By KATIE Driscoll
“The Garbo of Pop”
In the video for “Running up that Hill”, Kate stands up, gives a look to her dance partner that is all attitude, force, dominance. You cannot fuck with her. She is all statement and no compromise. Her lyrics are about taking a stand- and in that split second she Is powerful; she exists for no one but herself. She is inspiration born.
When she sings, “you don’t hurt me” it is more an assertion of someone who has been put through hell and back than a self-reassurance. “Do you want to know that it doesn’t hurt me?” Her partner is barely noticeable. It is all Kate, strong arms, eyes straight at the camera, brazen, born again.
She is the one with the stark red lips and wide drawn eyes in Army Dreamers; the one with the blinding red dress, cartwheeling across the grey moors that seemed too austere and insidious for 1978. She is a witch who would “make a deal with God”, if she “only could”.
When I feel degraded, or unloved, disappointed by the roarings of a deep loneliness that cannot be quieted, she makes everything better. Like an ally, a strong force of my own uniqueness that she can bring out.
When I first saw her on a Top of the Pops rerun from the 1970s, Wuthering Heights is what I knew first, all white dress and huge, thick hair: a mystical witch, she was Cathy to me first and foremost, in my bones, before I had even read the book. I still find the song as fairytale-like and terrifying in its strangeness as the book by Bronte, and intertwined in my brain are the deep moors, Cathy at the window, and the girl in the white dress amidst the black backdrop, limbs moving as if casting deep spells.
Kate told a story through her music; she let my imagination run wild, as wild as Cathy dying from excess of feeling, a Victorian notion that Kate seemed to tap into and understand, just like necrosis, transcendental love, vast swathes of sentiment, feeling and out of body sublime experiences that have been lost in the modern age. Kate understood death and she understood life, things like dread, memory, the womb, desire. Her voice is the authoritative one, never the mild one. She is always telling or implying, never guessing. She dealt in tragedy all with a wink and a twinkle in her wide eyes.
She was only nineteen, and she appeared out of the black air and smoke in that blinding dress like she knew the secrets of life itself; she was Cathy, histrionic, come to life. She is that amazing relic from the past, all dark glittering hair and makeup, just far enough (to someone born in 1993) to make it wondrous and bizarre and almost disturbing. In turn, she summed up what the ‘70s represented to me: something dreamlike, something scary, something far away and fuzzy on a television set that my parents spoke about like it was a magical world, a different realm where there were different possibilities. Less communication, less of being plugged in: back when the world was an enigma, mysterious and vacant. It conjured things like magic, the occult, witches, history, fear, dark and foreboding.
Kate is always the heroine. Just like in horror films of the ‘70s- she appears to sing about victimhood-“come home/I’m so cold”, “it could feel like falling in love/It could feel so bad/It could feel so good” and as Leslie Jamison said in her opus on female pain, “singing about all the ways a woman could hurt”.
It is always Kate I turn to. It is Kate who tells me “you got a little life in you yet/you got a lot of strength left”. I would rather be alone and like Kate than dependant on anyone else.
I identify with her not just because I, too, love wearing lycra leotards as functional fashion but because she is a walking contradiction (especially for the decade she emerged like a phoenix from): strong but pretty. Lithe but makes erratic and harsh faces when she dances. Conceptual but strange and otherworldly, nothing like the easy-to-dance-to pop that was lighting up disco at the time (also, punk). She isn’t of her time as much as she doesn’t belong in any time, like a dazzling alien. She is desirable without being made entirely of her sexuality- she is full of multitudes just as we as women are: told we need to be sexual without being allowed to enjoy sex, Kate sings, “the more I think about sex/the better it gets”, and did I realise how truly radical it was (in 1978!) to hear a young woman exclaim the joys of sex and pleasure, not to snag a man, but for the sake of pleasure itself. Her ode to Ulysses in “the sensual world” is as brazen as Joyce’s own work.
Vulnerability oozes out of every pore but she still holds onto Peter Gabriel, reminding him not to give up. Her voice is haunting and ghostly, sometimes little-girl high and low and gruff like a demon, when she screams “KING OF THE WORLD” in Sat in your lap, a paean to wanting it all “I want to be a lawyer/ I want to be a scholar/but I can’t be bothered/just gimme gimme gimme!”.
We know very little about Kate the person than the enigmatic prowess of a performer she is and the hoops she makes us jump through, the puzzles in her twisting melodies and lyrics that trade through metaphor and symbolism, like a text. Yet even so, there is the sense that she is always so utterly, herself. She “expresses the immortality of the body”, just as Molly Bloom did, wildly feminine flowing, corporeal. She is agonisingly contradictory, beautifully and wildly free, sentimental, unshakable, vital and alive. She reminds us that vulnerability is strength, that you are never better off closing off your feelings to the world of hurt, of female hurt. She flits from sweet girlish optimism (“Oh to be in Love/and never get out again!”) to a deep rageful knowledge of death and fear, “Oh God, please leave us something to breathe!”. Even when she sings “L’amour Looks Something Like You”, it has the aura of a young girl trying to seduce a much older, more experienced man. Kate has been all of us.
Men love her but there is something undeniably in Kate that was made for just us women, like she is sharing secrets we already understand with a sly wink. An archaism that fully reminds us what it is to be a Woman in a Body, then and now.