blurry photo of Kevin Shields on guitar with My Bloody Valentine

Isn’t Anything: How Shoegaze Has Never Been Easily Defined

Gen Z and TikTok are rewriting our perceptions of shoegaze — and the music itself. To work out exactly what’s going on, writer Kristen S. Hé took a look at the genre’s past, present and future. Words by Kristen S. He

By Kristen S. He, 23/2/2024

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“Vague,” “hazy,” “noisy,” “indecipherable” lyrics — these aren’t the typical qualities of music that lends itself to virality.

And yet, virality is exactly what’s happened to shoegaze in the last half-decade. Where once we relied on music magazines to chart a course through the genre, now it’s being discovered through TikTok videos that use shoegaze (and its sister genre dream pop) as a canvas for anything from cat videos to Cocteau Twins karaoke — and Spotify playlists that compress 35 years of history into an hour.

TikTok and YouTube explainers tend to touch on the same talking points, rooted in nostalgia: shoegaze was an early ’90s British genre named after bands’ tendency to stare at their guitar pedals while performing, My Bloody Valentine and Slowdive defined it, and the fundamental elements are “screechy guitar, glide picking, weird synth, dirty fuzzy guitar, [buried] drums, and spacey, distant vocals”. While that almost feels too reductive for such an expansive genre, it’s not inaccurate. Skip to any part of a shoegaze track, and you’ll likely find something that’s aurally stimulating. Unlike other viral music, it doesn’t grab your attention — it invites you in.

@musicthatexists #fyp #foryoupage #funny #music #guitar #comedy #reharmonization #musicproducer #shoegaze #90s #alternativemusic #musiciansoftiktok #musician #funnymusic #musiccomedy ♬ original sound – MUSICTHATEXISTS

But social media’s collapsing of musical context and history has produced some odd results. TikTok has brought Duster out of near-complete obscurity to four million monthly Spotify listeners; made Slowdive more successful in their reunion than at their original peak during the ’90s; and the likes of Halsey, Miley Cyrus and even Taylor Swift are recording dream pop tracks. All of this isn’t just rewriting how we think of the shoegaze canon — it’s reshaping the possibilities of the music itself.

Looking forward, the modern shoegaze revival may have only just begun. But looking back at how shoegaze was actually heard and written about in its time, many of the nostalgic assumptions we have about it are more complex than we remember.

In the preface to Pitchfork’s 50 Best Shoegaze Albums of All Time, published in 2016, Pete Kember of the proto-shoegazers Spacemen 3 writes, “In 1991… few of these bands paid even the slightest, fleeting lip service to commerciality.” But a few years later, watching a Mexican shoegaze band perform, he changed his position: “The thought that this music might cut through cultures with such broad swathes had never occurred to me before, but now I could see this genre might have long legs, in between that gaze and those shoes.”

Pete was right. But many insist otherwise: it’s become a revisionist history myth that shoegaze’s exclusiveness was key to its appeal; that the music was better because it faded into relative obscurity in the mid-’90s. There’s a misconception that none of the bands ever charted, or had any lasting impact on the bigger alt-rock bands that succeeded them. And finally, there’s the belief that shoegaze’s best days are long behind us — that it’s more a genre to be remembered than a living art form.

Behind all of this is the idea that shoegaze can only ever be introverted music for introverted people, destined to never find a larger audience — the exact critique journalists lobbed at it decades ago. But as TikTok is proving, shoegaze’s hazy melodies can be a soundtrack to practically anything — and they can be very popular indeed. It’s almost as if by treating it as pop music, it’s become pop music… again?

Shoegaze has always been uniquely hard to define. This is an attempt to trace its murky origins, overturn some common misconceptions, and ask — was shoegaze always destined for a resurgence? Perhaps more than any other genre, the way we talk about shoegaze has changed the nature of the music itself.

The New Wave Of British Noise Pop

Long before the term “shoegaze” was coined, rock bands were using guitars as a means for texture. In the first half of the ’80s, a wave of UK bands were broadening the scope of post-punk and art rock, from The Cure’s gothic, romantic atmospheres to Siouxsie and the Banshees’ high drama; Cocteau Twins’ delicate dream pop melodies, and The Jesus and Mary Chain’s blown-out take on The Velvet Underground via Phil Spector. Across the pond, Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr. blended melodies with noise-rock, building momentum for the US alt-rock explosion to come. 

Lumped under various different labels — dream pop, ethereal wave, noise pop — the precise genre names mattered less than the bands’ shared affinity for atmosphere. Their sound could loosely be described as druggy or psychedelic, but tended to be more introspective than the LSD-fuelled jazz-freakouts of ’60s psych-rock acts like The Doors or Pink Floyd. But even there, there are exceptions — the swirling guitars and squeals of The Beatles’ ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ are a clear predecessor to My Bloody Valentine, while the Beach Boys song ‘All I Wanna Do,’ from their 1970 commercial flop Sunflower, has been retroactively labelled the first shoegaze song. Though nothing like their hits, its gentle, sleepy melodies evoke a melancholy that feels deeper and richer than its straightforward lyrics.

But it’s harder to pinpoint where shoegaze unto itself begins. While AllMusic cites My Bloody Valentine as the progenitors, Rate Your Music lists the London duo A.R. Kane as the first to release a true shoegaze record, in 1986. Both their first EP Lollita and debut album 69 still sound like nothing else — more sensual, emotionally intense, open-ended, and overtly experimental than the bands that came in their wake. Though they’ve been reevaluated as pioneers, they’ve never gotten their due outside of critical circles, especially as Black artists in a largely white UK scene. Sadly, the difficulty of pigeonholing, or even summarising their music, might have contributed to their falling out of shoegaze’s popular memory.

My Bloody Valentine formed in Dublin in 1983… as a goth-rock band? Across their first three EPs, from 1985 to ’86, they shifted from a campy take on The Cramps to a noisier and more accomplished, if not especially original, indie pop band. By 1987’s Ecstasy, having lost original baritone singer David Conway, they were poised for something more. Long out of print, those early releases have more or less been written out of their history.

And yet, 1988’s You Made Me Realise hit almost out of nowhere. It hit hard, with an almost Stooges-like raw power, but the intertwining of Bilinda Butcher and Kevin Shields’s vocals also made them feel gentler than any of their peers. Released a few months later, their proper debut album Isn’t Anything kicked down the doors even further — heavier, with more reverb, and surprisingly sexual lyrical themes that, if you could understand them, transformed Shields’ woozy guitar playing from subtext to text. Listening to those records today, you can still hear the seeds of a musical revolution. As Pitchfork’s Mark Richardson wrote in 2012, “Isn’t Anything needn’t exist in relationship to another record. If they had stopped here, My Bloody Valentine’s reputation would have been assured.”

It’s important to note that this shift in sound happened organically. Rate Your Music lists almost a dozen other shoegaze bands formed in the late ’80s, like The Telescopes, Kitchens of Distinction, The House of Love — undergoing similar evolutions. None of them made especially definitive records, but this era solidified one of the key differences between shoegaze and what came before — that they moved away from the gated, industrial drum sounds of post-punk, and instead swathed the entire band in reverb; not unlike Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound production 25 years prior.

What didn’t arise organically was the term “shoegazing”, which was how it first came to be known. Supposedly coined by label executive and music journalist Andy Ross at a show in 1991, then brought into print by either NME or Sounds magazine — the term described the bands’ unshowy stage presence; the way they prioritised sound, feeling and introspection over performance. Whether or not “shoegazing” was originally intended as derogatory is still up for debate — but the term caught on with the UK press, despite the protests of some of the bands involved. For better or worse, it’s memorable — the rare genre term that isn’t descriptive of the music’s sound or feel. 

Not only that, but “shoegazing” turned a verb into a grammatically challenged noun. Shoegaze became the preferred term by the 2000s, but Wikipedia stubbornly clung onto “shoegazing” until 2020, proving that people will never stop arguing about genre definitions from 30 years ago.

To Here Knows When

By 1991, a certain set of shoegaze conventions had already been established among UK bands. Pale Saints were essentially a twee jangle-pop band, but sparser and more mysterious. Ride embraced being a rock band more than most — their vocals, crashing guitar chords and drums aspired to almost arena-rock bigness. Slowdive were gentle and entrancing, equally melodic and hypnotic on their debut album Just for a Day.

At the exact midpoint of shoegaze were Chapterhouse. They weren’t the best or most challenging, but the most straightforward representation; a band one imagines could, or should, have been the mainstream face of shoegaze. Released in April, their debut album Whirlpool peaked at 23 on the UK albums chart — with its perfectly balanced blend of pop hooks, alt-rock cool, and baggy rhythms, it still sounds like how 1991 must have felt at the time. But from November, everything would change.

Perhaps no record has had more words devoted to it, yet remained harder to describe than My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless. If Isn’t Anything was a progression, Loveless was a leap into another dimension. Where the Pixies and Nirvana had their loud-quiet-loud song structures, Loveless was both at once — a gentle, soothing experience played at low volume, and a wind tunnel of swirling frequencies when cranked up on speakers.

It’s fundamentally a straightforward vocal-guitar-bass-drums album, yet Kevin Shields’ pitch-bending chords and counterintuitive, treble-heavy mono mixing make it incredibly difficult to put your finger on any individual element. Despite being played and sung with organic instruments, Loveless has the abstract quality of a synthesiser — it contains sounds that don’t resemble anything occurring in nature, yet evoke deeply human emotions. 

Lest we forget, this was a popular record — with multiple music videos; none other than Brian Eno claimed that Loveless “set a new standard for pop”, and called ‘Soon’ “the vaguest piece of music ever to get into the charts”. Critics — even Americans — broadly adored it, and as Rolling Stone wrote in a four-star review, “In My Bloody Valentine’s magical kingdom, cacophony is the mind-altering path to beauty.” The oft-snarky NME gave it eight out of ten, calling Loveless “a silver-coated bullet into the future, daring all-comers to try and recreate its mixture of moods, feelings, emotion, styles and, yes, innovations”. The Village Voice’s 1991 critics’ poll had the album at number 14, proving that at least some critics got the message at the time.

The UK music industry, however, didn’t know how to market it — though the album peaked at 24 on the UK albums chart, it received seemingly no significant support from Top of the Pops, nor MTV abroad — although triple j did sponsor their 1991 Australian tour.

Loveless’s alchemy transcends artistic intent. If art was solely about achieving aesthetic perfection — or inscrutability — the shoegaze movement could simply have given up after 1991. No one has ever been able to replicate it, and the band themselves haven’t even tried. Three decades on, its biggest influence isn’t sonic — it’s that it freed future shoegaze and dream pop bands from the need to appeal to commerciality at all.

Global Communication

By 1993, shoegaze had already outgrown and outlasted its initial critics. Alongside Loveless, Slowdive’s Souvlaki established the mythos of the genre. The album still stands as a symbol of eternal cool — of five twenty-somethings writing pop songs that were equally romantic and vulnerable, ephemeral and endless. 

Shoegaze and dream pop were expanding their sound — and going global. In the UK, Swervedriver had an earthy, unshakeable sense of cool, while Catherine Wheel played shoegaze straight down the middle. The poppy, female-fronted Lush charted twice within the UK’s top 10, yet still deserved to be bigger. Curve boasted shoegaze’s first truly charismatic front person in Toni Halliday, with sampled drums that made them sound like dance-rock in an airport hangar. But perhaps most significant were The Verve — who, years before ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony,’ were blending shoegaze with nostalgic, ’60s-tinged Beatles psychedelia to great effect.

In the US, Loveliescrushing turned guitar loops into pure abstract texture, while Drop Nineteens brought a sweetness and a Pavement-like attitude to shoegaze. The Veldt infused soul and R&B into their heavy guitar — and were compared both favourably to, and pigeonholed by, critics’ references to other Black rock artists like Lenny Kravitz and Living Colour.

From Ireland, The Cranberries brought dream pop to the charts with the megahit ‘Dreams’, which was covered by Cantonese singer Faye Wong, and made famous in its own right in Wong Kar-Wai’s Chungking Express — not coincidentally, a film that’s inspired countless Tumblr posts and TikToks relating to its youthful, romantic ennui.

The biggest shoegaze band to never make it in the Anglosphere, though, was Argentina’s Soda Stereo. They’d been a successful new wave group throughout the ’80s, but on their sixth album, 1992’s Dynamo, they fully embraced shoegaze production, sounding like Latin America’s take on U2’s Achtung Baby, something that had never been done before or since.

Were Oasis Shoegaze?

Shoegaze’s influence was undeniably working its way into some of the biggest alt-rock bands of the time. Smashing Pumpkins’ 1993 Siamese Dream featured gargantuan wall-of-sound guitar production, while Garbage’s 1995 debut album opened with a clear homage to My Bloody Valentine’s ‘Only Shallow,’ and elsewhere sounded more than a little like Curve. The difference between those bands and true shoegaze acts, though, was that they sounded clean, precise. Like Nirvana, they had alternative cred, but were shooting for the moon — and their fuzzed-out guitars brought some sharpness and muscle to their underlying sensitivity.

Shoegaze’s biggest impact, though, was through a Manchester band with huge distorted guitars cranked into the red, booming drums, and vocals sitting behind them in an almost noise-rock mix. Yes — none other than Oasis, whose smash-hit debut Definitely Maybe even shared an engineer with Loveless. In particular, their 1997 album Be Here Now was a swirl of guitars and surreal lyrics that, in an alternate universe, would be considered a late-’90s psychedelic masterpiece — if it wasn’t fuelled by such powerful cocaine energy. 

While Britpop was often portrayed as a reaction against, as AllMusic puts it, “the shy, anti-star personas of the early-’90s shoegazer bands”, the truth is it was just as indebted to them. Oasis had larger ambitions, but it’s no coincidence that their base was Creation Records, the much-mythologised, oft-contentious home of My Bloody Valentine, Ride, Slowdive, and many more acts with indie cred.

But similarities aside, the UK music press, and many of the bands themselves, took a brash posture against shoegaze. “I will always hate Slowdive more than Hitler,” said Richey Edwards of the Welsh punk rockers Manic Street Preachers in 1991. Melody Maker said of Souvlaki, “‘Sing’ aside, I would rather drown choking in a bath full of porridge than ever listen to it again.” Why such vitriol? Three decades later, when that snarkiest of music journalism environments no longer exists, it’s hard to make sense of it at all.

Curiously, Rolling Stone’s Loveless review never uses the term “shoegaze” — in fact neither it nor “shoegazing” even appear in the magazine until the 2000s. Perhaps it seemed pointless to spend precious column inches explaining UK music beef to American audiences, when reviewers could talk about the music instead. Sticking with “noise pop”, as Rolling Stone did, may have been wise — because shoegaze has never quite escaped the connotations of its original label. When listeners generally learned the term and its backstory before hearing the music, it left a false impression of the music; that shoegaze bands sucked at being rockstars, rather than not caring about that paradigm at all.

While punk and alternative rock have always been counterculture, a reaction to the world, shoegaze is more interior — and its lyrics are often incidental. Maybe its critics read those qualities as apathy, self-indulgent, apolitical — or maybe they were just over analysing the idea of staring at one’s shoes, as if it was a crime against rock music. Ultimately, they were missing the point — focusing on what shoegaze wasn’t, rather than what it could be.

In 2009, Miki Berenyi of Lush minced no words: “Shoegazing was generally seen as introverted, sensitive, and possibly a bit intellectual. Virtually every band had a woman in it who wasn’t required to get her tits out. This does not sit particularly well with the music press, which is mostly run by men who actually are rather weedy and un-masculine, but who like to imagine themselves as rebellious bad boys who do nothing but drink, take drugs, and fuck beautiful, vacuous girls. Shoegazing didn’t really fulfil that particular fantasy!”

By the mid-’90s, grunge’s influence was obviously being commercialised — through the likes of Bush, Alanis Morissette, Garbage and many more. The same thing did not happen to shoegaze; some of its sensibilities may have flowed down into Britpop, but that didn’t lead to sustained commercial success for any original shoegaze act. It seemed as if shoegaze had come and gone; that maybe its legacy was to be fractured and transient.

Lush themselves bowed out with a polarising Britpop record — arguably both selling out and going with the times. After 1992, My Bloody Valentine stopped touring and seemingly fell off the face of the earth; Ride imploded in 1996, and co-frontman Andy Bell joined Oasis as their long-term bassist. Slowdive’s final album on Creation, 1995’s Pygmalion, saw them shedding their poppy melodies and fuzzy guitars for ghostly, windswept, almost wordless songs; a wake for the golden age of shoegaze.

Of course, the press deemed it “career suicide” by the band; in one final insult, NME wrote, “Slowdive… They could have had the world, but they decided to go all skeletal and wibbly and make sneakingly fascinating records that will sell absolutely fart all.” The band broke up the same year, with their key members moving onto the country-dream pop project Mojave 3.

By the turn of the new millennium, it seemed like shoegaze was a thing of the past. It was almost unthinkable that new shoegaze music, or new bands, would receive any attention from the UK press at all.

But of course, the tides were already changing. In the introduction to his decade-end list for FreakyTrigger, future Pitchfork writer Ned Raggett wrote, “While the hype regarding mp3s and so forth has mostly remained that during the latter part of the decade — ten years will see this change radically… This is also an acknowledgement that ten years from now we will be all quite surprised at how we talk about music. It won’t quite be like the way I’ll be doing it here anymore.”

He ranked Loveless at number one.

[This is Part One of our shoegaze feature. Read Part Two here.]

Kristen S. Hé is an artist and award-winning journalist. She tweets at @kristenisshe.

Image: Lindsay Brice/Getty Images

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