How Kate Bush's 'The Dreaming' Made My Monsters My Own
NPR Music's Turning the Tables is a project envisioned to challenge sexist and exclusionary conversations about musical greatness. Up until now we have focused on overturning conventional, patriarchal best-of lists and histories of popular music. But this time, it's personal. For 2021, we're digging into our own relationships to the records we love, asking: How do we know as listeners when a piece of music is important to us? How do we break free of institutional pressures on our taste while still taking the lessons of history into account? What does it mean to make a truly personal canon? The essays in this series will excavate our unique relationships with the albums we love, from unimpeachable classics by major stars to subcultural gamechangers and personal revelations. Because the way that certain music comes to hold a central place in our lives isn't just a reflection of how we develop our taste, but how we come to our perspective on the world.
Oh, to become a monster! To feel the skin of your back strengthen into armor with every scale that forms across it. To grow a tail. A weapon. To feel teeth sharpening into blades, nails hardening, now unbreakable. You swell in size, become fearsome. No one will cross you, with that roar.
This kind of shape-shifting quickens many people's fantasies, so much so that it's become a central element of the mainstream's Marvel Comics Universe mythologies. Yet the thought of it also stimulates dread. In the real world, becoming identified as a monster is almost always a process of social exclusion – of shaming and banishment, even physical harm. Only the very powerful can claim the right to make themselves confrontationally huge, morphing into more than what others expect.
There are so many ways that women in particular are made into monsters. As girls, they bleed too soon, or grow too fat, or remain too boyish. They have the wrong color skin in societies that have turned lies about race into law. Becoming pregnant, they cannot contain themselves, losing the baby, or losing their firm bodies after the birth. Failing to become pregnant, they find themselves marked as barren, bony, half. Women may be called monstrous simply for keeping to themselves, unkempt and unbeautiful, especially as they age. Or for the opposite — claiming space with too large a footprint. Women are identified as monsters for being, speaking, changing, being alive. Some are punished openly for these violations. Most carry the judgement within.
Occasionally, a woman – usually an artist — will make it her mission to speak as the monster others fear her to be. Living through abnormality, she sees something else in it. Potential to claim the ugliness, to refine it like blood turning into energy inside her body, until it lends strength. Shape-shifting can become shame-shifting. The voice of the monster says, I am here, mine enemies, I feel with every fiber of my being, I am wholly myself and have the right to be alive.
Me, A Monster
Recently I pried open the dented lock of a trunk containing relics of my adolescence. Under stacks of unsorted photographs and the issue of Rolling Stone with John and Yoko naked on the cover, I found the cheap cloth-bound journals I kept to help me become a "real" writer. Abandoning my college dorm room at the University of Washington to make out with boys who only half liked me, I was bumbling toward what I thought was real womanhood, too. I was a chaotic, dreamy girl, unhinged by the ceaseless internal battle between desire and dispossession. An awkward, loud, girl grown up into a deliberately weird, opinionated, highly emotional self-styled libertine, I'd become accustomed to people telling me I was "too much." I felt estranged from my parents, envious of my more socially graceful friends and shut out by the cool girls and crushworthy boys who let me hang around only at arms' length. Calm down, the chorus rang around me. Be cool. I had never once for a moment been cool. Barging through every open door that would have me, I entered adulthood feeling deeply alone.
Not long before that first dated journal entry, however, I'd discovered what every teenager immersed in music craves: a voice that spoke from what felt like the inside of my own head, but with total self-confidence. It belonged to Kate Bush, a pop prodigy from the London suburbs who was barely known in America when I happened upon her first two albums, cast off by some local club DJ, in a Seattle rummage-sale bin. The music on these albums wasn't wholly unfamiliar, landing somewhere between progressive rock (feverish perusals of my favorite British tabloids revealed that Pink Floyd's David Gilmour was her early mentor) and the stranger edge of new wave where the Talking Heads and the B-52's lived. But I'd never heard anything like Kate's careening soprano, running into the walls of every song's lush arrangement, threatening to rip right through. And what she sang about! Demon lovers. Spiritual raptures. Ghosts at the window. Her songs were deeply feminine high nerdery made into loud, obnoxious art rock. And the best part was, like me, she didn't want to stay in her body. Riding rhythm and melody, she became whatever gender, age, species she wanted to be, even an inanimate object at nature's whim. "I got no limbs, I'm like a feather on the wind," she sang, her anxiety matching her euphoria."I'm not sure I want to be up here at all." I felt welcomed by this disarray.
My Kate fandom grew rapidly and in isolation, like oleander in a terrarium. My roommates thought she was weird, removing her records from the shared stereo in our dingy living room to put on The Cure. The ode to her greatness I wrote for the balding, leather-jacketed editor who'd given me my first byline got killed. Too florid, he said. I piled up lines in my journals using green and purple ink. "I am Athena — I am Diana — I am my own answer," I wrote, quoting a Kate song about childbearing in the same paragraph. "There's 'Room For the Life' in my womb and in my soul. I am a mysterious and beautiful creature, glorying in the independent realization of my essence."
Happy entries like this one were rare in my journals, generally overrun with self-admonition and dismissal. "It hurts to hate oneself. I must work on stopping," I wrote. And: "I ate pizza tonight, and feel like throwing myself off a bridge because of it." I wanted to be a kite, like Kate, but I felt like a gorgon. The struggle to become sometimes hurt so much. Only when I heard her fourth album, The Dreaming, did I find that feeling fully conveyed in sound.
Throughout The Dreaming, a young woman expresses the pain and explores the potential of monstrous transformation. "With my ego in my gut, my babbling mouth would wash it up," Bush sings in the album's centerpiece, the drum-struck "Leave It Open." Her mouth issues moans and screams, sounds less and more than human. "Harm is in us, the power to arm," the backing vocalists, her consorts and twins, chant as she wails like a wind spirit. She will wrestle with unnamed forces within and without. By the end of the song she has found her statement of purpose, rendered in a complex layer of manipulated lines and backward tracks. "We let the weirdness in," she sings. She ingests the poison of others' perceptions and her own fears and transfigures.
Released in 1982, after Bush had found chart success in her native England but before she solidified her status as a founder of singer-songwriterly art rock, The Dreaming is generally viewed as transitional, an assemblage of daring but sometimes almost unlistenable experiments. After its release Bush enthused to reporters that she'd achieved all she'd wanted to do. "All this energy, my frustrations, my fears, my wish to succeed, all that went into the record," she said in 1986. As time went on, however, and The Dreaming's status as the difficult child in her canon solidified, Bush began describing it as her "I've gone mad" album, a designation that's stuck even among fervid fans who insist it's a masterpiece.
The album is an omnibus, Bush's own One Thousand and One Nights. Half the songs bring alive characters that require Bush to make huge identity leaps: She is a man riding a dented van through the Australian outback, a warrior in mortal combat, a thief who might be man or woman, a woman turning into a beast. The others recount her own frustrated quest for spiritual and artistic insight, a struggle that surpasses the lessons of her Catholic girlhood and leaves her gasping for both more grace and fewer visions.
Working with new musical tools, notably the Fairlight synthesizer, that allowed her to stretch and rend her vocals, distort guitars and drums, and interweave fragments of supposedly non-musical sounds — samples, in the same moment hip-hop pioneers were devising that science in America — Bush created a collection of immersive accounts of psychic death and rebirth. A self-aware storyteller, she makes sure to touch on myriad sites of such transformations: conquest, crime and hauntings, mystical altered states, encounters at and beyond the grave. Building dense, simultaneously lush and jarring arrangements to enliven these scenes, Bush uses her voice, the emissary of her body, to become the monsters her stories need.
I can still remember lowering the needle onto the vinyl in that junk-furnished living room, laying on the floor right beneath the turntable, turning up the volume until the speakers shook. The drums on The Dreaming announced it as something new. I knew next to nothing about African music at 18, but I could recognize syncopation, which brought the noise to Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" (my verging-on-ex boyfriend, a classical cellist, had turned me on to that) and the swagger to the artist who ruled the speakers at arty kids' parties that year — Prince. "Sat in Your Lap," The Dreaming's first track, hit with a huge bass drum intermingled with something else. What was it? My ears tried to grab the song's moving parts. Kate screaming: "I must admit, just when I think I'm king, I just begin!" Bang, bang! Kate's brother Paddy huffing and ho-ho-hoing in the background, the keyboard bouncing like wheels on cobblestone, a child's shout surfacing deep in the mix. And her dragon call, bold, then beaten back, then hoisting itself up again.
This was the sound of a soul who believes in its own boundlessness but can't make the feeling stick. Swagger laced with rage. She'd composed "Sat In Your Lap," her first wholly self-produced track, after coming home from a Stevie Wonder show at Wembley Stadium. Wonder's late-1970s sound, freewheeling and prickly with synths and funky beat, gave her a new direction. She'd recently acquired several synths of her own, including one of only a few Fairlights in England. The Fairlight, which Wonder had just used throughout his experimental album The Secret Life of Plants, was known as an orchestra in a box, and it could also loop and remix short "non-musical" effects. Bush recognized it as a portal. She could risk sounding really strange and unpretty now. Playing the album through, I felt almost dazed. Images from favorite movies entered my head. "There Goes a Tenner," about a caper gone wrong, made me think of Disney's Fantasia; the battle epic "Pull Out the Pin" hit dank and dark, like Apocalypse Now. In it, Bush had planted a sample of beating helicopter blades.
One poignant aspect of The Dreaming is the way Bush's characters so often cry out for connection even as they are falling away from the objects of their desire. This is true of the autobiographical songs, too, as Bush stalks the muse that is both her truest self and a spirit that always feels foreign. In the end, she embraces the messiness and revels in it. "This is the first time I actually enjoy hearing my voice," Bush told an interviewer upon the release of The Dreaming.
The songs about Bush's own struggles were the ones that struck me the hardest. At their heart was a clanging rage, partly stemming from Bush's impatience with being objectified as either a nut case or a sex symbol. I felt trapped like that, for other reasons. Just starting to find my feet as a writer, covering the all-ages beat for Seattle's favorite rock rag, I felt like a lumpy alien among the sarcastic men and too-cool women who hung out in the office located over the Rendezvous bar. I'd dash in and out of my editor's office, hoping no one would try to talk to me. At school I was in over my head, trying to understand Joyce's Ulysses as taught by a Great Scholar who never addressed me beyond an occasional curt correction. Most of my brain space remained fixated on the two subjects I'd brought with me from Catholic high school: God, whom I was trying desperately to reinvent to accommodate my loosened morals, and boys, the main impetus for the loosening. "I don't understand why I, who am a decent, kind, and religious person, keep getting cheated out of happy romance by falling for jerks," I wrote in my journal. "I ought to go to a therapist."
I did not go to a therapist. Instead, I sank my whole monstrous body into The Dreaming and imagined myself shape shifting as Kate could. What made it seem possible was the struggle I could hear in every track. She was teaching herself how to be a new kind of musician; I needed to be a new kind of me. The fight inside me pitted my longing to become shameless — to own that punk attitude the prettier, thinner girls around me seemed to effortlessly adopt — against the shame I felt inside. Shame about being too fat, too loud, not the kind of girl the rock boys I wanted wanted back. Shame because I slept with those guys anyway and then they turned away from me. Shame because my mother still thought I was a virgin. Shame when I spoke too much in class and the male professors raised their eyebrows. Shame when I didn't speak up, standing in the kitchen at punk parties dominated by playful fistfights between the boys while the girls slinked off to smoke menthols on the porch. Shame because, since the day my seventh-grade classmates had scorned me for leaving period blood in a lavatory toilet, I'd known I was hideous.
The Dreaming is all about shame, and crisis, and feeling trapped, and speaking – howling! – anyway. The characters Bush wrote across its soundscapes, including herself, make bad decisions or inevitable but deeply damaging ones; they cry out in anguish. Its wild, cacophonous sound resulted from Bush's new sense of freedom in possession of the Fairlight and other synthesizers, but also from the difficulty she had mastering them, the frustration that she built into each mix even after she'd found ways to break through. "Suddenly my feet are feet of mud," Bush moans in the chorus of "Suspended in Gaffa," the more pensive and playful but equally heart-stricken counterpart to "Sat in Your Lap." Gaffa is her word for the sticky tape that's everywhere on a soundstage; she's imagining herself entangled, unable to move toward the mastery she craves. Stuck was how I felt more often than not in the years when I listened to it every day — stuck and ugly, trying to shape-shift but ending up half-formed. "I detest myself for not having the class to rise above it all," I wrote in my diary. "I don't know why I'm crying," Kate sang.
Our Monsters, Ourselves
In 1982 I thought Bush's articulation of the monstrous was limitless, and perceived her freedom as righteous, liberating. I didn't ask a necessary question — whose soul is being freed within this din? The quagmire of self-consciousness can be a trap for a young person, but floundering there doesn't mean you are self-aware. In the sonic eclecticism and storytelling scope of The Dreaming, I found wild possibilities, not recognizing that reclamation, from another viewpoint, is plunder. Now I see that The Dreaming crosses lines with an abandon that must be questioned. Bush's determination to be singular, her faith that speaking as herself, in any context, was her right, belies the fact that she often borrowed others' utterances to flesh out her own. Some of the subjects she took on were foreign to her, and her reach exceeded her grasp.
Some of the sounds and songs on The Dreaming qualify as exotica – a white artist's attempt to access the "other" within by borrowing decontextualized material from unfamiliar sources. The soldier's story in "Pull Out the Pin" was inspired by a documentary she saw about the sacrifices of the Viet Cong. The album's title track is a white working-class laborer's account of Australian industry's destruction of the outback, but as Daphne Carr points out in her 2019 Pitchfork reassessment of the album, the song fetishizes aboriginal people in words and grunts. Bush intended to express empathy for the oppressed in these songs, and she was hardly alone as she acted on her good intentions — she'd even sung backup on her friend and inspiration Peter Gabriel's internationalist anthem "Games Without Frontiers." Like his, her attempts at speaking for others are more graceful and empathetic than some. She was a delicate and conscientious pirate, but a pirate nonetheless.
In the years when I lived by The Dreaming, I made similar mistakes. Moving from Seattle's then overwhelmingly white University District to San Francisco's dazzlingly multicultural Mission District at 19, I eagerly entered the public spaces maintained by communities of color, learning hip-opening moves at the Afro-Haitian dance studio on 24th street, living on pupusas and tacos al pastor from my neighborhoods Latin restaurants, erecting an altar in my bedroom stocked with candles and powders from the Botanica Yoruba on Valencia Street. My journals from these years overflow with excited, foolish postulations grounded in misreadings of books by anthropologists and various forgotten heirophants, and hours of listening to Brazilian music and Afropop. "Are gift societies in large groups cruel?" I wrote. "Does terrorism arise primarily from the waning of ritual?" Occasionally, there would just be one huge decontextualized phrase or word: "EARTH MAGIC!" "GYRES!" I had no real idea of what I was thinking about.
What was I learning — and not working to learn? The friends I made in my creative writing classes and at rock and roll bars remained mostly white. I chose to take French instead of Spanish classes. The Latina shopkeepers at the Botanica were certainly happy to take my money, but rightly considered me a tourist, though I lived just a few blocks away. I could have risked asking my Black dance instructor to have coffee at the Boheme next door to the studio. Even as I say this, I know I'm being presumptuous, assuming that these strangers who held importance in my life would have wanted to be bothered.
What would The Dreaming, I wonder now, be if Bush had engaged the living counterparts of even a few of the characters she so ardently invoked? Instead, she took inspiration from movies and books. She spoke back to texts instead of seeking answers from real people. Though more than a dozen musicians collaborated with her (only one, the Bangladeshi tabla player Esmail Sheikh, represented the "world music" the songs often invoke) the album feels insular. This is one woman's wild ride. She grew so big, the music feels so wide, but there could have been another kind of Dreaming: a different challenge, a dialogue.
As for my own education on these matters, it happened gradually, and is still in process. In the years when The Dreaming obsessed me, the following happened: Toni Morrison published Beloved. The first major biography of Frida Kahlo brought that painter's finely wrought grotesquery to a wider audience. Diamanda Galás mined the Greek mourning practice of rebetiko singing to create her oracular Plague Mass in memory of those dying of AIDS. Grace Jones defied every boundary to become a god, a machine and a monster all at once. Caught up in my own need to break the patterns of my own upbringing, and to feel specifically seen, I didn't always comprehend the ways in which these groundbreakers were connected, spiritually, to my Kate, nor did I grasp the importance of their very different struggles and breakthroughs. I wanted to claim my monsters, myself, to see myself at the story's bloody center. I didn't recognize that the forms these fiends take grow from specific instances of oppression and resistance, and something in each is unassimilable.
Graduate school and a move to New York, where I met friends who called me on my bulls***, woke me up to the ways in which a white woman's way of finding her own voice can obscure the voices of others. Books like Christina Sharpe's Monstrous Intimacies and Daphne Brooks's Bodies in Dissent occupied my bookshelf next to my ratty copy of Wuthering Heights. Now I listen to The Dreaming and think about it differently. I see it as one small part of a great and multifaceted lineage of women exploring how monstrosity operates as both a metaphor and a social category within many different communities and cultures — and how dominant cultures use it as a weapon against those oppressed within them. The glorious bestiary to which Bush contributed includes not only writers who share her ancestry, from Mary Shelley to Angela Carter, but the surreal humor horror of Brazil's Clarice Lispector, the magical realist conjuring of Isabel Allende and Louise Erdrich, and today, the tale-spinning of Carmen Maria Machado, Helen Oyeyimi and Madi Diop. I imagine someone encountering the chocolate-brown skinned devourer whom the jazz composer Cécile McLorin Salvant animates in her song cycle "The Ogresse" and finding her own Dreaming in those noisy, hungry notes.
The Dreaming is a young artist's attempt to figure out how making music, and the striving for deeper understanding that work demands, makes her a monster not to others, but to herself – strange in her own body and mind. "If identity is shape carrying story," the scholar Caroline Walter Bynum wrote in her 1998 study Metamorphosis and Identity, "we need not decide between mind and body, inner and outer, biology and society, agency and essence. Rather we are living beings, shapes with stories, always changing but also always carrying traces of what we were before." What has been identified as monstrous, Bynum's words suggest, is simply human, though it has been called fearsome and degraded within hierarchies devised to limit and oppress. The Dreaming is not a perfect work, any more than I lived an ideal or even always defensible life when just starting out in the world. But it fights against this banishment of difference and desire, and I still can feel the ferocity of its roar.
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