as a surprise here and gains gravity as a consequence. Examples of slang, American-English terms or spellings are unusual in Kate Bush's lyrical world, but their occasional insertion gives them added power, as well as encouraging the focussing upon ethnicity that her lyrics make manifest.
Within The Ninth Wave the lyrics function as part of an unfolding narrative. This allows the writer even more license to challenge the conventions of the popular song. The lyric shifts in time, tense and space, between dreams, consciousness and unconsciousness, out of body experiences, omniscient narratives, dialogues and internal soliloquies. On occasions logic and linear structure are dispensed with, or possibly just 'misplaced'. But the sheer extent of the ambition wins through. As with the song suite A Sky of Honey, within such structures The Ninth Wave inhabits a terrain far removed from that normally adopted by Anglo-American popular music.
Of course 'eccentricity' or 'experimentation' should not be taken as automatic guarantors of worth or value. And it is true that aspects such as regular scansion and standardised metre in song lyrics are even more important than in a less 'fettered' literary form such as poetry as a consequence of being physically performed and commercially mediated. Phil Collins assumed the role of lead vocalist in Genesis after Peter Gabriel left. When talking about the importance of lyrics, he made these interesting, although slightly contradictory observations:
We are not privy to the workings of the lyricist's mind behind those two highlighted lyrical snatches. But what we can state is that both 'bread bin' and 'undinal', as with many of Kate Bush's lyrical devices, transgress the pop norm, each in a different fashion. In addition, as with all lyrics they serve simultaneously as signifiers and signifieds — as the sound in itself, and what it symbolises as a unit of meaning. As well as being transgressive in normative terms, they are also symbolic of two styles of 'un-pop' English — the one form low culture and idiomatic, and the other elevated and literary. Whether such lyrical examples work is for the individual to judge within the context of both the song and the setting, but what has to be challenged is any pre-conceived notion that certain words or styles should be somehow proscribed. Kate Bush's lyrics provide us with countless examples of similarly idiosyncratic language that as with her use of accent, root her within a particularly English tradition. This tradition will always assume oppositional or counter-hegemonic status in the global marketplace for popular music. Her uses of clipped, fricative sounds such as 'cutting, 'splitting', and 'skating' within 'Under the Ice' is another textual example that reinforces my thesis. Such examples function both to drive the narrative and strongly emphasise her ethnic origins.
Certain genres or styles come to stand as symbolic of a particular race or ethnicity through pop's internal mythologising process. To an extent, this is part of the authenticity paradigm that functioned as the bedrock upon which much pop criticism and analysis of the past forty years has operated. As previously argued, the important aspect of mythology does not lie within its essentialising imperative, but in its resonance as a self-conscious critical device that enables us to focus upon stereotypes, assumptions and self-fulfilling prophesies.
In terms of Kate Bush's music, there are certain style indicators that all contribute to the construction of English mythologies relating to genre, 'feel' and imbued affect.
The first point to make is that the vast majority of the artist's musical collaborators are from the British Isles. This is particularly true of Hounds of Love. With the exception of American Michael Kamen, the orchestral arranger, Australian guitarist John Williams (guitar, on one track) and Eberhard Weber (bass, on two tracks), the musicians are, in the main, English or Irish. This, of course, reflects upon the artist's own genealogy. It can only be critical conjecture — and may be an example of my own mythologizing — but this broadly British group of musicians do partly account for the focussed feel present throughout the album. Later in her career the artist was to draw upon Slavic influences in the guise of the Trio Bulgarka. It should be stated this contribution from a very different vocal tradition did often add to the timbral palette in an effective manner. However, it could also detract from the unity of the albums, and imbalance the overall feel of the works.
On Hounds of Love the strongest non-English flavour comes from the Irish players Donal Lunny, Liam O'Flynn and John Sheahan, along with the arranger Bill Whelan. Kate Bush had 'experimented' with Irish traditional elements on the previous album's 'Night of the Swallow' (1982), but on The Ninth Wave, ethnic instruments such as whistles, fiddles, uilleann pipes and the 'honorary' Greek/Irish bouzouki fundamentally augment the sound palette on 'And Dream of Sheep', 'Jig of Life' and 'Hello Earth'. The acoustic textures do make important narrative connections with the suite's exploration of weather, elements and space. In particular the chromatic and microtonal slides on pipes and whistles do echo the undulating, unstable environment of sea and wave, and do much to add to the often eerie, 'rootless' mood imbued by the tracks. One of the triumphs of thealbum is its contrasting use of old and new musical timbres, which is typically symbolised by Irish traditions rubbing up against global technologies in the main utilised by English musicians. The importance of orchestral flavours, particularly violins and cellos should also be noted.
In terms of genre, positioning Hounds of Love is problematic. Many of the regular, 'four-to-the-floor' beats and rhythms on side one place the work within a rock/dance hybrid terrain. In addition, the 'commercialism' (memorable melodies, refrains and hooks) throughout the tracks released as singles, which skilfully popularises and makes accessible the more experimental timbres, effects and lyrics, does place them within the most unspecific of meta-genres — pop. However, side two's song suite, taken as an entity, does encourage the listener to makes connections with that most English of genres — progressive rock. Although 'prog rock' did include a very important European dimension (for example, the work of Focus, PFM, Magma, Gong, Can, Amon Düul etc), most of its most influential and successful acts hailed from southern England, with many acts reflecting a middle class, even 'public school' sensibilityand accent (the 'Canterbury sound', the vocals of Peter Gabriel, or Caravan's Richard Sinclair, the clean 'choral ' tones of the Hammond Organ, for example).
Prog can lay claim to being the most misunderstood, and certainly the most derided of musical genres (because of its 'posh' English style?). The genre has suffered a very negative critical press since the late 1970s, particularly in the UK, the country that provided most of its significant acts. Since the 1990s, interest in the form has been reactivated, although it is significant that much of this activity has originated from North American, often academic, sources. To my way of thinking, it is almost as if the American appreciation of this most British of genres carries clear echoes of the British critical devotion to indigenous American genres such as blues, soul and country.
For an adequate overview of prog, many accounts exist (see Borthwick & Moy, 2004: 61-76, or Holm-Hudson (ed.), 2002). My focus here lays within the many ways that Hounds of Love incorporates prog style indicators, yet avoids the critical opprobrium that the genre typically garners. One of prog's principal structural models was the classical song suite or tone poem. It was particularly interested in representations of an English sense of the pastoral, as well as weighty lyrical concerns with metaphysics, fantasy narratives or histories and mythologies (in the pre-Barthesian sense). Despite the often-important incorporation of elements of psychedelic, jazz, avant-garde and folk styles, the central element consisted of keyboard-based English rock/pop instrumentation played in a deliberately un-American manner. As I argued in a previous book, this was a deliberate procedure involving 'breaking the blues lineage' (Borthwick & Moy, 2004: 61). This manifesed itself in a variety of ways, many of which are echoed, particularly in The Ninth Wave.
Foremost is the sequencing of tracks into a near-seamless suite of differing textures, rhythms and tempi. The track segues on The Ninth Wave are relatively sympathetic, lacking the jarring juxtaposition of loud and quiet, or fast and slow sections found within much classical or 1970s prog sequencing. Indeed, the most jarring jump probably lies within a track — 'Waking the Witch', but this is not unusual within the prog genre.
Another classic prog device is the juxtaposition of different time signatures, often ones highly unusual within pop (for example, Genesis's self-explanatory 'Apocalypse in 9/8' towards the climax of the suite Supper's Ready, 1972). Whilst Kate Bush's music does jump in tempo and time signature, it typically gravitates between the more standardised pop signatures of 4/4, 3/4 and 6/8, giving her music the feel of contemporary jigs or reels. Whilst this is far more ambitious and 'progressive' than standard pop, the deliberately 'un-groovy' overly complex self-consciousness of classic prog is moderated in favour of 'flow' or even standardised common time.
Instrumentally, Hounds of Love employs the updated arsenal of acoustic, electronic and computerised timbres available by the mid 1980s. The artist's use of the album's catalogue of timbres is classically prog in its willing experimentation and eclecticism, and also in its deliberate denial of classically American timbres and styles. This is made manifest by the total absence of instruments such as slide or pedal steel guitar, slap bass or jazz brass. There is little doubt that had samplers, sequencers and digital composition been available during the prog era then they would have been enthusiastically adopted. Prog acts made great use of the newly-available synthesisers, and the mellotron, which as well as functioning as a rudimentary sampler also allowed for orchestral washes of sound and choral voices to place the resulting music in a European (and affordable orchestral) setting. By the mid 1980s, the mellotron's descendents — Fairlights and polyphonic synthesisers, werecentral to Kate Bush's compositional and playing processes. Indeed, it could be argued that the limitations of these new techniques actually allowed for a more experimental form of creativity to result as opposed to the 'everything is possible' world of contemporary Pro-Tools, hard-disk production sequencing and limitless amounts of sampling. Timothy Warner states that the Fairlight available in the period of the recording of Hounds produced samples that were 'veiled, indistinct... "grainy": a quality, which at the time was regarded as a deficiency but which none the less had a particular charm and character.' (Warner, 2003: 98). These qualities clearly provoke connotations of 'warmth', thus exposing the artificiality of the binary oppositions of 'human' and 'machine' technology.
Kate Bush's lyrical scope and ambition have already been referenced — another clear link to prog's intention to break with the constraints of most Anglo-American pop. Unlike many prog narratives, Hounds of Love is more grounded in 'realistic' feelings and states of mind, or more ambitious narratives that still retain 'credibility' in spite of their elevated language and subject matter. As a result, Kate Bush escaped the many accusations of 'whimsy', 'hippiness' or 'public schoolboy mythology' often directed at the likes of Yes and Genesis by members of the rock press (see Macan, 1997: 167-178).
In summary, Hounds of Love is, on balance, classically prog in broad conceptual and often musical terms. However, it reined in many of the excesses of the genre, thus rendering its ambition and experimentation more accessible and palatable to a mainstream audience as a consequence. It thus managed to function almost as an interloper within a genre that dares not speak its name. In addition, her status as a solo female performer within the overwhelmingly male band world of prog, and the fact that by 1985 she was a studio composer rather than live performer may have helped differentiate Kate Bush from the genre. It has certainly helped her escape the negative connotations of the genre that it belongs to in an important, yet somewhat marginal and unacknowledged fashion.
In this essay I have attempted to indicate the wealth of British, Anglo-Irish, and most significantly (southern) English elements that have informed the music of Kate Bush. In addition, there are notable class-based dimensions in her delivery and generic style that render her work particularly unusual and challenging. In the globalised (globalized!) world of hegemonic popular music, these elements automatically assume oppositional status. It is important both for artists to continue to draw upon marginalized ethnicities (which in pop terms, southern middle class English is), and for fans and consumers of the resulting musical texts to register their cultural impact.
Some of the great significance of Kate Bush's music does rest upon its long standing commercial and critical success, but equally, it also resides within her challenge to diverse socio-musical norms, one of which has been my focus in this research. It is an area few musicians in popular music have so actively and provocatively engaged with.
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