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Why is Kate Bush great?

Kate Bush – Wuthering Heights.

So the reviews are in. Kate Bush’s return to the stage wasn’t just good, it was very, very good. Phrases such as “unbelievable” (The Guardian), “Christmas-like hysteria” (journalist Caitlin Moran), “cutting edge” (The Australian), and “unprecedented” (The Mirror) were commonplace. In fact, given the number of mega-fan critics who were there, it’s a wonder that any members of the general public managed to get into the auditorium at all.

Kate Bush has clearly joined the “musical greats”. But the reaction to her shows is also revealing in telling us how a musician gets to enjoy this elevated status.

Most critics commented on how she “still” manages to enthral an audience, of how her voice “has lasted despite the years”: longevity clearly facilitates greatness. So far, so obvious, but most reviews also contained a telling second component, describing in confused, bedazzled wonderment the weirder quirks of the show, such as dancers dressed as fish skeletons, a wooden puppet child walking round the stage, and a mini-play about sausages – what the normally-staid BBC was moved to call “some of the most mind-bending images ever to find their way into a rock concert.” I would say that you couldn’t make it up, but Bush did.

In short, Bush is a great because not only do we really, really like her music, and have done so for a very long time, but because we have absolutely no idea why.

Anyone who has ever studied psychology could tell you that this is a classic example of cognitive dissonance: if we hold two conflicting values we do what we can to reduce that conflict by changing one of the values. Just as a smoker justifies continuing by believing that he himself is relatively unlikely to get lung cancer, a music-lover who has listened to Bush for years, when confronted with fish-skeleton dancers and plays about sausages, has to believe that it must be something to do with greatness. It’s really enjoyable but also utterly unfathomable, and so if we keep listening to it this must be because it’s important, right?

It’s just a theory, but there is evidence consistent with it. My research has shown that the general public clearly distinguishes between mere musical celebrities, who are famous, and musical heroes, who have contributed something of long-lasting importance. We feel a sense of emotional warmth towards these musical “heroes” but a sense of disdain towards mere musical “celebrities”.

And because we dislike celebrities, we can drop them as soon as they stop being interesting: but the emotional warmth we feel towards musical heroes means we have to elevate them beyond mere stardom into a higher status category that contains only those people who do something that is important.

Moreover, the same research found that heroes had simply been around for longer than had celebrities, again suggesting that longevity plays a role in one’s elevation to the musical greats.

So is Kate Bush truly as great as the reviews imply? Well of course she is: Hello Earth from The Hounds of Love alone justifies the existence of music. But I also hope that Bush continues to both delight and to confuse us, as only the combination of both will add to her reputation.

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