Contains spoilers for “Stranger Things.”
Framed against the ominous red tint of the fog, slithering restraints slowly tightening around her wrists and throat in a cruel crucifixion, Max Mayfield (Sadie Sink) from “Stranger Things” is about to die. As the series’s latest evil monster Vecna (Jamie Campbell Bower) slowly chokes Max’s dream self, her friends watch her real body fall into a trance and rise to float above their heads.
Just as it seems all hope is lost, Max’s friends press play on her Walkman, and Kate Bush’s sultry soprano begins to echo through the barren landscape in her head. The hope-inducing, rapturous build of her song “Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)” is all Max needs to free herself of Vecna’s grip. As she sprints toward the brightly glowing white opening where her friends wait, screaming at her to wake up, rocks explode into pieces around her, Vecna following in fierce pursuit. Underscoring it all are Bush’s powerful, life-saving vocals and a deep percussive drumbeat.
Released in 1985 as the opening single for Bush’s acclaimed album Hounds of Love, Max’s favorite song has shot to the top of charts once more. Spotify data reveals an 8,700% increase in global streams immediately following the Season Four premiere of “Stranger Things,” eclipsing even Bush’s esteemed debut single “Wuthering Heights” and pushing the dreamy, new-wave artist to enter the U.S. Top 10 for the first time. The song is inescapable. With iterations viral on TikTok and covers by modern pop artists such as Kim Petras and Halsey, its sudden ubiquity nearly 40 years after its original release is a sure sign of its splendor in what fans are calling the “Kate Bush renaissance.”
“(The song) is being given a whole new lease of life by the young fans who love the show — I love it too!” Bush wrote in a message posted on her website, a rare occasion of publicity from the often-enigmatic artist. Bush rarely licenses her music to be used in popular media, further accentuating her “Stranger Things” feature as exceptional.
“Running Up That Hill” certainly is a fighting demons, saving-the-world kind of song. It opens with a euphoric drumbeat that evokes the same desperation painting Max’s face as she barrels across the tarnished landscape. With poignant, profound lyrics such as “Unaware I’m tearing you asunder/ There is thunder in our hearts,” it’s no wonder viewers came away from the episode with a newfound reverence for the intoxicating song.
Originally written as an exploration of the differences between men and women’s perspectives, as well as the desire to swap places with a partner to better understand them, the song is an earnest embodiment of empathy.
“Stranger Things” took this meaning one step further by weaving the song’s empathetic roots into its very plot. In the show, Vecna targets those who’ve been traumatized, making Max — who recently witnessed the death of a loved one — especially susceptible. From the season’s first episode, the song helps Max cope with her grief as she struggles to open up elsewhere, bottling her emotions and refusing her friends’ attempts to help.
The full force of the song’s impact doesn’t strike until Max is in Vecna’s clutches. “Is there so much hate for the ones we love?” Bush sings. Max’s happiest memories of her friends flit across the screen as she realizes the extent of their love for her — that they would switch places with her in a heartbeat if it meant taking away her pain. This tear-jerking montage gives her the strength to escape, Bush pulling open the fabric of the universe to let her slip back into the glowing white brightness of life.
This is not the first instance that references to ’80s culture and music have been instrumental to the plot of “Stranger Things,” its setting in the past a perfect landing pad for nostalgia. In the first season, the Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go” made up a large plot point in the disappearance of Will Byers (Noah Schnapp), the event that kickstarted the show, as Will used the song to communicate with his family from the Upside Down.
However, any cultural impact “Stranger Things” had on the Clash pales in comparison to Kate Bush’s rapid revival. The extremity of this renaissance raises valuable questions about the implications of a trend’s ebb and flow, especially given modern culture’s short attention span for style. In a culture that equates subversity with “coolness” and values straying from conformity, one has to wonder at the implications of Kate Bush, who has long been praised for her unorthodox, unconventional style, being added to the endlessly shifting turnstile of trends. Will the song become passe or overdone in two weeks, when the internet has moved on? Will a once magical, mystical vision be reduced to a mere TikTok trend, a shift in the cultural current, before becoming obsolete?
Or, perhaps, this is the beginning of a new relationship between music and cinema, one where both arts come together to make each other better and, in the wise words of Bush, “exchange the experience.”