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“Babooshka” is Kate Bush’s salient hit in the UK since “Wuthering Heights.” It’ll be another five years until Bush supersedes its peak at #5 in the UK charts with “Running Up That Hill.” Afterwards, this never happens again. “Babooshka”’s popularity across Europe and Australia is significant, as it reaches the Top 10 and Top 20 in France, Italy, and Israel, to name a small handful. Its roster of TV performances is unmatched by nearly any other Kate Bush song. Bush wasn’t exactly a one-hit wonder — she’d maintained a presence in the higher echelons of the charts after “Wuthering Heights.” But this song demonstrated to the public that she could work in molds other than the precocious exuberance of “Wuthering Heights.” Why was “Babooshka” so successful?
In part, the success of “Babooshka” can be explained by its conceptual kinship with “Wuthering Heights”. Like Bush’s first single, “Babooshka” is a work of literary reverie, relating the dysfunction of a relationship through images derived from a preexisting work (in Babooshka’s case, the folk song “Sovay”). Both songs boast jealous women protagonists whose pathologies lead to a dramatic break in their romantic relationships. Yet while the two songs share DNA, they differ significantly in their songwriting and realization. “Wuthering Heights” is much poppier than “Babooshka.” It’s a deeply strange song, but it’s still a quintessential power ballad ending on a guitar solo. The instrumentation of “Babooshka” mixes a piano, a Yamaha CS-80 synth, and Paddy Bush’s balalaika. There are elements of pop in the song, such as its jazzy melody, but “Babooshka” telegraphs its weirdness from the get-go.
“Wuthering Heights” was a reunion of lovers. “Babooshka” relates the slow burn of a dysfunctional relationship, culminating in a glam psychotic break. The song’s title character acts as if Bush intended to finally write the Catherine of Brontë’s Wuthering Heights: a petty, jealous hooligan ruins her relationship with her partner in a frantic bout of possessiveness. Her plan, of course, is barmy — Babooshka tests her husband’s loyalty by catfishing him through “scented letters” (not a great plan — what happens if Babooshka’s husband finds these letters on a desk while the lady of the house makes herself some Earl Grey? Somebody make a short film about this). Babooshka uses these letters to arrange a tête-à-tête between her husband and her assumed personality — “just like/his wife/but how she was before the years flew by.” The song is unclear on whether Babooshka is recognized by her husband, merely suggesting he gives into her whims (he’s absolutely a sub). Babooshka’s self-poisoning narcissism breaks their relationship, creating a process of martial recursion in which the fear of a relationship’s ending itself ends that relationship.
But what of the relationship’s nature? The details of the emotional split between the couple is expressed vaguely. “Babooshka” is predicated on its protagonist’s desire to “test her husband,” and only supplies the occasional detail on the couple’s relationship. When the husband reads the catfish letters (someone please write a biography of me and title it The Catfish Letters), he observes that she resembles his wife “before the tears/and how she was before the years flew by.” Evidently their marriage was happy at one point, before some cataclysm ruptured it and damned them to a joyless union. Before Babooshka turned to suspicion and jealousy, she had the “capacity to give him all he needs” (we could dedicate an entire piece to the fact that the husband obviously has a mommy kink, but let’s try to keep our readership here). Her scheme to win him over is an expression of desire to return to the joy of their early married years, an act of futile nostalgia. The fantasy she enacts is not simply toxic; it’s regressive and pitiful.
Observe the extraordinary video Bush produced for “Babooshka.” Simply staged, with Bush performing against a black background, the video relies on its costuming and lighting to provide spectacle. As Bush sings the verses, she is clad in a black bodysuit and veil as she dances with a double bass. She meticulously poses with it, making short, clipped motions, like a prim aristocrat at a royal ball. Placing her hands up and down the bass and spinning it, one gets the impression that this bass is her partner, a sexualized personification of her music. The bass guitar also plays a significant part in the song — Peter Gabriel’s collaborator John Giblin provides the song’s marvelous bassline, the song’s low-mixed backbone. The double bass is as much a part of the dance as her balalaika is — a sturdy, inexpressive partner. She frequently throttles it, ending some performances with a crazed gurn as she strangles its neck. The verse is the restrained part of the song, where Babooshka quietly schemes beneath her veil and lashes out at the bass with small cruel gestures. As Bush screams “ALL YOURS/ BABOOSHKA/ BABOOSHKA/ BABOOSHKA/ YA-YA” while swinging a sword and wearing the tight golden garb of a warrior princess from a fantasy novel (a few Bush aficionados will know that the source of the costume is illustrator Chris Achilleos’ cover for a 1978 sword-and-sorcery novel called Raven: Swordmistress of Chaos, and yes, we’re going down the rabbit hole of kinks for this song), she’s moved into an entirely new dimension from “Wuthering Heights” and The Kick Inside, one where the depravity and glory of the human imagination can do its best and worst. It’s a spectacle of fantastical madness, engaging glam and punk’s raging excess while taking it in oddly classicist directions. It’s almost like Babooshka’s costume is an expression of her true self: a raving madwoman better suited to pulp cover-art than a human relationship.
That Babooshka is something of a madwoman is expressed by the song, and particularly its video. Certainly Kate Bush considers Babooshka a pathetic (if pitiful and tragic) villain who hurts her husband. In an interview, she described Babooshka’s motivations as “paranoia [and] suspicions,” and ascribes the husband’s desire to meet his pen pal to her similarity to “his wife, the one that he loves.” Her perspective of the song is damning of Babooshka and de facto absolves her husband. The story is ultimately one of Babooshka’s downfall, where her preoccupation with retaining control of her life costs her the marriage.
Dreams of Orgonon often takes positions on Kate Bush’s songs contrary to Bush’s own. Later this year, I’m going to argue that “The Dreaming” is a hundred miles from the anti-imperialist parable Bush intends it to be. Similarly, “Babooshka” covers more than its titular character’s vanity. I think Bush writes the couple as equal offenders, and that “Babooshka” is two songs at once: it’s a covertly traditionalist song about how women’s preoccupation with their looks hurts their male partners, and it’s a subversive feminist tract about how gender norms destroy relationships.
Let’s walk back to the beginning of Babooshka’s narrative genealogy, the traditional English folk song “Sovay, the Female Highwayman.” The song (which Bush could have heard from A. L. Lloyd or her social circle of musicians) tells of a maiden who “dressed herself in man’s array,” pretends to be a highwayman, and holds her lover at gunpoint, demanding his treasures. The man gives Sovay his pocket watch but refuses to part with his precious engagement ring. Having seen her fiancé’s loyalty in practice, Sovay departs from him. The next day, Sovay’s fiancé sees her with his pocketwatch and learns the truth. Sovay explains that she only disguised herself “for to know/whether you were a man or no,” darkly adding “if you had given me that ring,’/ she said, ‘I’d have pulled the trigger/I’d pulled the trigger and shot you dead.’” It’s a morbidly funny song that creates a radically subversive woman protagonist (Blackadder the Third arguably homages it,) in a tradition of stories about women who break under the pressure of their partners. Sovay takes a socially unacceptable mode of agency, testing her partner’s dedication to her by literally threatening to rob and kill him. She undergoes a pleasant psychotic break, staging a rebellion against the norms of class society achieved by settling into one of its most despised professions.
Kate Bush is relatively at home in class society. She’s exactly the kind of creative white woman Virginia Woolf writes about in A Room of One’s Own, which posits the ideal writing situation for women as containing an excess of leisure time and a private room. While Bush has written songs about working class people, she’s done so from a skewed theatrical perspective rather than a social realist one. Class dynamics in her stories tend to include heavily exaggerated behaviors and tropes, although they can be accompanied by a subversion of the established social order. In “Babooshka,” Bush switches out Sovay’s bandit for its middle-class equivalent — an adulteress. In her version of the story, the man is complicit in the hoodwinking, as he chooses to go along with this strange woman writing him letters (a bourgeois medium of communication). Rather than simply being outmaneuvered by his lady, he betrays her (in doing exactly what she wanted him to do). There’s a fundamental power imbalance here that, while arranged by one gaslighting partner, relies on unethical predilections from both parties, rather than a straightforward narrative of a gentleman being manipulated by his lady love. Neither “Sovay” nor “Babooshka” reveal the aftermath of their seminal betrayals, but both songs present clear cases of boundaries being crossed.
Now let’s turn to Babooshka’s husband. Bush is largely right when she says Babooshka is responsible for ruining their relationship. She manipulates her husband, lies to him, and connives the situation that undoes their marriage. The song is positioned around her failure to treasure the love and support she has. There are even hints that she turned on her husband long before she conjured up her catfish, particularly in her husband’s observation that the catfish resembles “his wife before she freezed on him/just life his wife when she was beau-ti-ful.” There’s a distressing suggestion that Babooshka is simply no longer attractive to her husband and stopped being beautiful when she stopped paying attention to him. However, Bush fails to account for the fact that Babooshka’s husband cheats on his wife. It can hardly be said this isn’t an emotional affair — he has a correspondence with a woman who reminds him of his wife when she was young (which. Ew) and goes to meet her behind his wife’s back. These activities match any coherent definition of adultery. That the song doesn’t take him to task for this is odd, and suggests Bush’s leniency towards her male protagonists is a tad blinkered (and vindicates Graeme Thomson’s self-assured observation of Bush’s tendency to obviate masculinity’s faults). As major as Babooshka’s transgressions are, the precise nature of them speaks to the complexity of Bush’s gender politics.
Of course, the song’s moral ambiguity is its most interesting aspect. While there’s an almost reactionary slant to the way “Babooshka” perceives relationships, particularly in the way it treats gender along binary and determinist lines, Bush does push against the grain. She often demonstrates a willingness to interrogate the internal experiences of her characters, particularly women characters. Exploring the ramifications of jealousy is crucial to imbuing her characters with interiority. Bush has Babooshka’s husband failing similarly, even if she doesn’t realize it. Most texts are buzzing with suggestions their authors haven’t considered. In the case of “Babooshka,” Bush enacts a complex meditation on how gendered expectations can poison relationships. Babooshka lets her suspicions and preoccupation with re-becoming young and glamorous overcome her life, and her husband lets his treacherous predilections towards young beauty lead him astray. No party comes out morally in the clear, and yet neither is entirely unsympathetic. They’re trapped in an ugly binary where people are programmed to perform in ways incompatible with human psychology. If there’s a way to use the framework of folklore in a thoughtful and modern way, this is it.
As such, “Babooshka” makes the case that Kate Bush’s songwriting can be multiple things at once and create a conflicting hive of meaning, and that Bush’s love for the archaic is hardly blinded by a nostalgic haze. She demonstrates a consistent willingness to interrogate how stories like these work, how human beings act when plugged into myth and folklore, and the ways in which these situations are incompatible with humanity. Some of the most complex women in fiction are characters in Kate Bush songs. Never for Ever’s status as the first studio album by a female artist to reach #1 in the UK remains significant for a number of reasons. If Dreams of Orgonon has a thesis, it’s that Kate Bush is a traditionally-minded person who can’t stop herself from writing feminist songs. Break the glass. Howl “Babooshka, ya-ya!” The 1980s are here, and there’s a new swordmistress of chaos to herald them.
Demoed in late 1979; recorded at Abbey Road Studio Two in January-June 1980. Issued as a single on 27 June 1980 with “Ran Tan Waltz” as a B-side; subsequently included as a track on Never for Ever. Performed on several TV programmes. Personnel: Kate Bush — vocals, piano. Stuart Elliott — drums. John Giblin — electric bass. Max Middleton — Fender Rhodes. Paddy Bush — balalaika, backing vocals. Gary Hurst — backing vocals. Brian Bath, Alan Murphy — electric guitars. Pictures: Bush in Keef Macmillan’s classic “Babooshka” video, cover ofRaven: Swordmistress of Chaos (Chris Achilleos), Sovay, and the single art for “Babooshka” (John Carder Bush).