Saturday Matinee: Kate (the Kate Bush Christmas Special)

I Think About This a Lot: Kate Bush’s 1979 Christmas Special

By Alexis Garcia

Source: The Cut

Am I alone in thirsting for normalcy when Christmas rounds the corner? No matter how contrarian I fancy myself to be, once local radio stations incessantly drone “Jingle Bells” I become a walking cliché hellbent on conjuring the magic of a Winter Wonderland fantasy. Whether it’s stealing a kiss under the mistletoe, a family dinner that doesn’t end in a full-blown argument, or finally sticking to that Christmas gift budget — invariably, my idea of the perfect Hallmark holiday all goes to hell. And when I can’t go to sleep because of the jolly nightmare of my own making, I’m comforted by the thought of Kate Bush’s blood-splashed Christmas special.

The first thing you should know about her 1979 BBC holiday broadcast is that it’s almost entirely devoid of Christmas. Recorded after the English singer-songwriter’s first (and only) tour, the special is composed of 12 songs gathered from her first three studio albums and features an appearance from former Genesis frontman Peter Gabriel. There’s no coherent theme or message to the show — the only constant is Kate’s stunning ability to shock viewers at every turn. This is most effectively accomplished with her mind-boggling performance of “The Wedding List,” a song based on a French New Wave film about a grieving bride avenging her husband-to-be after he’s slain at the altar.

It all starts innocently. A heavenly pitch fills the room as green cartoon hands and red text animate the screen. Is this the voice of an angel? As the titles fade out and the stage lights come on, we see Kate dangling from the ceiling — not as the Christmas cherub we first envisioned, but as a gothic bat rising from the abyss, clad in black sequins and plush feathers. As the opening salvo of “Violin” comes to a close I begin to wonder if this was actually meant to be a Halloween show. (After all, parts of the taped performance were filmed in a South London cemetery).

The next 40 minutes of Kate’s festive fever dream veer from the chaotic to the surreal to the just downright horny. In one scene, Kate, only 21 at the time, looks everything like the Victorian ideal of the virtuous woman as she plays an emotional andante called “Symphony in Blue” at the piano. Her figure shimmers in a sparkling silver cardigan and emerald-green skirt. But just as we settle into the moment, Kate peers at the camera, a twinkle in her charcoal-lined eyes, and seductively chirps, “The more I think about sex, the better it gets.” Not exactly the family-friendly content you’d expect from a holiday show!

I’ve watched this special dozens of times since I discovered it on YouTube years ago. I had always been a Kate Bush fan. Many of the artists I grew up listening to — like Tori Amos, Fiona Apple, and Big Boi — had cited her as a musical influence. But I didn’t fully start to appreciate her dazzling panache until I entered my 30s. Like many women, I found myself exhausted from trying to “have it all” and stretching myself to meet everyone else’s expectations. And here was Kate, a total unapologetic weirdo, being celebrated and revered for letting her freak flag fly. She’s written songs about menstruation and embarking on a steamy love affair with a snowman (so hot, in fact, that he melts). Her maniacal style of pouring tea, as captured in a 1989 BBC interview, has been made into a meme, as has footage of her rather unappetizing vegetarian cooking. And every year fans across the globe gather in parks dressed in flowing red gowns to recreate dance moves from her iconic “Wuthering Heights” music video. Her authenticity is the reason she’s cultivated such a devoted fan base and why her music still resonates after all these years.

The 1979 Christmas special is also significant because in many ways, it’s Kate’s departing gift to fans — a bow atop a year that would mark the end of her concert career for the next three decades. Like anything with the notoriously private singer, the more information I try to find on this special, the more questions I ultimately end up having. Why, for instance, did Kate think it was appropriate to perform a murder-suicide ballad for a holiday show? Who at the BBC approved this to go on air? How does she pop out of a garbage can so effortlessly in skin-tight leather pants? And does she even know what a Christmas special is? Do we?

But this is why I keep coming back to the Kate Bush Christmas special, year after year. The desire to conform to the cookie-cutter — and completely unattainable — Christmas ideal unleashes my inner control freak, but I never stop to ask myself why I want this version of the holidays in the first place.

Even her one Christmas song is a wink to this idea. In “December Will Be Magic Again,” she sings with childlike yearning for the idyllic Christmas. “The white city, she is so beautiful, upon the black-soot-icicled roofs,” Kate coos. It’s a beautiful image, the dusting of pure white snow, falling like the haze of nostalgia to cover the tarnished memories we’d rather forget. But Kate knows it’s a pipe dream. And she gives us permission to let it all go.

Her Christmas special feels especially relevant this year, as normal has never felt more out of reach. It would be easy to give into a collective sense of despair as we enter an uncertain winter. But when I watch Kate roll around on the floor, fake blood dripping from her lips as she gleefully shoots a hole into the chest of her lover’s murderer, I am embraced by the warm comfort that things will be okay. Even if this holiday isn’t what we envisioned, it doesn’t make it any less special — all we need is to give ourselves the space to get a little weird.

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