Writing about World Music

Section X, Fall 2016

Shoegaze and it’s Restricted Nature

I’m going to use this blog post to talk about shoegaze, a genre brought up in class which it seemed most were unfamiliar with.  Shoegaze is a genre that I personally find interesting since the foundation of the genre is built upon the legacy and quality of only three albums: My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless, Slowdive’s Souvlaki, and Ride’s Nowhere, in order of decreasing influence and notability.  It is simply unavoidable for any shoegaze release to not be compared with these albums, as they set the baseline for their three variations of shoegaze: Loveless being the more noisy, Slowdive being the more dreamy and melancholy, and Nowhere being the most poppy of the three.

Most of you are probably wondering what shoegaze actually is, understandably, as the name of the genre really gives nothing away about its sound.  To put it best, shoegaze is a fusion of noise rock and dream pop, which may not mean much to people who don’t memorize overly-specific genres like myself.  Noise rock is an evolution of rock which incorporates more dissonant, loud, and powerful noises than typical rock, the most notable examples being Daydream Nation, White Light/White Heat, and Filth.  Dream pop is vocals-oriented like regular pop, but generally the vocalists have higher voices, and their backdrops are lush, creating songs where the songs have aerial qualities, the most notable group being the Cocteau Twins.  Combine both noise rock and dream pop, and you get shoegaze, which has heavily distorted guitar playing and other noisy elements creating a wall of sound, while someone sings in dream poppy vocals over (or beneath, frequently contributing to the wall of sound) it.  The term shoegaze came from a critique of a live My Bloody Valentine performance where the critic noted that the band had nearly no stage presence and just “gazed at their shoes” the entire time.

The origins of the genre primarily come from noise pop band, The Jesus and Mary Chain, and their album Psychocandy, which popularized the idea of dreamy vocals over harsh noise.  From there, My Bloody Valentine took up the helm of shoegaze, releasing a string of successful EP’s, along with their album Isn’t Anything, which in retrospect has been regarded as shoegaze despite coming before Loveless, which is really the album which founded the genre.  Slowdive pushed the creation of shoegaze just as early, and nearly as much as My Bloody Valentine, releasing their album Just For a Day in 1991, the same year as Loveless.  It is their album Souvlaki which is generally regarded as one of the most foundational in shoegaze however, due to its successful blend of dreamy vocals, and ambient, mellow guitars to create a highly melancholy album in contrast with Loveless’s more forceful bliss.

One of the most interesting aspects of shoegaze to me is how apparently small the variation in the genre has been, with seemingly every notable shoegaze band being heavily influenced by Loveless and Souvlaki (and to a lesser extent Nowhere), despite being a genre more than 20 years old.  That is not to say that the genre is bland or bad aside from its 3 foundational albums, the bar Slowdive, My Bloody Valentine, and Ride set in the early 90’s has just proved critically insurmountable, as many regard Loveless as one of the greatest albums of all time with Souvlaki not too far behind.  Recently there has been a “shoegaze revival,” so with any luck there will finally be one more album affixed in the shoegaze canon.

1 Comment

  1. Thanks for this terrific introduction to shoegaze, Jonathan! Your description is great—and also a great reminder that musical genres are arbitrary social or cultural categories. “Noise rock” and “dream pop” and “shoegaze”? These terms definitely have meaning to people who are fans (or, for that matter, to people who are explicitly not fans!). But there’s nothing about the terms themselves that automatically refer to a particular set of musical sounds. Like all of the semiotics we’ve discussed in this class (all of the winks), genre names signify only by convention and within a context. (Think of all the different metal subgenres and the very slight musical distinctions that sometimes exist between them: these are very clearly categories that define a particular subculture or social group at least as much as they define a musical form.) In a sense, they can become tautological: What makes it “punk” music? The fact that punks listen to it and play it. I’m sorry we didn’t have time to discuss some of this together, but anyhow, your description here is a really excellent primer on what shoegaze is. In fact, I think I’ll go listen to “Loveless” right now…

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