The term shoegaze refers both to a style of alternative rock music and a historical movement originating in the United Kingdom in the late 80’s and early 90’s. As a style, shoegaze consists of dense, amorphous walls of distorted guitar sounds, heavy use of effects pedals, tremolo, and reverberation, and ethereal, breathy vocals that blend seamlessly into the psychedelic soundscape. It has been one of the most egregiously over-applied labels in popular music, especially in the past decade – virtually any track with reverberation and lo-fi vocals is often referred to as shoegaze. Adding to the confusion is the considerable overlap between shoegaze, dream pop, and noise pop, a topic that is debated ad nauseam among fans. Whether there is any consensus on the true definition of shoegaze is unlikely – one interpretation is that these genres can be separated on three metrics: noisiness, reverberation, and vocal production. Both dream pop and noise pop have relatively clear vocals and standard rock song structures, with dream pop being heavier on clean reverberation and noise pop being heavier on fuzzy, distorted guitars. True shoegaze, on the other hand, encompasses all three of these elements such that the gestalt of the music is transcended from its components. It is the distilled essence of dream and noise pop shaped into a primordial nebula that is abrasive and chaotic, yet fundamentally rooted in a sense of melody.
Early Shoegaze in the United Kingdom and United States (1980s – early 1990s)
The shoegazing movement defines a number of bands, primarily in the United Kingdom, that were active in the late 80’s and rose to prominence in the early 90’s. 80’s noise rock acts such as Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr., and The Jesus and Mary Chain popularized the concept of blending noise with melody. During the same period, the Cocteau Twins pioneered their use of heavily processed, reverberated guitar lines and vocals that would define the genre of dream pop. In 1988, My Bloody Valentine’s Isn’t Anything would synthesize these ideas into dense, swirling drones that eschewed the raw post-punk energy of their noise rock forerunners for the acid-tinged psychedelia of the 60’s. Contemporaries in the United Kingdom such as Slowdive, Ride, Chapterhouse, Swervedriver, and Lush were hugely influenced by this aesthetic and the collective of these bands would be referred to as the shoegazing scene, a term first coined by British journalists disparaging their tendency to gaze introspectively at their feet as they manipulated their extensive pedalboards during live performances.
In the early 90’s, My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive, and Ride released what some consider to be the classic trifecta of shoegaze records: Loveless (1991), Souvlaki (1993), and Nowhere (1990). This triumvirate is analogous to the comparisons between shoegaze, dream pop, and noise pop – Slowdive on Souvlaki are faithful disciples of 80’s dream pop whereas Ride’s Nowhere is more an amalgamation of noise rock and britpop. Loveless sits in a tier of its own and many consider it to be the absolute pinnacle of shoegaze, earning the status of My Bloody Valentine being among the most groundbreaking and influential bands of the past few decades. The record is frontman Kevin Shield’s exploration of the soundscapes and textures that are possible with an electric guitar, and neither Souvlaki nor Nowhere come close to capturing its crushing, immersive surrealism. For additional information, refer to Loveless (1991).
In the United States, 90’s alternative rock was dominated by Seattle-area grunge bands and the college rock movement. Shoegaze was a relatively minor but not insignificant force, and the bands that did exist were comparably insulated from the britpop influence of the United Kingdom scene. The most prolific of these American artists is perhaps Scott Cortez of astrobrite and lovesliescrushing fame, who was and still is the idealogical successor of Kevin Shields. Cortez brought the works of ambient musicians such as Brian Eno into the shoegaze sphere of influence and created beautiful, celestial compositions that were more droning and free-form than anything on Loveless. Most of Cortez’s works do not feature percussion, disorienting the listener from the sense of time and rhythm to create a shimmering experience of psychedelia. Other prominent American shoegaze bands during this time included Swirlies, Drop Nineteens, Mazzy Star, Lilys, Medicine, and the Brian Jonestown Massacre.
Ultimately, the first wave of shoegazing bands disappeared as quickly as it had sprung up – My Bloody Valentine would go on an indefinite hiatus until the release of their heavily anticipated m b v (2013), Slowdive partially disbanded and began making country-tinged dream pop under the moniker Mojave 3, and Ride disbanded in 1995 amidst irreconcilable arguments over their future musical direction. The more marketable britpop movement, whose cohort now consisted of groups such as The Verve that once made proto-shoegaze music, dominated the United Kingdom until the turn of the millennium, while grunge and indie rock remained popular in the United States.
Nu-gaze Revival and Modern Shoegaze Influences (late 1990s – present)
The late 90’s saw some continuity of the shoegaze movement, which culminated into a resurgence of nu-gaze revival bands that has persisted into the 21st century. In part, this can be attributed to the barrier of entry into shoegaze being more technological than technical – that is, a lack of either mastery in guitar playing or creativity in songwriting could be masked with sufficient use of effects pedals and reverberation. As a result, the nu-gaze scene has become oversaturated with agreeable, but largely derivative, bands that dress up basic pop songs with copious amounts of reverberation and distortion. Ringo Deathstarr, LSD and the Search for God, Whirr, Nothing, and pinkshinyultrablast are excellent bands that nevertheless fall under this category. There is also a surprisingly large shoegazing scene in Japan and Korea, with bands such as Luminous Orange, Tokyo Shoegazer, and 비둘기 우유 producing quality renditions of past works.
More important are the influences that shoegaze has had on other genres. French black metal band Alcest pioneered the fusion genre of blackgaze on their debut LP Souvenirs d’un autre monde (2007), while San Francisco-based Deafheaven brought these ideas to mainstream prominence in their 2013 release Sunbather. The neo-psychedelia movement borrows as much from 90’s shoegaze as it does from 60’s psychedelia, which is no surprise as the two musical styles are similar in spirit and goals. Even genres as far removed as hip-hop have been influenced by shoegaze, with artists such as cLOUDDEAD and clipping. experimenting with innovative beats that would define the cloud rap and noise rap styles. Post-punk, post-rock, indie rock, electronica, psychedelic folk, and dream pop are other examples of genres that have incorporated elements of shoegaze music.
One of the remarkable aspects of shoegaze is that it is an accessible style of music with a strong emphasis in pop sensibilities. Its principal evocations are visceral percepts of synesthesia and emotion that require no context or technical knowledge to appreciate – a peculiar juxtaposition of conceptual minimalism and sonic complexity that has only been mastered by a select few.
Slowdive – Souvlaki (1993)
loveliescrushing – bloweyelashwish (1994)
astrobrite – pinkshinyultrablast (2005)
Alcest – Souvenirs d’un autre monde (2007)