A lengthy appreciation of 50 Words from Debi Withers (author of Adventures in Kate Bush and Theory) at the feminist website The F-Word:
“Kate Bush does not only create music, she creates the world. 50 Words for Snowis one of the many sonic multiverses Bush has imagined over an illustrious 33 year career that has seen her experiment, mutate, delight, annoy and amaze audiences with her skilful song craft and studio witchery … Her concept driven art could not be more out of step with the short attention span of our times … If, however, you are prepared to do the hard work and sit with the challenge 50 Words for Snow presents, you will be immensely rewarded … Whenever you listen to Bush’s music, a healthy appreciation of the ridiculous is a useful tool to have. It helps you to be ready for those moments in her albums that always pop up, the ones that make you wince inside and perhaps feel a little embarrassed that you are listening to it. But, nevertheless, you persevere because you love her and trust that there is something else going on, a deeper meaning that exists on the tantalizing fringe of the ludicrous … It has to be said here that as much as I love Kate Bush’s work, there are times when she gets too close to an uncritical and unthinking appropriation of indigenous cultures … On her new album, I do think Bush has not given enough thought about using the myth that ‘Eskimos’ have 50 words for snow as her core inspiration … there are moments on the title track and on ‘Wild Man’ in particular, that made me feel uncomfortable for all the wrong reasons. And is dressing in indigenous Tibetan costume really acceptable publicity material Kate? … 50 Words for Snow is the sound of a songwriter doing what she has always done: written, performed and produced music that is out of this world yet, importantly, in this world. The music, indeed, opens up multiple worlds, stimulating creativity, heralding expansiveness. Perhaps most significantly it forces contemporary listeners to exist within extended soundscapes that require the skill of attentive, deep listening in order to appreciate the full magnitude of the music’s beauty … Kate Bush has always been a healer, messenger and mediator between worlds … Nevertheless, I do think Bush needs to bring more awareness of how she appropriates other cultures in pursuit of her art. She risks alienating a lot of people who would otherwise be fans of her music. This is a shame, because in many ways it sparkles with brilliance.”
This is a nice review marred by the overwrought suggestion that she shouldn’t be incorporating indigenous music. So strongly stated was the objection to Kate’s use of that music (and dress), that I had to lodge a rebuttal. I urge others to do the same.
Here is mine:
Kate Bush has been adopting elements of indigenous music and creating fusions for decades, at least since 1982’s “The Dreaming,” much to the delight and enlightenment of her listeners. How this could be taken as detrimental to the very cultures she’s been exploring — and publicizing with her exploration — completely escapes me. She has, as recently as a few days ago, made a public statement about the plight of Tibet, a place she modestly inhabits during the song “Wild Man.” Why is it not okay for her to write about these places and even dress accordingly? If as you say, she opens worlds for the rest of us, this is simply another way in which she does it. To call her out for this while extolling her art is trifling at best…but missing the point at worst.
Its true she adopts a western romatic orientalistic approach that has a long tradition, the eskimos for example would realy prefere to be called inuit today, but its all so very innocent and respectful.
Kate is also aware of this and has made a very strong standpoint on her homepage.
Nicely put Pyewacket.
“.. there are moments on the title track and on ‘Wild Man’ in particular, that made me feel uncomfortable for all the wrong reasons. I do think Bush needs to bring more awareness of how she appropriates other cultures in pursuit of her art.”
This is a tired old argument that also got dragged out during the ’80s World Music trend. It’s curious only because I’ve never heard it mentioned with Kate before, who has always intelligently incorporated other cultures into her songs.
I don’t know how Debi Withers considers herself qualified to judge how much awareness Kate brings to her music. Withers also enthusiastically mentions the “jazzy” keyboards on 50 Words: for the sake of argument, didn’t she feel equally uncomfortable with hearing Kate appropriate an African American musical style? Why or why not? I think the “discomfort” Debi feels says more about herself than it does about Kate. It was a silly remark.
hi all this is my response to Pyewacket on the f-word.
thanks for your comment. I’m really glad Kate Bush has made a statement about what is happening in Tibet on her web page, I am sure it will raise a lot of awareness amongst her listeners about the situation there. And you are quite right about Bush’s use of indigenous music being a staple of her art at least since the Dreaming.
I stand by what I wrote however – sometimes I feel her engagement with other culture’s mythologies and spiritual systems can be quite heavy handed. This is surprising because she is someone who I think gives a lot of careful consideration to the ideas she puts into the world. I don’t think Bush is ever straightforwardly appropriative – there is also a lot of identification with other cultures (i.e., outside of Britain), cultures that are seen as ‘other’ in a Western imagination. ‘Wild Man’ is a case in point. It is a song that runs close to exoticising the eastern ‘other’ even as it clearly cherishes the mystery of the yeti myth. I think its fair to say her engagement is often messy and complicated. It desires to be close to a culture even as it projects an image of it.
I do think its important to realise that Kate Bush is a British, white woman (with Irish roots, of course) and because of that fact she has a certain amount of power to represent other cultures – a power other cultures may not have themselves (i.e., to be self-determined). This is part of the reason I feel uncomfortable with her dressing in Tibetan clothes, even if it is clearly (for her) a gesture of solidarity with the struggle of those people.
I want it to be clear that I have massive respect for KB and her art – but no one is free from criticism, and she is a public figure. Even if we (i.e., her fans) want her to be perfect, not everything she does will be. Let’s keep the debate respectively open and hope Kate joins in too.
Dour feminists should stop appropriating Kate Bush.
I admit I was slightly unsure about the word “Eskimo.” It literally means “eaters of raw meat” and is considered culturally insensitive to call someone an Eskimo in Canada (where I come from). Inuit is the correct word and means “the people.” However, I wonder if Kate was taking artistic license because of the ‘sound’ of the word. She has always been very aware of assonance, alliteration and rhyme in her writing, and in the title track, she needs the ‘o’ of Eskimo to rhyme with the ‘o’ of snow.
Origin of the name “Eskimo”
Look up eskimo or Eskimo in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.
Two principal competing etymologies have been proposed for the name “Eskimo”, both from the Innu-aimun (Montagnais) language. The most commonly accepted today appears to be the proposal of Ives Goddard at the Smithsonian Institution, who derives it from the Montagnais word meaning “snowshoe-netter”. The word assime·w means “she laces a snowshoe” in Montagnais. Montagnais speakers refer to the neighbouring Mi’kmaq people using words that sound very much like eskimo.
Jose Mailhot, a Quebec anthropologist who speaks Montagnais, however, published a paper in 1978 which suggested that the meaning is “people who speak a different language”.
The primary reason that Eskimo is considered derogatory is the arguable, but widespread perception that in Algonkian languages it means “eaters of raw meat.” One Cree speaker suggested the original word that became corrupted to Eskimo might indeed have been askamiciw (which means “he eats it raw”), and the Inuit are referred to in some Cree texts as askipiw (which means “eats something raw.”) The majority of academic linguists do not agree.
It is true. Kate was trying to be very controversial with this album. First wearing fur, and then writing a song about the Yeti like she has actually met one! And singing those geographical locations with such confidence, we’d forgotten that she was born in England.
Kate is a British woman, and should not be singing about places she did not grow up in. You shouldn’t allow your imagination to take you places you don’t have a visa/passport to visit.
I feel unsettled about her romantic depiction about Lake Tahoe as well. This is in the UNITED STATES, and Kate is British. She idealizes the location, with those haunting vocals about a dead woman and her lost dog. I have been to Lake Tahoe, and while it is a beautiful location, I did not see any ghosts floating on the lake.
What happened to the days when Kate would sing songs like “Oh England, my Lionheart”? That was perfectly acceptable. She should be a better role model to our children and stop using her imagination so well.