Cycles of Trauma and Creation in Kate Bush’s “Get Out Of My House”
This article is dedicated to a wonderful painter. You will find circles, animals and peace.
The Two Styles of The Dreaming
Kate Bush’s 1982 release “The Dreaming” is an album which may, lyrically, be divided into two converging strands. There are “role play” tracks (There Goes a Tenner, Pull Out The Pin, The Dreaming, Houdini and Night of the Swallow), and there are existential, personal tracks (Sat in your Lap, Leave it Open, All the Love and Suspended in Gaffa). These strands both find their high point, merging in the final track, Get Out Of My House. It is this union which provided the blueprint for many of KB’s most successful and challenging work going forward, where her storytelling skills were tempered with an enigmatic, poetic sensibility and ability to tease the generally applicable from the specific and the eclectic. All across her subsequent work there are examples of this merging of subject matters – The Ninth Wave suite from Hounds of Love, This Woman’s Work from the Sensual World and much of the album Aerial being notable.
Suspended in Gaffa/Night of the Swallow
On either side of Get Out Of My House – thematically – are Suspended in Gaffa and Night of the Swallow. Both provide a useful introduction to the approach taken in the finale to the album.
Suspended in Gaffa follows a multilayered narrative, anchored (or tied up in, shall we say) to the central theme of glimpsing something wonderful, but then not being able to experience it again. Bush has stated (MTV, 1982) this concept draws on the Catholic notion of purgatory. In the song, however, this notion is expanded from glimpsing God, out into other, more general, experiences: love, childhood, creative clarity. The crux of the song, though is frustration, pain and fear, which come from the inability to return to that place of wonder.
Of the three, Suspended in Gaffa may be seen as closest to the straight up existential aspect of The Dreaming. Night of the Swallow, on the other hand, can be viewed as erring more to the narrative side. An airman turns people trafficker, much against his”better” judgement – because he craves the challenge and the freedom of adventure. Meanwhile, his wife is set against the mission as she sees it as reckless, and fears she is losing her once dependable husband. The narrative, however, is a cipher for a deeper reading of creativity, wayward spirit and the gendered presumption that it should be men ‘taking the plunge’, while women play it safe, meek and secure (as KB puts it “there are still people who think like this, unfortunately”).
These two tracks take their respective boxes and fill them to bursting. It is on Get Out of My House, however, that KB truly breaks them. The song follows a narrative, there are characters singing in voice. It also screams – literally, at times – its dissections of isolation, creative and personal freedom, the body, fear, trauma, escape. In short, it is an extraordinary fusion which provides a fitting finale to a groundbreaking album. It is also one of the most ‘out there’ songs in Kate Bush’s output – and that is saying something.
Overlook and Backdrop
To illustrate this, a quick overview of the basic narrative should suffice: a woman (who is a house), shuts down after the departure of an unknown character (and possible trauma), then senses an intruder. The intruder – a horror of some unspecified (male) nature – has broken into the/her upstairs and is descending in an elevator. She then, in the guise of a concierge, bars his/its entrance, but he/it persists. A psychic battle then ensues in which she first becomes a bird in order to fly away. He/it counters by turning into the air and continuing his pursuit, at which point, cornered, she faces her pursuer, and metamorphoses into a mule, stubbornly fighting back. The outcome of this standoff is left somewhat open. The tenor of the song, in the vocal performance in particular, veers between the terrified, the stoic and the outright furious. The climactic hee-hawing of the human/mules braying is – to put it mildly – quite unlike anything else in music.
On paper, this all sounds ludicrous. As music it is ludicrous to the nth degree and beyond, and it is sublime.
KB has said she was influenced by ‘The Shining’ (of which she said it was “the only book which terrified me”). Thematically, it shares a commonality with ‘Alien’, or Peter Gabriel’s ‘Intruder’ (it is worth noting, Bush sang backing vocals on Gabriel 3). Aesthetically, it steps into Ken Russell, Peter Greenaway, Luis Bunuel terror of the absurd territory. But, in truth, it is its own thing.
A Song of Hurt and Resistance?
So, narrative wise, we have a relatively clear structure, with defined characters, which sits within a specific genre: albeit a unique take on all of these. As such, it fits neatly alongside “There Goes a Tenner”, “The Dreaming” and much of Bush’s output up until the album.
What, though, is it about? It’s here there is so much to unpick. Where those songs tell a story ‘from the outside’ as it were, this piece unveils a soul. It is a journey from fear, to protection, to escape, to resistance. This is not a tale to be told, it is a visceral, state of being: a truth. The narrative walks the line between being specific and general. The first person perspective, the direct and particular actions and the conversation all tend towards a specific, clearly confined fiction piece, and yet… this is a tale of a hurt and traumatised creative woman, shuttering down. It is about how external forces will not allow them to be. It is a cyclical tale, all too familiar, for all its extreme imagery.
Characters and Themes
So, some of the main themes.
Firstly: the equation of the body/self with a house. The house is a place of safety, a sanctuary: it can be locked up (“barred and bolted”), its windows and doors, shut. It is a place in which to retreat and find a certain freedom and surety. In today’s parlance, it is a safe space. It is also familiar, and to this extent it is an extension of the self. In this case, however, it is more than merely an approximation. There is a sense the house and narrator are inextricably linked, if not one. This relationship shifts throughout: it is “my house” (denoting ownership of an external) and yet “no stranger’s feet will enter me”. The house also appears to be imbued with an agency; “this house knows all I have done.” With the refrain of the (presumed alter ego) concierge this ambiguity is made more explicit: “my home, my joy, I’m barred and bolted and I won’t letcha in.” She doesn’t merely occupy the house, the house is as full with her as her body.
The narrative includes two explicit external characters (and an un-numbered “they”). One character leaves at the start of the narrative (“when you left, the door was slamming”), precipitating the lockdown. Their exit is prefaced by the sound of a mule braying. This prefigures the climax of the song, suggesting the narrative is cyclical. The second external character is the intruder. He (it is a he, we hear his voice) is fearsome, manipulative, shape-shifting and, we sense, physically, sexually and emotionally violent. He is also a stranger (“no stranger’s feet will enter me”): although, again, somewhat ambiguously he states he will “bring back the memories”, and she retorts “don’t you bring back the reveries”. It may be that he has changed form, or can read the memories, or is inside her head in the first place.
The female protagonist of the song has an inner strength, gained in part through her self-constructed space, and in part through her stubborn refusal to give way. This is her world, her body, her joy, she will not submit to the intruder. She is in so many respects a different character from the Wendy Torrance(s) portrayed in the book and the film of The Shining. Her identification with the house, her rage and, above all, her resolve contrast with both King and Kubrik’s character. The ‘grumpy housewife with mother issues’ of King’s novel and the physically weak, ‘victim-in-waiting’ of Kubrik’s film are both a million miles removed from Bush’s protagonist. A lived experience (that of a woman, written by a woman) shines through in Bush’s five minute fiction: an experience wholly lacking from the stereotypical characterisation of the male writers. The anger and the terror are written from life, with a fearsome genuineness.
Trauma and Creativity
Whilst the dramatic presentation of the song suggests a deep trauma to be underpinning the narrative, the notion of hiding away from the world, of retreating into the safety of the home (and the inevitable futility of this) has a more general applicability. The traumatic cycle of Get Out Of My House closely mirrors the stages of trauma integration identified by Odelya Gertel Kraybill – Routine; Event; Withdrawal; Awareness; Action; Integration (and so on back round). The trauma, intimated at the start of the song, and – if the song is wholly cyclical – further developed through to its conclusion, is left purposefully unspoken. The male presence (both the one at the start, and the intruder – if indeed they are different) is without doubt the cause, although the specifics are left hanging.
This cyclical viewpoint could, however, be expanded out into other modalities. It may be seen – for example – as a symbolic representation of the creative journey, and of its cyclical nature, of the pain and emotional sacrifice which often accompanies the realisation of a creative endeavour. The characters act out the turmoil driven interplay between the need to keep one’s inner spirit sacrosanct and the necessity/expectation to communicate.
Leave It Open/Running Up That Hill
Two further tracks provide interesting contrasts to Get Out… , namely the final track on the first side of The Dreaming, “Leave it Open”, and the opening track of Bush’s next album The Hounds of Love, “Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)”.
Leave It Open closes the first side of The Dreaming, and on, the surface at least, could not be more different in attitude from Get Out…. Indeed, it could be said to provide its thematic, as well as actual, flipside. In it’s final refrain, Bush sings “we let the weirdness in”, employing a backwards/forwards effect which has been the cause of much technical speculation over the years as to how she achieved it. The song itself is about being open to all influences. Bush (in the Kate Bush Club newsletter of October 1982) described it thus: “Like cups we are filled up and emptied with feelings, emotions – vessels breathing in, breathing out. This song is about being open and shut to stimuli at the right times. Often we have closed minds and open mouths, when we should have open minds and shut mouths.”
The juxtaposition – although likely or not coincidental – between Get Out… and Running Up That Hill (the opening track of Bush’s next album, The Hounds of Love) takes this further. Where Get Out… is a depiction of a female character seeking to distance herself from a male antagonist, Running… is a song about the ultimate form of empathy; actually swapping places with another. Where Get Out… deals with fear of the other, Running’s protagonist longs for understanding.
In interviews at the time of Hounds of Love’s release, Bush often referred to Running… being about the strength of two people’s love being the source of problems and misunderstandings. Empathetic insight is posited as providing a way forward. The resolution to core problems in relationships is found within the close drawn circle of the protagonists (plural) shared life. The imagery in the song is all drawn towards a resolution – it is linear and of an upward trajectory.
In Get Out… on the other hand, there is no such resolution to be found. Antagonist and protagonist inhabit quite separate psychic realities, and whilst the antagonist mimics and reflects the protagonist, one feels any interaction between them would be wholly one-sided. The imagery (and musical construction), in contrast to Running…, is cyclical and of chaotic/downwards trajectory.
To End at the Start
Get Out Of My House is one of the most extreme musical constructions by one of popular music’s most idiosyncratic geniuses. It tells a traumatic story with a visceral power many overdriven punk contemporaries of Bush would singularly fail to attain. It manages to pull off the trick of being complex and layered, whilst at the same packing the most direct of punches. On a difficult, but rewarding, album, it provides a fitting conclusion. It is the high point of an extraordinary moment in Kate Bush’s career.