slowdive performing in 1994

Only Tomorrow: The Resurrection And Rewriting Of Shoegaze History

In part two of our shoegaze deep dive, writer Kristen S. Hé looks at what's next for the genre. Words by Kristen S. He

By Kristen S. He, 21/3/2024

Want more Junkee in your life? Sign up to our newsletter, and follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook so you always know where to find us.

In the early 2000s, shoegaze was rarely discussed as if it was a present-tense phenomenon. Alt-rock, electronica and hip-hop were splintering into new and thrilling directions — and when they did incorporate heavy guitar fuzz, it wasn’t with the introspective spirit of the original shoegazers. 

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

Shoegaze was being remembered — just not by the British journalists who defined it the first time around. Loveless placed at number 219 in Rolling Stone’s 2003 Greatest Albums of All Time list, and Isn’t Anything and Ride’s Nowhere also made it into the original 2005 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die book. But each time, they were framed as detours through alt-rock history; nowhere near as significant as the decade-defining Nirvana, Oasis, Radiohead.

But in 1999, a little blog named Pitchfork named Loveless the best album of the 1990s. Wrote Brent DiCrescenzo, “The brilliance of Loveless lies in paradox: how can something so incredibly noisy and layered sound so beautiful and delicate?…” In his recent review of Pet Sounds, Ryan [Schreiber] really hit it on the head — “Loveless is the Pet Sounds for our generation.” Shoegaze’s mythology had already been established, but it had yet to spread to younger generations.

Kevin Shields himself was steering clear of those lofty expectations, having spent years recording My Bloody Valentine material that wasn’t up to scratch. He kept busy, playing guitar with Primal Scream on albums even louder than Loveless, and recorded solo cuts that formed an integral part of Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation soundtrack.

In a way, falling out of popular awareness preserved shoegaze’s legacy. It allowed bands to continue without continually being compared to the greats, and crucially, meant traditional music journalists were no longer the first source of information on the subject. With the rise of Wikipedia, Rate Your Music, LiveJournal, and file-sharing, the more open, user-centric web 2.0 put internet-native journalists, semi-professional bloggers, and fans into one ecosystem.

There were some bands who engaged in shoegaze revivalism — sometimes labelled “nu gaze,” a term that thankfully didn’t catch on. In the US, My Vitriol sounded oddly like Fall Out Boy with fuzzier guitars; Asobi Seksu were playful and poppy; while LSD and the Search for God made just two EPs that were as dreamy as anything recorded in the ’90s. In the UK, The Horrors did indie-punk with just enough shoegaze influence that the press didn’t pillory them — but anointed them the next big thing.

But by and large, the most significant shoegaze-influenced acts of the 2000s utilised shoegaze textures within very different song structures and arrangements. Key among them — not at the time, but in retrospect — were Have a Nice Life, for whom shoegaze was just one influence in their deeply depressive post-punk. M83 and School of Seven Bells both made grand, fuzzy synthpop. The lumbering, droney Jesu may have been the first band to combine shoegaze and metal, while the black metal-influenced, but feather-light French Alcest innovated the subgenre now known as blackgaze

Perhaps most significant was the retroactive embracing of — and arguing over — Deftones, who as a nu/alternative metal band had never been connected by journalists to the shoegaze movement in the late ’90s and early 2000s. On songs like ‘Be Quiet and Drive (Far Away)’, ‘Minerva’, and ‘Cherry Waves’, Chino Moreno’s pitch-bending vocals and the band’s dreamy, crushing riffs brought an overt sense of sex and danger that few pure shoegaze bands channelled. 

Coldplay even dipped into shoegaze on ‘Chinese Sleep Chant’, a hidden track from 2008’s blockbuster Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends, which the Village Voice’s Tom Breihan derided despite its sincerity: “The song could easily be self-conscious parody of shoegaze, at least if anyone was willing to put enough money and craft into recording a My Bloody Valentine parody.”

I Am The Resurrection

In 2007, My Bloody Valentine reunited and returned to touring after 15 years away. Enough time had passed that Kevin Shields had reconnected with his muse and his unreleased material. As he told the New York Times, “It was about finding who we were again, and that became way more important than anything intellectual.”

They played no new material on those early return tours, but they thoroughly resurrected their mythology for a new audience — reviews were alternately shellshocked and awestruck by the sheer volume. When they played All Tomorrow’s Parties in Melbourne in early 2013, they were as extraordinary — and as unconcerned with stage presence — as everyone had said. With earplugs in, the 16-minute noise coda to ‘You Made Me Realise’ felt like standing under a jet engine — a purifying spiritual experience beyond imagination. No memory or video will ever do it justice.

In 2008, WIRED argued that it was time to abolish the term “shoegaze” — that it was always reductive, and had become redundant:

“It may be tempting to legitimise the term shoegaze for future generations. But why? In the 21st century, where the internet and its unmatched ability to distribute, download and disseminate dominates the musical landscape, there is little need for an umbrella epithet that has done little else besides piss off most every band it has touched. With this second chance now underway, it may be better to drive a stake through the term’s heart for good.”

They had a point — but for whatever reason, the label would stick, and so too would the fascination around it.

The broader effects of My Bloody Valentine’s reformation on alternative and indie rock — alongside The Jesus and Mary Chain around the same time — weren’t felt immediately. But arguably, the shoegaze revival began there — not with Gen Z and TikTok — but with the idea that shoegaze was no longer a dead language.

The biggest developments started happening in the early 2010s. My Bloody Valentine’s long-awaited third album m b v, released in 2013, is still a mystery wrapped in an enigma. Almost stripped-back compared to Loveless, it sounds like it could’ve been produced at any point from 1993 to 2012 — a record completely out of time.

While Slowdive first reformed in 2014, their momentum has only grown across two new studio albums — in significant part thanks to their popularity on TikTok, which gets brought up in almost every interview they do now. Their revival feels less like those of multi-generational icons like Fleetwood Mac or Kate Bush, and more like Rodriguez — the Detroit musician who maintained a very niche audience in his years out of the spotlight, and was hailed as a hero upon returning to touring decades later.

The most influential shoegaze album of the 2010s, however, was significant not just for its sound, but the sheer amount of arguments it started. In 2013, Deafheaven’s Sunbather was controversial to black metal fans not just for breaking from the genre’s typical sound, but for the “hipster metal” band wearing jeans onstage and having a pink album cover. Indie-leaning shoegaze fans were more receptive — if they could take the band’s harsh vocals. Black metal and shoegaze were considered philosophically opposed — one often grim and macho, the other softer and art-punk. And perhaps that was true — but both favoured texture and atmosphere over songwriting convention.

For those in the middle of that Venn diagram, it was a revolution. Where Alcest, the progenitors of blackgaze, were wistful and spiritual, Deafheaven embodied blackgaze as musical conflict, with the heart-on-sleeve quality of a great screamo band too. Yet they sounded so organic that it was surprising that no one had done it before — transplanted blast beats and screeched vocals into wall-of-sound shoegaze guitars. 

We Found Now

Now, imagine having none of this context, and encountering a random shoegaze video in the middle of swiping through the TikTok — as many Gen Z listeners’ first encounters have happened in the last six-odd years. Shoegaze-101 videos, especially the short form ones on TikTok, are fascinating: they tend to presume the viewer has never heard of shoegaze, and position the creator as an expert, even though they probably come from the same social media environment as their audience. Shoegaze, the word, has become as much a meme to be explained as an obscure style of music.

@songpsych Reply to @johnfromphilly what IS shoegaze?? (Hosted by @dev_lemons) #learnontiktok #tiktokpartner #shoegaze ♬ When You Sleep – My Bloody Valentine

But the fact that younger listeners don’t have the same historical perspective as Gen X or millennials can be a good thing. It means less baggage, and a level playing field — at this point, younger cult bands like Deafheaven, Nothing and Whirr have inspired almost as many new acts as the original shoegazers. It’s completely rewritten the script on Slowdive — no longer a punchline, rightfully considered one of the most important, and humblest, alt-rock acts of the ’90s. The way we talk about shoegaze shapes its perception, and there’s perhaps no better example than Duster.

Formed in San Jose in 1996, Duster barely left a mark when they released their debut album Stratosphere in 1998; only Pitchfork reviewed them at the time. Now, they have over four million monthly Spotify listeners — more than even My Bloody Valentine or Slowdive. Even for the slowcore genre — a depressive singer-songwriter approach made famous by the likes of Galaxie 500, Low, and Cat Power — Duster were minimalist in the extreme. Except for two songs, Stratosphere sounds like shoegaze played at the lowest possible volume, with the fuzzy guitars erased. Any less, and it’s as if they’d blow away with the wind. Nothing about Duster suggests broader appeal — except for their songs’ emotional purity.

In 1998, Duster didn’t matter to anyone outside their tiny scene. But as their legend spread — through Rate Your Music, /mu/, pre-Discord forums, file-sharing sites — their mystique and obscurity became integral to their appeal; it’s word-of-mouth marketing you can’t buy. If Duster are seen as a niche band, they can only ever be a niche band. But as they’ve gradually taken on importance, they’ve become as significant in retrospect as artistic peers like Elliott Smith and Low. Music history has been rewritten in real time — and it’s been thrilling to watch.

Many writers have questioned why Gen Z seems to have a unique connection to shoegaze. With most genres, there’s a more direct explanation of how sound, lyrics and ideology translate to culture — for example, hyperpop’s chaos reflects the absurdism of living under late capitalism. The appeal of shoegaze, however, might be as purely emotional and aesthetic as, say, instrumental classical music.

In VICE, a listener suggests that “The atmosphere of shoegaze really fits with the bleak, post-COVID, world we’re in. Everyone’s trapped inside and shoegaze has a very dreamy quality to it.” Others, like TikTok’s popular SongPsych Dev Lemons, liken it to a “warm hug”. Slowdive’s Neil Halstead offers, “Souvlaki and Pygmalion, there’s something quite teenage-y about those records, largely because we were teenagers when we made them. The [young listeners] have some empathy with it, and it’s all quite angsty.” But loud as it can be, shoegaze is emotionally inviting, not imposing — like being in the eye of a storm, surrounded but untouched by the wind.

Shoegaze sits in a unique place in the last 40 years of popular music. It was never wrung clean or gentrified by major labels like grunge, or made culturally obsolete like Britpop. Unlike other alt acts like Teenage Fanclub, Neutral Milk Hotel, The Strokes or Arcade Fire, who were anointed as generational icons by Gen X and millennial journalists and bloggers, shoegaze bands don’t feel inextricably tied to their original time period or fandoms. 

It was once unthinkable, but Loveless has become as significant an entry point for ’90s alt/art-rock as OK Computer. It’s been canonised, but not culturally decontextualised by popularity, like a Nirvana t-shirt. At #73 on Rolling Stone’s updated 2023 Greatest Albums of All Time list, voted on by critics and artists, My Bloody Valentine stands out like an odd duck between Aretha, Kanye, Neil Young and Beyoncé. They’re easily the least mainstream-recognisable artist in the entire top 100; their music still defines its own hype. 

Pitchfork’s Mark Richardson has likened the revival to “unfinished business” — because shoegaze didn’t die organically in the ’90s; it was hastened out of relevance by the whims of labels and magazine tastemakers. Delving into shoegaze still feels like discovering an alternate history of alternative rock — one that’s not a closed chapter, where texture and emotionality matter more than cultural status or rebellion. 

To See The Next Part Of The Dream

Since the late 2010s, shoegaze and dream pop have found their way back into major-label acts. Wolf Alice have found crossover success with their poppy shoegaze-grunge, while the sparkly glam-pop of The 1975 and Pale Waves has occasional shoegaze inflections. Halsey’s 2021 track ‘You asked for this’ has the wind-tunnel atmosphere of vintage Curve, but it’s produced by Trent Reznor.

In the dream pop realm, Taylor Swift’s ‘mirrorball’ is unmistakably Mazzy Star, while Miley Cyrus has used her anything-but-delicate voice to cover ‘Fade Into You,’ and in a hilariously surreal moment, Cocteau Twins’ ‘Heaven or Las Vegas’ at a show in Las Vegas. She prefaces the song by joking that no one will know it — and yet, ‘Heaven or Las Vegas’ has 58 million streams on Spotify. 

Meanwhile, the beloved indie dream pop duo Beach House’s ‘Space Song’ has a staggering 982 million streams. While major-label acts’ adoption of shoegaze and dream pop is opening possibilities, there’s no sense that they’re the ones pushing the sound forward.

More than ever, there’s a thriving global shoegaze scene, and Asian shoegaze bands especially exist in their own rich ecosystem. But when they do cross over in the west, word-of-mouth and the algorithm often boost older acts as much as the new — from long-disbanded acts like Japan’s Pasteboard and Asobi Seksu, to now-veterans like Tokyo Shoegazer, and newer phenomena like South Korea’s Parannoul. Rate Your Music’s charts are especially useful for discovering acclaimed music, as they don’t discriminate — it’s equally easy for anyone, anywhere, to discover My Bloody Valentine as Parannoul, Have a Nice Life, or even Australia’s own dream pop darling Hatchie.

But it’s many of the youngest,  buzziest acts who are truly rewriting the language of shoegaze. Quannnic is only 18, has already released two albums, and is, strangely, finding their way onto metal festivals‘Life Imitates Life’ could be mistaken for a lo-fi Deftones cover. In just a few years, Jane Remover has gone from being a post-hyperpop artist to a powerfully confessional emo-shoegaze singer-songwriter. 

And the mysterious Wispsigned to Interscope, known only as the 19-year-old Natalie Lu — has the potential to be for shoegaze what PinkPantheress is to UK garage. She only has four songs out, which all feature wistful yet candy-sweet melodies over crushing guitars, but written and structured like 2020s alt-pop. Like Deafheaven, it’s remarkable in that no one’s ever done it before.

Listening to these three acts clearly illustrates how Gen Z shoegaze has changed from its origins. Where older shoegaze came from ’80s indie and post-punk, the new breed is almost inextricable from emo: from American Football to My Chemical Romance and Lil Peep. Their guitars are typically heavier and detuned, which the original shoegaze bands never employed. And all three are solo artists who record — or at least sound like — bedroom-pop acts. Wisp, who released her first single ‘Your face’ under the moniker “whirrwhore4lyfe”, recorded her vocals over a random producer’s existing instrumental — essentially a shoegaze “type beat,” a process that would have been unthinkable a decade ago.

Where older shoegaze typically felt like four people playing music in a room, emo-shoegaze feels more interior; like experiencing life through a haze of noise and depression. Their music is too passionate to feel at all ironic, but the shoegaze guitars create a certain emotional remove, making it feel less earnest than a singer-songwriter like Phoebe Bridgers might.

And Quannnic is non-binary, Jane Remover is a trans woman; their roots are more in the weirdo queer, extremely-online-internet-music world than any existing shoegaze scene. They have many years ahead of them, but it remains to be seen if they’ll transcend their origins entirely — like Mitski — or exist between popular and cult status, like an Ethel Cain-type figure. Nevertheless, 2023 was one of the most thrilling years for shoegaze in a long time.

In one word, the shoegaze revival is blurry. It’s been boosted by the TikTok algorithm, but remains largely immune to trends. It’s not purely nostalgic, but not yet fully in the future. It’s exciting that someday soon, Pitchfork’s seemingly definitive 2016 shoegaze list will become obsolete. But we’ve yet to see the truly chaotic permutations of shoegaze that could happen thanks to TikTok’s viral accelerationism — what’s the shoegaze equivalent of hyperpop? What post-Travis Scott act will sample My Bloody Valentine? On Twitter, Jamie Brooks — a.k.a. art-pop act Default Genders — has offered some outlandish predictions. If shoegaze is fully gentrified, will it get watered down — or make a fearless forward leap?

Over almost four decades, the way we talk about shoegaze has shaped its perception. It’s just a matter of time before someone changes the conversation, again.

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


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

Image: Ebet Roberts/Getty Images

Want more Junkee in your life? Sign up to our newsletter, and follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook so you always know where to find us.