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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

An examination of 'art pop' through "Running Up That Hill"

I examine why Kate Bush's work stands out from that of her contemporaries through one of her most successful songs in the mainstream.

It feels weird calling this song pop when I compare it to the other songs with which I group it from its time period — songs like "Roll With It" and "The Safety Dance," among others — but I don't know what else I could call it.

I've always found the classification of "art pop" iffy. Its name plays on popularity and the use of existing pop forms, while also tying into the use of more abstract artistic gestures in its construction. This duality makes it difficult to exactly shoehorn it into the pop music world, but it's hard to find another place where it would find nearly as great a level of success.

A perfect case in point for examining the pop / art boundary is the work of Kate Bush, whose popular success has occurred against a backdrop of adventurous recordings that beg to be classified outside the umbrella of "pop." In selecting and subsequently analyzing her 1985 hit "Running Up That Hill," I try my hand at distinguishing the songs' elements and their origins to help define "art pop," while also getting to the bottom of what the song means and why it has endured.

Personally, I'd always been drawn to "Running Up That Hill" by the power generated from its onset by the percussion. A combination of live and programmed drums, tom-toms have a characteristic restlessness to them as they hit on many subdivisions of the beat. This constant movement helps drive home the song's title for me; I hear every stroke of the kick or snare on the beat as another step up the hill and towards a common understanding, while the toms that play the subdivisions make me think of a racing heartbeat.

Bassist Del Palmer playing alongside toms also helps propel the song forward, though he notably doesn't stray from his playing the tonic note of C. This role is less typical of a bass guitar in popular music, and in its fulfillment I hear one of the greatest differences between "Running Up That Hill" and the other songs I've covered on this site before. Rather than grounding the song by guiding the arrangement through chord changes or other figures, the low end becomes a background element, an approach I find to be a defining art pop feature of the song. In leaving the synth pads to define the track's whole direction — which they do to a degree in both the verses and choruses — Kate Bush gives "Running Up That Hill" an enduring floating feeling that sets it apart from standard pop fare.

The above makes the moments in which pop conventionality seeps into the arrangement all the more jarring and impactful. The massive tom fill leading into a guitar chord at the end of the bridge ("Let's change the experience") snaps listeners out of the song's dreamlike state for a brief moment, one which certainly caught me off guard when I was reintroducing myself to the song. The fact that such a moment was so unexpected to me speaks to the track's distinction from the rest of the pop world, something only driven further home by later elements, including the additional high vocal layers in the final minute.

Reflecting on the various comparative oddities in "Running Up That Hill," I came to the conclusion that "art pop" is somewhat of a catch-all term to describe music that fits some popular sensibilities and/or gains some mainstream success, while also distinguishing itself from more typical pop material in its sonic design. Bush's instrumental and backing elements trend toward the "art" side from my listening experience, while the "pop" leanings mainly come from her lead vocals. With the song coming at the start of her album Hounds of Love, it foretells much of the discussion of difficult love that permeates the record. Bush contends that if she and her partner — along with all men and women — were to see their relationship and each other's lives from the others' point of view, they would come to an understanding. This is the "deal with God" that drives her chorus, and which also subtitles the track on many of its releases.

In the latter half of the song, Bush contends that she would face the present challenges of her partner "with no problems" if the deal were made. This clear direction is a marked contrast from the floating state implied by the synth pads and other elements; in the track's greater context, it implies a sense of motivation which would come from the greater knowledge and empathy that would arise from the "deal with God." The question then becomes whether others would be willing to make that same deal, or if they remain too steadfast in their own ways to be willing to change their perspective.

When it comes to a perspective change in the music world, I hear "Running Up That Hill" as an agent in a greater movement toward pop music casting a wider net and artists being more willing to sonically experiment. Meanwhile, the "art pop" label persists for those acts who do the most to drive their sound into new and distinctive territories. As seen with some of the developments post-Hounds of Love, some of these innovations may be adopted into the wider pop sphere, further blurring the line between it and its "art" subsection. However, regardless of how one defines Bush's album and its lead single, they (at the very least) remain a sound unto themselves in the 80s pop landscape and continue to leave a lasting impression on pop listeners.


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