In September of 1985, 26-year-old English songwriter, musician, and producer Kate Bush released her fifth studio album, Hounds of Love, to critical acclaim. One of her singles from the album, "Running Up That Hill (A Deal with God)," became a top ten hit in the UK, but failed to break the top ten in the USA at the time. Fast forward thirty-seven years and the single is now in the top ten in the USA. Pop culture analysts are attributing this simply to the song being featured in the latest season of the very popular Netflix show Stranger Things, along with a thirty second clip of the song concurrently going viral on TikTok. But there's so much more to it than that.
While some pop analysis has correctly mentioned that the song's lyrics are easily relatable, particularly to teens (and Stranger Things' audience runs young) as our teen years are often fraught with loneliness, isolation, and a sense of being misunderstood (alienation), no one is addressing why the song is suddenly so popular now.
"Running Up That Hill" has had other opportunities to catch on in recent years, when it has been in other popular shows, such as Alias, Firefly Lane, The Handmaid's Tale, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, It’s a Sin, The OC, Pose, and You’re the Worst. There's also a stripped down and haunting cover by British band Placebo that was released in 2003; it charted in the UK top 50. (Meg Myers released a faithful rendition of the song in 2019 which charted in first place in the USA for alternative songs, but failed to chart on the Billboard 100.)
The video for Placebo's cover easily demonstrates the lasting appeal of Kate Bush's song; it's a compilation of fan-submitted videos depicting a dozen or more young people (likely in their later teens and early twenties) lip syncing to the Placebo version of the song. The general alienation and identification with the song experienced by the fans is palpable in this video, showing the timelessness of the feelings evoked by "Running Up That Hill."
But despite these earlier popular exposures of the song, its popularity hasn't experienced a surge until now. "Gen Z" is embracing the song with an intensity that no previous generation had. There are multiple cultural factors at play that have brought "Running Up That Hill" into today's zeitgeist.
The song is stylistically similar to contemporary popular music
To begin, the rise in popularity of synthwave, a musical offshoot of synthpop, must be considered. Synthwave’s artists and audiences tend to embrace eldritch (supernatural, otherworldly, or weird) traits; feelings of anxiety, dread, difference, isolation, and alienation; and dark themes like esotericism (such as parapsychology). Enthusiasts of this musical genre tend to be young, fans of science fiction and horror, and extremely online. Never heard of synthwave? Don't worry; most people aren't familiar with the name but many have heard the associated music. This style of music revels in the sounds and atmosphere from 1980s horror and science fiction soundtracks (which were very heavy on the use of analog synthesizers, a type of instrument that creates electronic sounds), recreating them with a heavy sense of nostalgia. One of the most popular examples of synthwave is Texan musicians S U R V I V E’s Stranger Things theme song and original score.
In addition to the popular synthwave score, Stranger Things' soundtracks over the past three and a half seasons have included many songs from the 1980s that rely heavily on dark atmospheres, often with the inclusion of string arrangements and/or synthesizers: Echo & The Bunnymen's "Nocturnal Me," Joy Division's "Atmosphere," The Psychedelic Furs' "The Ghost in You," Peter Gabriel's cover of the David Bowie classic "Heroes," New Order's "Elegia" and "Bizarre Love Triangle," Tangerine Dreams' "Rare Bird," Berlin's "Take My Breath Away," Pet Shop Boys' "Heart," and Kate Bush's "Running Up That Hill." While all of these songs had some modicum of success when the originals were released in the 1980s, it's Bush's single that has risen to a new popularity.
Kate Bush's music is known for its otherworldly and ethereal style. As one of the first artpop artists who adopted aspects of synthpop (particularly on Hounds of Love, the album "Running Up That Hill" is on), her style has been embraced by numerous musicians over the past forty years. Her influence can particularly be heard in contemporary popular musicians and genres, such as Alisa Xayalith (formerly of The Naked and Famous) (electorock), ANOHNI (chamber pop), Bat for Lashes (folktronica), Bright Light Bright Light (electropop), Florence & The Machine (baroque pop), Goldfrapp (electroclash), Ladyhawke (new wave), La Roux (new wave), Little Boots (electropop), London Grammar (art pop), and St. Vincent (art rock), all of whom incorporate elements of the styles artpop and synthpop. Frequently, artists such as Kate Bush who embrace synthpop and its subgenres are queer, trans, or play with the possibility of these identities and how they feel, such as by expressing feelings of alienation and otherness.
The contemporary popularity of music influenced by and resembling that of Kate Bush opened the possibility for "Running Up That Hill" to experience a new heyday – once the time was right. Stranger Things' fourth season created the perfect opportunity for that acclaim.
The song shares its feelings of otherworldliness, alienation, and shame with the characters of Stranger Things as well as with the show’s audience
Like Kate Bush's music, Stranger Things is otherworldly, literally showing us the eldritch existence of another dimension in the Upside Down. It also portrays the show’s main protagonist, Eleven, as being a child of a subject of the CIA’s (Central Intelligence Agency) unethical and clandestine mind control project known as MKUltra (which took place IRL from 1953-1973). Seemingly as a result of the experiments done on her mother, Eleven has psychokinetic and telepathic abilities that were further developed in a government-sponsored parapsychology lab (Hawkins National Laboratory) which ran MKUltra experiments on abducted children. In the first season of Stranger Things, the lab’s experiments on Eleven focus on her ability to psychically identify, locate, and spy upon “Russian agents.” It’s during these experiments that she inadvertently makes contact with a creature dubbed the Demogorgon, and later creates a tear in space-time which opens a gate between our dimension and the Upside Down, thus allowing humans from our dimension and entities from the Upside Down to cross between dimensions. This rupture between the worlds becomes the cause of much of the emotional struggles experienced by the characters as the seasons of the show progress.
Setting Stranger Things temporally in the 1980s is a major aspect of the show's success, as doing so allows the show to capitalize not only on Millenial and Gen Z's anemoia (nostalgia for a time never experienced) for the 1980s, but on the relatable teenage feelings felt by the misfit teen characters in the show, particularly their feelings of shame, alienation, and experiences of trauma. Many of the show's subplots revolve around themes of not fitting in and the feelings that brings. The main characters in the show are adolescents who all have attributes that make them stand out from their peers, thus contributing to their feelings of estrangement from most of those around them. (So far, we know that one of the characters's feelings of not fitting in is due, in part, to being a mostly-closeted lesbian, but there are hints that another character may be closeted as well.)
These feelings of alienation are as ubiquitous in the reality of 2022 as they are in the show's depiction of 1986. While shame and the impacts of trauma are timeless experiences, they seem to dominate the Stranger Things storyline just as anxiety and depression have skyrocketed among younger people in recent years. Feelings of hopelessness, of fear, and of unimportance can be attributed in the show not just as reactions to the traumatic encounters the main characters experience with the Upside Down and its creatures, but also as reactions to mid-stage capitalism, the Cold War mentality (a response to propaganda resulting in fear, concern for security/safety, and distrust), rise of militarism in their lives, secrecy, and lack of trust from adults. In the reality of 2022, it is not uncommon to share these feelings of hopelessness, fear, and unimportance due to climate change, late-stage capitalism, a return of the Cold War mentality, and the pandemic. Thus, while the adolescent characters of Stranger Things are coping with their trauma, increasingly so are the largest demographic viewing the show: 18 to 29 year olds (statistics are not available for viewers under the age of 18). The shared feelings between audience and characters, despite the cause of those feelings, allows the audience to experience a greater sense of identification with what the characters are feeling.
As these feelings are largely centered around trauma, anxiety, and depression, there is frequently internalized shame about these feelings, in part due to the stigma associated with these experiences. A feeling of shame is shared by many of the characters in Stranger Things.
Shame is an unpleasant self-conscious emotion often associated with negative self-evaluation; motivation to quit; and feelings of pain, exposure, distrust, powerlessness, and worthlessness.
It's important to understand that feeling shame feels different from feeling guilt. Guilt is the feeling of remorse or responsibility for something you have done. It is event-specific and does not change one's sense of self. Shame is the feeling that your whole self is bad. Feelings of shame are often hidden, causing them to fester. They can develop into feeling unworthy of love or even life. Shame is often a core feeling of trauma-induced anxiety (post-traumatic stress disorder aka PTSD), of which many of the characters in Stranger Things exhibit symptoms.
Spoiler alert for season four of Stranger Things
In season four of Stranger Things, the main antagonist is the creature named Vecna. Vecna is not in the "real world" but exists in another dimension (the Upside Down), thus making him "otherworldly."
Vecna is selective in his victims. The characters that are attacked by him feel guilt that has become shame. The villain feeds off this shame, becoming stronger with every victim. However, it takes several episodes before the main characters realize what is driving Vecna. Until they understand him, they believe that the creature is going after people who are "cursed."
Historically, people with mental illness / traumatized people have sometimes been perceived as being "cursed." In many cultures, so-called cursed people were given amulets with protection spells. These spells were meant to ward off curses by keeping someone who was cursed "grounded" or "earthed" in reality. Spells are otherworldly, magical, even ethereal. When spoken, spells are often lyrical incantations, song-like or even actual songs.
In modern therapeutic settings, tools such as a favorite song are coping mechanisms used to help “ground” people in reality. Grounding is a technique used to manage intense feelings. It orients us to the present reality – the environment outside of our heads – by teaching us to focus our attention away from our anxious / depressive / activated thoughts and feelings. By observing our environment or picking a favorite thought (such as a safe space or a favorite song, color, person, or item) upon which to focus, we move away from our painful feelings and reorient ourselves to the environment outside of our heads.
In Stranger Things, the main characters figure out that if Vecna's potential victims can mentally stay focused on the present reality, they do not collapse into their shame-related feelings, making it impossible for Vecna to kill them. They use this knowledge to arm Max, who is targeted by Vecna, with the "spell" to help her ground herself in reality: Max's favorite song, "Running Up That Hill (A Deal with God)." Despite Kate Bush’s song sonically feeling ethereal, the pain of isolation in Bush's voice is undeniable; the song’s lyrics call for its characters to switch places to better understand one another, thus calling for an end to feeling the pain of not being understood – the pain of alienation.
By embracing the ask for understanding contained within the song, Max admits to her feelings of shame and alienation. This confession is later solidified by vocalizing these feelings to her friends which helps to reestablish her friendships, thus ridding herself of her feelings of alienation. By eliminating shame via ending alienation, Max can no longer be hurt by Vecna.
End of spoilers
“Let’s exchange the experience”
By connecting with those around us, we eliminate not just our feelings of alienation and isolation, but also lessen our feelings of shame. Friends and community, regardless of how we identify, are vital to our sense of mental wellness, particularly as sociocultural pressures escalate.“Running Up That Hill” has demonstrated the ability to strengthen feelings of unity not just across generations, but between the characters in Stranger Things and its modern audience. By using a song stylistically similar to contemporary popular music that explores the timeless feelings of depression and alienation that are represented in the show as well as deeply felt by the show’s audience, Stranger Things has succeeded in catapulting Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill” into an anthem of 2022’s zeitgeist. “We’re right here” with you Max.