‘Stranger Things’ brings Kate Bush’s Catholic hope to a new generation
Since it was used a few weeks ago in the new season of “Stranger Things,” Kate Bush’s 1985 hit “Running Up that Hill” has exploded across pop culture. It’s the top seller on iTunes and her first-ever Top 10 hit in the United States. And perhaps the greatest sign of its impact, it is everywhere on TikTok. I’ve seen people dancing to it, posting it over footage of “Stranger Things” actress Sadie Sink deep in thought while stroking a puppy and, of course, endlessly and irritatingly re-recording it. (I get it, singing is a form of participation, but honestly it seems a little desperate, you guys.)
A big part of the popularity of “Running Up That Hill” right now comes from the way it’s used in “Stranger Things.” The breakout story of Season 4 has been Sadie Sink’s character Max Mayfield grieving the death of her step-brother. (Note: This article has some demogorgon-sized spoilers. Be warned.) In just a few lines, she gave one of the great speeches of the series, words that capture what it is like being a character in this world: “I don’t need you to reassure me right now and tell me that it’s all going to work out,” she tells her friends after she learns that the Season 4 Big Bad, Vecna, is coming for her. “People have been telling me that my whole life and it’s almost never true. It’s never true.” On “Stranger Things,” the characters know all too well that no one is coming to save them, either from monsters or the cruelty of life.
“Running Up that Hill” is more than just the song in “Stranger Things”: it’s also deeply religious.
It is Max’s sense of shame and guilt that allows Vecna to enter into her life. And in the end, the only thing that saves her from a horrifying crucifixion-like death at Vecna’s hands is listening to “Running.” The song inspires Max to remember the good moments in her life, the friends that love her, and with those memories, she begins to fight to return to them. The scene in which she runs away from Vecna across the Upside Down, striving to reach her friends while Kate Bush sings, is iconic, one of the great moments in television this year.
Amid all the excitement about the song’s renewed success, one thing that has been lost is that “Running Up that Hill” is also a religious song. As Bush explained back in 1989, for her, the song is about two lovers, a man and a woman, who dream of swapping places so that they could understand each other better. “I thought the only way it could be done was, you know, a deal with the devil,” Bush says. “And then I thought: Well no, why not a deal with God? Because that’s so much more powerful.”
In fact, she wanted to name the song “A Deal with God,” but her label insisted if she did, the radio stations in at least 10 different countries wouldn’t play it out of fear of offending religious listeners. Because her last album hadn’t done so well, Bush accepted the change, but not happily. “I thought that was ridiculous,” she said of these concerns.
Bush herself was raised Catholic and attended St. Joseph Convent School in Kent, England, which Graeme Thompson in his biography of Bush Under the Ivy described as high on conformity, including having the names of girls who broke any of the school’s rules announced at school assemblies. “I would never say I was a strict follower of Roman Catholic belief,” Bush later said, “but a lot of images are in there [in her work]; they have to be; they’re so strong. Such powerful, beautiful, passionate images!”
She also noted that “there’s a lot of suffering in Roman Catholicism.” You hear that in “Running,” the quiet desperation to its sound, a yearning that seems like it has just about given up hope, much like Max. Even the lyrics signal that; Bush never sings about the lovers as having been able to switch places. It’s always conditional; “if I only could, I’d make a deal with God,” she sings again and again. They could be running up that hill together; but they are not.
This intertwining of hope and futility can be found in other Bush songs, as well. “Suspended in Gaffa” from “The Dreaming” has a playful, antic quality. But it is about someone “wanting it all” who can never quite get there. “Suddenly my feet are feet of mud,” she sings in the refrain. “It all goes slow-mo/ I don’t know why I’m crying/ Am I suspended in Gaffa?/ Not until I’m ready for you/ Not until I’m ready for you.”
Here, too, Bush connected the song to her Catholic upbringing. “I was brought up as a Roman Catholic and had the imagery of purgatory and of the idea that when you were taken there that you would be given a glimpse of God and then you wouldn’t see him again until you were let into heaven,” she told MTV in an interview in 1985. “We were told that in Hell it was even worse because you got to see God but then you knew that you would never see him again.”
Kate Bush noted that “there’s a lot of suffering in Roman Catholicism.” You hear that in “Running.”
The song, she said, reflects that experience of “seeing something incredibly beautiful, having a religious experience as such, but not being able to get back there.”
In “Cloudbusting,” Bush likewise sings of waking up crying, thinking of someone who was “just in reach.” In the music video, which stars her and Donald Sutherland, the opening image has the two like Sisyphus, struggling to push a massive object up a hill.
But despite the seeming futility of these situations, what is notable about the characters in Bush’s songs is that they never stop. “Not until I’m ready for you,” Bush howls in “Gaffa,” lacking, wanting and trying all woven together. In the “Cloudbusting” video, Sutherland’s character, who plays a rainmaker, is arrested before he can finally prove his machine works. The song ends with Bush racing back up that hill—there is always another hill with Bush—and turning the machine on so that Sutherland can see it rain. “The sun’s coming out,” she sings, paradoxically. “The sun’s coming out.”
This sense that nothing more is possible, and yet still she won’t stop dreaming, won’t stop singing, won’t stop running up that hill, is at the heart of Bush’s power. It is perfect for the plight of Max and all the characters of “Stranger Things.”
“I would never say I was a strict follower of Roman Catholic belief,” Kate Bush said, “but a lot of images are in there; they have to be; they’re so strong.”
It is also a powerful expression of Christian hope. For Catholics, hope is not the same as a Hail Mary pass. It’s not an act that we perform because we think if we do things will get better but because it is who we are. It doesn’t matter if all is lost; this is still what we do. It is Jesus on the cross, his death the final expression of his love for humanity, even as it also represents the utter failure of that relationship. “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” he asks, grief-stricken and yet also still reaching. And miraculously, against all odds, it turns out death is not the end.
So of course “Stranger Things” should feature a Kate Bush song saving a child’s life. She has long been the poet who calls us to keep going. I’m thrilled that young people have rediscovered her. When I was a kid, Peter Gabriel turned to Bush to be the voice of encouragement in his song “Don’t Give Up.” In the music video, the two hold each other for the entire six and a half minutes. It’s very weird at first (like many Bush music videos, actually), but the longer it goes on, the more affecting it becomes. She is the physical embodiment of the care she expresses, a love that is not going anywhere.
Sir Elton John would later attribute his sobriety to Bush’s vocals on that song, particularly these lyrics: “Rest your head/ You worry too much/ It’s going to be all right/ When times get rough/ You can fall back on us/ Don’t give up.” The Telegraph reported in 2020 that over 11,000 people have made comments on YouTube attributing the song to saving their lives as well.
In her 1989 interview, Bush said that she saw her vocation as a musician as an expression of a search for God. “People who create feel a great empty sense of hunger, a feeling of emptiness in life,” she said. “So many artists are looking for God, and this is where we find the voice to try and speak.” In fact, it’s not just artists that are searching for God. In her songs, Kate Bush brings us with her on that journey to a place she believes in without knowing it can be reached, “a place where we belong.”