Kate Bush: Lessons in empathy

Singer songwriter Kate Bush has mystified, and inspired for decades now. Whilst her unique sound, both vocally and musically is what makes her so instantly identifiable, just as notable is her story telling. Each song is a beautiful tale: of a widow attempting to contact her dead husband; a grieving mother who’s son is killed in war; a man convinced he’d created a machine that could create clouds; and a wife who tests her husbands loyalty out of paranoia. And it’s in these many tales we discover Kate Bush’s greatest talent, empathy.

It is not the story telling itself that is revolutionary; many artists manage to succeed in weaving narrative into their work. But it is the pure empathy, a deeper understanding, that allows her work to feel so authentic and true. It wouldn’t be hard to believe she had experienced the events and emotions she writes about, and performs so well.

In Wuther Heights Kate Bush gently warbles, “Ooh, let me have it, Let me grab your soul away, Ooh, let me have it, Let me grab your soul away, You know it’s me, Cathy”. Her voice eerily mimics the ghost of Catherine, simultaneously haunting the listener and Heath Cliff. The understanding of Cathy’s regret and grief is paramount to the performance, and despite the fictionality of the character, she vividly brings them to life.

But even in the more abstract tellings of her music, there is a cognitive empathy that seeps through in the tenderness of the lyrics. It is almost incomprehensible to imagine a song such as “Breathing” could sensitively express the experience of an unborn foetus terrified by the nuclear fallout it cannot escape. In the innocence and fright of the song the listener cannot help but feel the utter seriousness and solemnity of the distress.

It’s in these narratives we can vicariously live these lives of the less fortunate or tormented, and in a way it is an effective social activism. It doesn’t simply warn or inform us, it makes us feel. Whether that be the foetus condemned to a radioactive death, the mourning widow, or forbidden lovers, we feel some sort of compassion and rapport, even if they are encounters we never have, or will experience. Her musical brilliance is obvious, but it is Kate Bush’s emotional intelligence that is her true achievement.

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