By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Running up that Hill’ is one of Kate Bush’s best-known and best-loved songs. The album on which it appeared, Hounds of Love (1985), represented a return to form for Bush after several years of less critically acclaimed (and commercially successful) releases.
But in order to understand the true meaning of ‘Running up that Hill’, it helps to know more about the album on which the song appeared. For Hounds of Love is almost a kind of concept album, and this song chimes thematically with the other tracks on the album. You can watch the video of the song here.
‘Running up that Hill’: meaning
The song is ultimately about how two people in a relationship would view things very differently if they could swap their places around and experience their relationship as the other person.
Kate Bush has said of the song that it is about the fact that men and women cannot understand each other. If they could actually swap their roles around and live their lives as the other person, they would be surprised by how the other person felt. This ability to live as the other half (or one’s other half) really lives would lead to a greater understanding between the sexes, Bush suggested.
But how would such a miracle, this reversal of roles, actually be achieved? It would require some supernatural intervention, and Bush, in ‘Running up That Hill’, pays on the familiar trope of making a deal with the devil. Instead of going to the devil, however, the speaker of the song wishes to make a deal with God, on the basis that a pact with God would be even more powerful than a deal with the devil.
The speaker of the song asks her partner if he wants to feel how she feels. If she could make a deal with God, she says, she would persuade him to swap her and her lover’s places around. Their relationship is depicted as one of hurt and pain, as the reference to a bullet and the image of tearing someone asunder convey. Their relationship is tempestuous, as evidenced by the reference to thunder in their hearts.
There’s a suggestion that the speaker of the poem craves reassurance from her lover, that she wants him to confirm that their relationship is important and worthwhile. Do they ‘matter’? The only way to confirm this truly would be to swap places with the lover and feel what he is feeling – hence the (desired) deal with God.
‘Running up that Hill’: analysis
Bush noted that the original title of the song was not ‘Running up that Hill’ but ‘A Deal with God’, but the record company felt that more religious countries such as Italy, the United States, and Ireland, among others, wouldn’t play the song if it had such a title.
Quite why they would have felt this is hard to discern. After all, the song doesn’t enact the ‘deal with God’, but merely expresses the (vain) desire for such a deal to be possible. And doesn’t every Christian seek to make ‘a deal with God’ every time they pray to him?
Perhaps the word ‘deal’ sounded too much like striking a business deal, and this was perceived as (potentially) blasphemous. Perhaps the record company were simply being over-cautious. At any rate, the song was released as a single under the title ‘Running up that Hill’, but when the track appeared on Hounds of Love, it carried, as subtitle, ‘A Deal with God’.
And Hounds of Love provides an important context for the track. The 1985 album was produced as two ‘suites’: side one of the LP was the ‘Hounds of Love’ side (opening with ‘Running up that Hill’) and side two was a seven-track concept piece, ‘The Ninth Wave’.
The fact that ‘Running up that Hill’ opens the album, and the ‘Hounds of Love’ side or ‘suite’, is suggestive. It sets the tone and the themes for the album that follows, and especially for the opening side, which is dominated by ideas of stormy and volatile passions.
Take that reference to hate for the ones we love, which the speaker of ‘Running up that Hill’ mentions. This is suggestive of the moments of anger which flare out during a heated argument, but which are not indicative of the overall love and affection two people feel for each other most of the time.
Of course, none of this helps to explain the other phrase in the song’s lyrics, which provided the song with its eventual title: ‘Running up that Hill’. What does that refer to? What is the meaning of running up a hill, or the side of a building? The first of these summons the familiar idiom, ‘an uphill struggle’ (sometimes ‘running uphill’), used to describe something that is achieved only with the greatest effort and perseverance.
Could this phrase, then, be an acknowledgment of the fact that long-term relationships are about hard work as much as anything else? They require effort. Interestingly, the subtle shift from running up a hill to running up a building takes us from the realm of the possible (if difficult) into the realm of the impossible.
It really is a fruitless endeavour to try to read our partner’s mind. We can only take what they say to us on trust, or else become suspicious. We can never know for sure what they are thinking (and feeling).
But why, if this is the case, would making such a deal remove the difficulty from this act of hill-running (or abseiling)? Well, if making this deal with God and being able to live as the other person would mean we were able to complete this uphill struggle with, as the song has it, ‘no problems’, then we can deduce one thing in particular.
And what is this one thing? Namely, that trying to read the other person’s mind is the hardest and most energy-consuming part of a relationship for most people. If we were able to live as the other person and feel what our partner feels, we would no longer experience any problems during this uphill journey: what seems impossible (running up a building) would become effortless, thanks to the miraculous knowledge we had acquired through God’s intervention.