Kate Bush's Haunting "Running Up That Hill" Has Been Connecting With New Generations for Nearly 40 Years
A short list of words that might be used to describe Kate Bush’s 1985 synth-pop classic “Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)” include: otherworldly, haunting, yearning, and profound. None of these descriptors come remotely close to doing the song justice, but they help to explain why it was picked to soundtrack the climactic scene in a season 4 episode of Stranger Things. It’s no spoiler to say the moment calls for something intense, ethereal, and epic—and for that, the production knew there was really only one choice.
While the song was certainly popular in its day, Stranger Things has made “Running Up That Hill” a global phenomenon. Following the premiere of the Netflix sci-fi series' fourth season in May 2022, the song rose to No. 2 in the UK, No. 1 in Australia, and No, 4 in America, where Kate Bush had never even cracked the Top 20, let alone the Top 5.
A whole new generation is now discovering the UK art-pop singer-songwriter and her thrillingly unique catalog of songs. “It’s all really exciting!” Bush said of the Stranger Things boost in a rare public statement. But for a variety of reasons, the resurgence of “Running Up That Hill” isn’t all that surprising. The song has long been a part of popular culture, and it’s always packed an emotional wallop.
Meaning Behind the Melody
“Running Up That Hill” is arguably the most enduring and iconic song in Bush’s storied discography, which spans 10 albums released between 1978 and 2011. This is largely due to the song’s timeless message about the importance of empathy. When Bush wrote “Running Up That Hill” for her landmark fifth album, 1985’s Hounds of Love, she was pondering “some fundamental differences between men and women,” as she explained in a 1985 newsletter. In the chorus, Bush sings, “If I only could, I’d make a deal with God / And I’d get him to swap our places.” She was thinking about the ways in which romantic partners fail to understand each other—and how that often spells disaster.
“It’s very much about a relationship between a man and a woman who are deeply in love and they’re so concerned that things could go wrong—they have great insecurity, great fear of the relationship itself,” Bush said in 1985. “It’s really saying if there’s a possibility of being able to swap places with each other that they’d understand how the other one felt, that when they were saying things that weren’t meant to hurt, that they weren’t meant sincerely, that they were just misunderstood.”
As she penned the lyrics, Bush initially thought she was describing a “deal with the devil,” a common storytelling trope. But then she realized the song would be “more powerful” if the body-swapping bargain she imagined were struck with God. In fact, she wanted to call the song “A Deal With God,” but folks at her record label told her that such a title would cause problems in religious countries. So she compromised and used “A Deal With God” as a parenthetical.
Bush set her lyrics to equally affecting music. She asked then-boyfriend Del Palmer to create the relentless drum machine beat that powers the song and evokes the titular action—seemingly a metaphor for how difficult it can be to walk in someone else’s shoes. Next came the CMI Fairlight synthesizer, which Bush used for colorful streaks and smears and one seriously catchy riff that burrows deep into the brain. The finished recording also featured live drums and guitar plus a balalaika, which was played by Bush's brother Paddy. The balalaika is a Russian stringed instrument, which is kind of funny, given that Season 4 of Stranger Things partially takes place in the Soviet Union.
“Running Up That Hill” was released as the first single from Hounds of Love. It reached No. 3 in the UK—where Bush was already a big star with four Top 10 hits under her belt—and an impressive No. 30 in America, where she’s never actually performed live. Hounds of Love hit No. 12 in the U.S. and No. 1 in the UK, where it overtook Madonna’s Like a Virgin. Though she was artsy and edgy, Bush was somehow getting through to mainstream audiences.
Running Through the Years
The makers of Stranger Things weren’t the first people to recognize the sublime soundtrack potential of “Running Up That Hill.” The song provides the main theme of the 1986 BBC drama Running Scared, and it appears in the 1988 film The Chocolate War. The 2003 cover version of “Running Up That Hill” by UK neo-glam rockers Placebo turns up in 2006 episodes of The O.C. and Bones, a 2007 episode of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, the 2009 pilot of The Vampire Diaries, and a 2017 episode of Big Little Lies. Bush’s original can be heard in the 2018 series premiere of the Netflix series Pose.
Placebo is one of many musical acts who have recorded “Running Up That Hill.” Synth-noir faves Chromatics released a wonderfully icy version in 2007, while singer Meg Myers reached No. 1 on Billboard’s Alternative Airplay chart with her faithful 2019 rendition. Indie rockers Car Seat Headrest delivered a stripped-down take in 2021. Pop star Kim Petras hews close to the original on her 2022 update. Brooklyn post-modern classic rockers The Hold Steady have never covered the song, but they reference the lyrics in “Hornets! Hornets!” the leadoff track on 2007’s Separation Sunday, an acclaimed concept album about a girl named Holly and her adventures with drugs and religion.
In 2012, Bush herself revived the song, creating a remix—complete with new vocals—that played during the closing ceremony of that year’s London Olympics. Following the telecast, “Running Up That Hill” reentered the UK charts and peaked at No. 6.
Stranger Things music supervisor Nora Felder didn’t need any of these covers or TV syncs to discover the song. As Felder told Billboard, she ran out and bought Hounds of Love right after hearing “Running Up That Hill” on the radio in the mid-’80s. Decades later, the beloved track seemed like an appropriate musical companion for the Stranger Things character Max Mayfield, a teen facing staggering challenges in both the real world and the alternate dimension known as the Upside Down.
“This season and Kate Bush’s song really seem to touch on the experience of alienation and emotional struggle that a lot of teens have been and continue to be going through, albeit in different ways,” Felder told Billboard. “Moreover, it reminds me that when we can’t find the support and understanding we may need from others, we sometimes turn to music that relates to our experience as a much needed source of validation and strength. To me, Kate Bush’s ‘Running Up That Hill’ seems to do just that.”
As it happens, Bush is a huge Stranger Things fan, and that helped persuade the singer to approve the song’s usage in the series. Felder had a hunch that younger viewers would connect with “Running Up That Hill,” but she admits to being blown away by the “lightning-in-a-bottle moment” she’s helped to create.
“For me, that reflects the power of a meaningful, timeless song—such as ‘Running Up That Hill’—and how its significance can be revived and re-conceived when it is married to a remarkable story such as Stranger Things,” Felder told Billboard. “The popularity of Stranger Things appears to have breathed new life into a song that deserves to be heard and reheard for decades to come.”