Much of the music that defined my early-2000s adolescence was written before I could walk. Listening to CD-Rs filled with songs that had been ripped from the internet, my friends and I warbled to the Pixies’ 1988 oddity “Where Is My Mind?,” moped to Tears for Fears’ 1982 dirge “Mad World” (and its 2001 cover by Gary Jules and Michael Andrews), and mewled to various versions of Leonard Cohen’s 1984 masterpiece “Hallelujah.” These songs had entered our teenage consciousness because they’d been featured in mind-blowing contemporary movies: Fight Club, Donnie Darko, and, of course, Shrek.
Today, visual media remain a portal between young listeners and older artists. Thanks to its placement in the new season of the Netflix sci-fi series Stranger Things, Kate Bush’s 1985 hit “Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)” has again become a global sensation. Pop radio stations are slotting Bush’s operatic trills between Harry Styles’s mumbles and Lizzo’s flute tooting. TikTok is replete with kids pretending to levitate over the tsunami-warning-like sound of Bush’s synthesizer. The song’s recent No. 4 peak on the Billboard Hot 100 . marked Bush’s highest placement ever in the U.S. In the U.K., it set a record for the slowest-ever rise from release date to No. 1 on the Official Singles Charts: 37 years.
The comeback might seem to feed into a common complaint about modern popular culture: that innovation is dead and everything is recycled. Look elsewhere on the pop charts and you encounter new hits that refurbish such bygone aesthetics as ’90s house and 2000s Fergaliciousness. Read music-business news and you find indications that listenership for old songs is outpacing listenership for new ones. Bush’s track isn’t the only decades-old gem getting major shine in recent years. Nirvana’s “Something in the Way” charted because of The Batman. Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” did so because of a skateboarder drinking cranberry juice. Plus everyone is listening to vinyl! And watching Elvis!
The funny thing is that history itself provides a reality check against that declinist narrative. Mostly, Bush’s chart comeback demonstrates her enduring awesomeness—and the changing way we share and quantify what we like. In a fascinating recent article, Billboard dissected the golden age of movies and TV turning old songs into fresh hits. That golden age is not now. It was more than 30 years ago, Andrew Unterberger writes:
The period starts in 1987, when use in two hit film comedies (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Back to School) the year before brought The Beatles’ “Twist and Shout” back to the Hot 100 for the first time in 23 years. Then, over the next half-decade, five more golden oldies — Ben E. King’s “Stand by Me” (Stand by Me), Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” (Good Morning, Vietnam), The Contours’ “Do You Love Me” (Dirty Dancing), The Righteous Brothers’ “Unchained Melody” (Ghost) and Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” (Wayne’s World) — all hit the top 40 thanks to a new movie placement. Two years after that, one more scraped the bottom of the Hot 100, when a lightly remixed version of The Knack’s “My Sharona” hit No. 91, thanks to its use in Reality Bites.
According to Billboard, this late-’80s-to-early-’90s flurry was due to “enterprising DJs and program directors” at radio stations who were attuned to the interplay between moviegoing and music listening. It ended because radio formats evolved and laws changed to allow corporate consolidation of stations, eroding the influence of major-market DJs picking songs by their own whim. Soundtracks became less likely to send already classic songs up the charts for a few decades. But, as my own CD-R memories indicate—and as anyone who first encountered Dick Dale through Pulp Fiction might attest—filmed entertainment kept educating young listeners.
Streaming has, over the past decade, created an ecosystem in which obsession and oddity can be measured and monetized like never before. It has also reaffirmed that one of the most powerful ways to come to love a song is by experiencing it with cool visuals. When Edward Norton and Helena Bonham Carter inspired me to pirate “Where Is My Mind?” and play it on loop, no one was tallying that activity and adding it to the Pixies’ Billboard numbers. When kids nationwide watched Encanto and then demanded that their parents’ Alexa incessantly stream “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” earlier this year, it gave Disney animation its first Hot 100 No. 1 in decades.
How beautiful that Kate Bush is now benefiting from this dynamic. In sound and in cultural footprint, the beloved 63-year-old performer has always been forward-thinking, spectral, and averse to cliché. The chugalugging beat and wind-riding melody of “Running Up That Hill,” not to mention the lyrical use of the word asunder, are the sole work of a songwriter-producer who has maintained creative independence in an industry that too often sidelines and exploits women. What’s more, the song fits on modern radio because so much of modern pop, including the spooky synths of The Weeknd and conceptual reveries of Billie Eilish, descends from her.
Bush rarely speaks publicly, but in a short interview with the BBC’s Woman’s Hour last week, she sounded genuinely grateful and amazed at her resurgence. Yet how much of a miracle is it, really, that “Running Up That Hill” persists? It is only one of the very best recordings of all time. Scan the list of songs whose cultural legacy was cemented by some bit of visual media created long after their release, and you see a lot of brilliant, singular anthems. They stay in rotation not because of nostalgia but because they damn well should. “Bohemian Rhapsody” via Wayne’s World, “Hallelujah” via Shrek, “Dreams” via TikTok, and now Kate Bush via Netflix—in funny ways, in strange times, we’re reassured that greatness stays great.