Monday, June 7, 2010

Adventures in Kate Bush and Theory reviewed

(Suggested music for this post: The KT Bush Band - Come Together. Thanks to woj for the link.)

I'm on all counts the target audience for Adventures in Kate Bush and Theory by Deborah Withers. I've been a Kate Bush fan for years ever since I was shanghaied in. Not directly, but back in the days when my musical tastes were Sarah Brightman and not much else, I was reading a few comparisons, and it turns out that, in a happening that should shock absolutely no one, Sarah Brightman was compared to Kate Bush at one point. At the time it was sort of a valid comparison. They had similar voices -- this was before Brightman's anodyne-classical-crossover phase that won't end already -- and she covered Kate's part on "Don't Give Up," after all. But the music didn't seem to fit as much. More than anything, Bush's voice just didn't sit right with me. I only soldiered on because the post mentioned that there needed to be more Kate Bush fans.

As it turns out, there's more to her voice than I thought at first. The keening, high-pitched voice put me off at first because it was supposed to: it's unabashedly feminine and a stark contrast to the male voices that dominated (and still dominate) rock music back in the '70s.

That's part of Withers' thesis. The book, which was her graduate thesis and expanded for print, explores how Kate Bush creates a particular archetype through her albums: the Bushian Feminine Subject, or BFS. The BFS is born, lives, grows, dies and is reborn through the course of her albums, and drawing upon the work of several gender theorists, Withers explains just how this happens and just what it lends to Bush's music.

For the most part, the book was pretty brilliant. Going by name-drops alone, Kate Bush gets plenty of discussion in the music press, but it's mainly to insert Female Artist A into Framework B. What gets less discussion, though, is What It All Means: the storyline, so to speak, of Kate Bush and her persona throughout her body of work. I'm sure it exists. I've read some of it. And, of course, there are a few biographies floating out there, although most of them have received their share of criticism. (Often a lion's share.) Nothing, however, exists that's quite like this. It wouldn't; gender theorists are enough to send the press either screaming or rounding up the fratirists.

I particularly appreciated the focus on The Line, the Cross and the Curve and its accompanying album The Red Shoes -- because that's how you really need to look at it. The album's an offshoot of the film, not the other way around -- i.e. it shortchanges Line to see it as just a long-form music video. The songs were written expressly for the film and cannot be understood otherwise. The title track comes alive, "Lily" actually makes sense and "Moments of Pleasure" gets the backing it deserves. And I'm glad she noticed the racial implications of "Eat the Music" and its particular brand of frolicking (if you've seen the video, you know what I mean.) It either isn't talked about or is absolutely tone-deaf; check out the Amazon reviews to see what I'm talking about.

The book fell flat on a few points, though. First of all, it needed a copy editor. I'm not just talking simple grammatical errors, although there are some of those. I'm talking getting multiple album and song names wrong. It's Aerial, not Arial, that's a font; "Sat in your in your Lap" is a breakdown of something, all right, but not the kind the author was talking about. This is the kind of thing you really shouldn't be getting wrong, especially when the book is at least in part aimed toward fans. It hurts one's credibility. I realize the book is self-published, but there are undoubtedly scores of Kate Bush devotees who'd be more than willing to do this.

(I also realize I am invoking Muphry's Law here. Sigh. E-mail me with whatever I screwed up.)

It's curious that The Sensual World, which Bush explicitly described as her "feminine" album, is almost entirely absent. It gets a brief mention in the overview, but little more. It isn't as if there's nothing to work with. The title track could probably get a section all to itself in its reappropriation of Ulysses, a manly-man text if ever there was one in reputation. (No, I haven't read the whole thing.) This is where, to my knowledge, the Trio Bulgarka first appears; that has some implications. I suspect the album was left out because it doesn't fit as neatly into the narrative here -- it'd fit more neatly by Lionheart, if only chronology allowed. Its absence, though, is nevertheless puzzling.

Lastly, the difference between the BFS and Bush herself isn't always presented as clearly as the author intended. I'm going here by the author's words: "The BFS is found within Bush's music but she is not the same as Bush herself" (1). And because the BFS is "born" with The Kick Inside, about 16 years or so after Bush was, it's safe to say it is not her. This distinction, however, isn't always held to in the text; for instance, in discussing The Dreaming, Withers says, of reviewers: "Many thought the BFS had lost it or gone too far" (81). Considering that the idea of the BFS didn't exist until Withers wrote her thesis years later, I highly doubt reviewers thought in those terms. They undoubtedly thought Bush had gone too far, but the BFS isn't Kate Bush. In the same chapter, the BFS evidently self-produces the album, but that too is Bush's role. Her name is in the credits. It's a small point, but it still gets a bit confusing.

But these don't change the fact that Withers has written an absolutely fascinating book and one that's undoubtedly the only of its kind. Go read it; you won't regret the time.


robin hooppell said...

I've just read this book and noted a few errors too. But I agree with what you say. I think the BFS analysis is really helpfull. I would have liked her to spend more time on 'Aerial' - and to be honest, I would have liked some pictures of Kate too.
I came to this as a Kate addict and the book helped me to understand why.It also made me consider that as a straight guy aged 60 perhaps some of the main artistic and philosohical developments of recent decades have hither to passed me by. One more aspect of my abject addiction to KB is that it annoyed me that the author of this important book didn't offer statements like'Kate is one of the greatest artist ever'.Oh well.
May I recomend to you her brothers book 'The Cellar Gang' available as far as I am aware only on his website - look up John Carder Bush.
his book is a little expensive for people like me but as it was published before Withers I think she missed out. It is a very, very Bushian book as I now understand it. The book in itself is a very understated philosohical tract = and great fun.

robin hooppell said...

ps could you please explain 'self as fractal'?