‘Stranger Things’ and Kate Bush: Running up those charts
It’s a match made in 1980s pop heaven; the perfect blend to save Max’s life and youth’s current obsession with nostalgia
Friday 17 June 2022 By George Chesterton
Of all the songs to have featured in the four seasons of Stranger Things, why was it Kate Bush’s ‘Running Up That Hill’ that resonated so spectacularly. The easy answer is that – embedded in a world of Russian spies, Dungeons & Dragons, video game arcades and Pop Tarts – the song is in a show so dependent on a calcified version of the past that it represents a kind of nexus of nostalgia. It is nostalgia squared.
But Kate Bush was always ripe for rediscovery by a younger audience. She embodies so much we now admire – independence and fearlessness. And so much we lack – the idiosyncratic and literary. In pop music there is no stranger thing than Kate Bush.
In 1981, a sketch in the BBC2 show Not The Nine O’Clock News parodied Bush’s sudden fame. It satirised how young women were treated by a profoundly exploitative industry, yet still made fun of her for being ditzy and pretentious. Bush has always been easy to mock, but this took away her agency. It suggested it was either all a schtick or she was a hapless puppet. They could not have been more wrong.
Bush has a sensibility that leans towards the uncanny. Her use of language is lyrical but unsettling with a knack for original metaphor, of which ‘Running Up That Hill’ is a supreme example. The song works so well in Stranger Things because it contrasts a very personal vulnerability with a very impersonal ambiguous menace. It dares you to try to decode it, knowing you will never succeed. The other singles from Hounds Of Love – the title track and the untouchable ‘Cloudbusting’ – would feel equally at home in the dark(ish) world created by the Duffer Brothers, as would the high-concept suite of songs that make up the second half of the album (or side two, for those who wish to remain in Stranger Things analogue).
Thirty-eight years after the Kate Bush spoof, the brilliant children’s animation Teen Titans Go! parodied Stranger Things in the episode ‘Nostalgia Is Not A Substitute For An Actual Story’. The hapless teenage superheroes argue about whether the 1980s is the greatest decade, then go back in time to test the theory, riding to the mall on BMXs, observing the healthy lack of social media and being bullied by 1980s jerks in a record store.
The episode’s subtext is that culture is now dominated by power brokers who grew up in the 1980s. That demographic will soon change, so the Stranger Things/Kate Bush union may represent the high watermark for our obsession with all things sh*te and beautiful. It’s worth noting the most loved storyline in Teen Titans Go! is about a fictional 1980s song that has the power to save the galaxy and turns all the superheroes into the kind of retro cartoons you’d watch between toy adverts on Saturday mornings. When it comes to the post-modern decade, it all just goes in the pot.
In Stranger Things, the character Max is saved from the monster Vecna because her friends sense she is in danger and scramble for the cassette tape (tick) of her favourite song and play it to her through her Sony Walkman (tick). The song, ‘Running Up That Hill’, brings Max back from the brink, because she’s able to see her friends trying to help and this inspires her to use the happy memories of their adventures to combat the forces of evil. She comes back to earth, brandishing her Swatch (tick). It’s an old trick, but a reassuring one, fitting for a story that so exploits the comfort we take from the VHS versions of our recent past.
These forces of evil are themselves manifestations of Max’s childhood trauma – a very 2022 preoccupation given a very 1986 solution. So, Kate Bush saves Max’s life. But what we are really watching is a scene in which the act of remembering saves her life. Or rather, nostalgia saves her life. The 1980s save her life. That’s what everyone who grew up in that decade would like to think is possible. Now that really is the definition of fantasy.