The Fidelity Test Within “Babooshka” by Kate Bush

When Kate Bush came up with the name for her famous single “Babooshka,” she had no idea it is the Polish and Russian word for grandmother or old woman—spelled “babushka,” and pronounced a little differently. It is also a scarf women wear tied under the chin. The singer/songwriter was looking for a character name for a powerful tune she had penned. She had seen composer Donald Swann on television singing about a “Baboushka” and had a friend with a cat of the same name. It seemed like kismet.

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In retrospect, many fans now understand what “Babooshka” means, and for them that knowledge brings a smirk to their face given the context in which Bush uses it, about a younger woman seeking to test her spouse’s fidelity. But it doesn’t mean they can’t enjoy the song any less.

One of the interesting aspects of “Babooshka” is how it only has two verse/chorus cycles and no break. The contrast between the daintier sounding verses and bombastic choruses emphasizes the emotional turbulence within its story, one in which a woman feeling less desired by her husband tests his fidelity by seductively writing to him as a younger woman. She’s essentially portraying her slightly younger, happier self, to see if he’ll take the bait. It’s ultimately a doomed plot.

A Test of Fidelity

In a 1980 interview on the Australian TV show Countdown, Bush explained “Babooshka” and its origins: “It was really a theme that has fascinated me for some time. It’s based on a theme that is often used in folk songs, which is where the wife of the husband begins to feel that perhaps he’s not faithful. And there’s no real strength in her feelings, it’s just more or less paranoia suspicions, and so she starts thinking that she’s going to test him, just to see if he’s faithful. So what she does is she gets herself a pseudonym, which happens to be Babooshka, and she sends him a letter. And he responds very well to the letter, because as he reads it, he recognizes the wife that he had a couple of years ago, who was happy, in the letter. And so he likes it, and she decides to take it even further and get a meeting together to see how he reacts to this Babooshka lady instead of her.

“When he meets her, again because she is so similar to his wife, the one that he loves, he’s very attracted to her. Of course she is very annoyed and the break in the song is just throwing the restaurant at him. … He loves her very much, and the whole idea of the song is really the futility and the stupidness of humans and how by our own thinking, spinning around in our own ideas, we come up with completely paranoid facts. So in her situation she was in fact suspicious of a man who was doing nothing wrong, he loved her very much indeed. Through her own suspicions and evil thoughts she’s really ruined the relationship.”

The Video

The simple video featured Bush in two guises. During the gentle verses, she’s dressed in a black bodysuit with a veil over her face, portraying the older woman in her song, dancing with a large double bass that symbolized the husband. In the dramatic choruses, she vamps dramatically in a skimpy warrior outfit, her eyes popping wide and cutting a dangerously alluring figure as she represents the temptress that was her own self. It was an effective way to use a low-budget concept. Bush was always a striking performer, exploring different ways to make her videos engaging.

While not a hit in America – she’s only had the one, and you know what it is – the single for “Babooshka” went to No. 2 in Australia, No. 4 in France, No. 5 in Ireland, Israel, Italy, and the UK, and No. 8 in New Zealand. It sold over a million copies in the UK and France, and has racked up 44 million YouTube views and 158 million Spotify listens.

A year and a half before the massive resurgence of “Running Up that Hill,” this Bush song got attention as part of a Tik Tok Challenge around late 2020. Young women (and a couple of men) lip-synched and/or performed to the major verse to chorus transition in the song. Their interpretations varied wildly.

With “Babooshka,” Bush took the familiar themes of distrust and infidelity and spun them into her own unique tale. “‘Babooshka’ is about futile situations,” she told the Kate Bush Club newsletter in 1980. “The way in which we often ruin things for ourselves.” That heartbreak certainly made for a classic song.

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Photo by Chris Moorhouse/Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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