Last night I listened to Kate Bush’s Babooshka again. It was a much-played song in the early eighties – I remember a girl I liked dancing to it when I was about nine or ten. But I first heard it, really heard it, one day at a poetry workshop at UCT when I was fifteen or sixteen.
It’s a song about a woman who wants to test her husband’s loyalty. She adopts a pseudonym, sends him scented letters and finally arranges a secret meeting with him to find out “if he would fall for her incognito.” In the first chorus she signs the letter: “All yours, Babooshka …” Bush’s voice soars as the wife transforms herself into a creature of power and mystery – the Babooshka of the title. The husband almost recognizes her, but in the end sees her as someone “ … just like his wife before she freezed on him, / Just like his wife when she was beautiful.”
At the workshop we were taken through the song (along with poems by Plath and others) and invited to “read” it as a subversion of gender stereotypes. It was riveting. The transformation of the domestic “little lady” perceived by the husband into the mysterious Babooshka felt like a triumph of the imagination. It seemed as if popular culture had given us the tools to interpret, challenge and transform the world in which we lived.
Listening to the song again today, it sounds far more ambiguous. The transformation of the “little lady” into Babooshka is real, but there is a terrible irony here: in the end the song’s heroine is able to satisfy her husband only by pretending that she is someone else. Her logic is sound, but its consequences are disastrous: in the end it is the imaginary Babooshka, not her, who is chosen, and the lyric suggests that the husband will not be able to reconcile the two for long. The song slows down at the end, signifying perhaps that not even the invigorating energy of Babooshka can last forever, but we can’t be sure.
Of course Babooshka is a better song for this uncertainty: we will never know what passes between wife and husband when the secret meeting is over, though a happy ending seems highly unlikely. Most of all, perhaps, its power lies in the way it slips from the clipped phrases of its verses into its tumultuous choruses. In those moments we feel something old and visceral – a suspicion that, even at the moment when we surrender to each other, we don’t know who we are, and neither does anyone else.