Thanks to its placement as a major plot device in “Stranger Things,” Kate Bush’s 1985 song “Running Up That Hill (Make a Deal with God)” was the unofficial song of Memorial Day weekend, storming to the top of the Apple Music chart in the U.S. and reaching the top 10 in 34 countries. In the new season, Max — played by Sadie Sink — is grieving her half-brother Billy’s death. She’s left feeling vulnerable and listens to the Bush classic on repeat. The song eventually saves her life.
“You might’ve heard that the first part of the fantastic, gripping new series of ‘Stranger Things’ has recently been released on Netflix. It features the song, ‘Running Up That Hill’ which is being given a whole new lease of life by the young fans who love the show – I love it too!” Bush wrote. The closely guarded artist hardly gives statements to the public. “It’s all really exciting! Thanks very much to everyone who has supported the song. I wait with bated breath for the rest of the series in July.”
But Kate Bush rarely approves her music for synch usage: How did this prominent and complex placement come about?
The show’s music supervisor, Nora Felder, explains that executive producers Matt and Ross Duffer — better known as the Duffer brothers — tasked her with brainstorming a song that resonated with the intense, wide-ranging emotional experiences Max was undergoing.
Says Felder: “Consequently, each of the prospective song placements in the initial scripts was tagged with the placeholder, ‘TBD Max song.’ From there, I made an effort to internally align myself with what the Duffers felt were the most important elements needed, and my own intuitive grasp of Max’s complex feelings.”
Felder soon landed on “Running Up That Hill.” “It immediately struck me with its deep chords of the possible connection to Max’s emotional struggles and took on more significance as Bush’s song marinated in my conscious awareness.”
The Duffers were elated with the suggestion. Felder’s next challenge was to secure the song and get Bush’s approval with the full knowledge that Bush, although open to ideas, does not typically approve many syncs.
Says Felder: “I sat with my clearance coordinator, and laid out all the scripted scenes for song uses that we knew of at that point. Knowing the challenges, we proceeded to create elaborate scene descriptions that provided as much context as possible so that Kate and her camp would have a full understanding of the uses. … When we finished, we were on edge, but excited and hopeful.”
The next step was tracking down the music publisher. Originally, that was EMI, now it was Sony. Wende Crowley, Sony Music Publishing’s SVP of creative marketing, film and TV, got the request.
“Nora Felder came to us pre-pandemic to discuss the idea of using it as Max’s ‘song’ for this season. She wanted to make sure it was within the realm of possibility before she got the Duffer Brothers on board with the idea, since the song was going to be “such a focal point to Max’s storyline,” says Crowley. “Kate Bush is selective when it comes to licensing her music and because of that, we made sure to get script pages and footage for her to review so she could see exactly how the song would be used.”
As it turns out, Bush was also a big fan of the show, and once the team could understand the intent and vision, Bush granted her permission.
The deal took longer than normal to secure because of the uniqueness of the use and how many times it is played over this season in multiple episodes. There were indeed a few alternates, Felder acknowledges, but “Running Up That Hill” was the song.
The song was important not just to the storyline, but the symbolism of the “deal with God” lyric was significant which made it perfect for Max’s theme.
As Felder explains: “Kate Bush’s lyrics can mean very different things to different people. In the face of Max’s painful isolation and alienation from others, a ‘deal with god’ could heart-wrenchingly reflect Max’s implicit belief that only a miracle of unlikely understanding and show of support could help her climb the hills of life before her. In Max’s situation, the need for a ‘deal with god’ can perhaps be metaphorically understood as a desperate cry for love — to manifest the extraordinary understanding and support Max needed while feeling so painfully alone.”
It’s during the season’s fourth episode, “Dear Billy,” when Max is dealt an epic confrontation between good and evil. “As Max runs from Vecna’s isolating grip, or from evil, as an absence of love, she ultimately runs toward connection and the spiritual outpouring of love powerfully manifested by her dear friends who have heroically fought to understand what she needs and rescue her from a solitarily hell of utter separation and eternal isolation,” says Felder. “In some ways, this scene can be understood as alluding more broadly to the inner struggles with private demons that many teens wrestle with during troubled times, especially when feeling alone and estranged from others.”
As Max’s friends rally to helps her face those demons, Felder explains, “the strength Max derives from the unwavering love, understanding and care of her friends may suggest a sort of god-like spirit in a much more general sense. It shows itself through the undeniable love and understanding teens need from others in order to climb their enormous life hills.”
What if it didn’t clear? “I have a running expression I use when my showrunners feel strongly about a song select,” says Felder. “Which is, ‘I’m not going to sleep until I get it cleared.’” For me, as a music supervisor, I always feel an incredible responsibility to do everything in my power to ‘get it done,’ and this was no different.”
As Bush continues to trend on Twitter, and the song’s video and audio streams — along with a just-released cover by Kim Petras — suggest a new generation is getting to know Bush’s music, Felder offers that its newfound popularity is due to “Running Up That Hill” being a timeless track. Says Felder: “I believe that if it was written and recorded today, it would fit right in and not be considered a ‘dated’ sound in any way.”
Jem Aswad contributed to this article