Rock music doesn’t always have to be rough, gritty, or riddled with obvious rage. It can also be dreamy, heavenly, obscure, and passive-aggressive. These are some of the key characteristics of “shoegaze,” a rock music movement that emerged from the United Kingdom. It reached its peak of popularity from the late 1980s through the early 1990s.
Shoegaze is a subgenre of indie rock and alternative rock. Although almost all of the seminal shoegaze rock groups are from the UK, there are also a few well-known shoegaze bands in the United States and elsewhere. Indeed, shoegaze is a short-lived genre that has garnered a niche but very dedicated following.
What does constitute the shoegaze sound?
Shoegaze is characterized by an ethereal mix of obscure vocals and layers of reverberating guitars, loud distortion and lots of feedback and effects. The resulting style makes it seem like you’re “drowned” or “immersed” in this type of sound.
Where does the term “shoegaze” come from?
Blame it on the British music press, long known to have the penchant for coining monikers for new trends. The term is meant to describe a tendency of the bands’ guitarists to stare down at the effects pedals while playing, seemingly deep in concentration, as if they were gazing down at their shoes. This behavior was seen in their live gigs.
A short history of shoegaze
If you think of shoegaze bands, My Bloody Valentine immediately comes first to mind. Although most fans often consider the Irish foursome as the “poster child” of shoegaze, the pioneers of this genre were The Cocteau Twins and The Jesus and Mary Chain.
Although shoegaze began to take off during the late 1980s, the seeds of this genre began a little earlier. The Cocteau Twins was formed in Scotland by Robin Guthrie and Will Heggie in 1979. Their vocalist, Elizabeth Fraser, joined them two years later.
Their debut album Garland (1982) displays a mix of goth and post-punk. But its successor Head over Heels (1983) — with its lush guitars and Fraser’s obscure and unintelligible, almost wordless vocals – was among the first records to set the standards for the shoegaze genre.
The Jesus and Mary Chain, also from Scotland, released their debut studio album Psychocandy (1985), a record full of noise and feedback. It is now considered as one of the “must-have” shoegaze records.
Longtime friends Kevin Shields and Colm O Ciosoig formed My Bloody Valentine in Dublin, Ireland, in 1983. They recruited bassist Debbie Goone and guitarist/vocalist Bilinda Butcher a few years later (the band was fronted by other vocalists before). In 1988, the new line-up released the EP “You Made Me Realise” and their debut studio album Isn’t Anything, both breakthrough records and now considered among the best pioneering works of the shoegaze genre.
Loveless – the definitive shoegaze album
My Bloody Valentine released their second album Loveless (1991), on Creation label. The deafening opener “Only Shallow” is often designated as the signature My Bloody Valentine track. However, the rest of the album is a gem, with moods that run the gamut from the melancholy “Sometimes” and the upbeat dance tempo from “Soon,” which also features Shield’s distorted “gliding” guitars.
Due to its sonic innovations, Loveless is considered the landmark shoegaze album and one of the greatest albums of all time.
Perhaps Loveless also owes its legendary status (or notoriety) to its laborious, meticulous, complicated, and costly recording. The final production cost of the making of Loveless was rumored to have reached £250,000. Loveless was recorded across 19 different studios and 45 engineers, although only 16 were credited in the album.
Immediately after its release, Loveless garnered unanimously positive reviews. A critical review from the now-defunct music magazine Q praised the album for Shields’ “virtual reinvention of the guitar.”
Despite glowing critical reviews, Loveless was a financial disaster, as it failed to recoup all the money that had been spent on its recording. What’s worse, it brought Creation to the brink of bankruptcy. Label owner Alan McGee dropped My Bloody Valentine from Creation’s lineup as he found Shields too difficult to work with.
But whatever the circumstances surrounding the recording and release of Loveless, it became the epitome of shoegaze history and one of the most influential albums in the history of rock.
Decline, post-movement era, and impact
As shoegaze was at its peak of popularity, other shoegaze bands came to leave their mark on the scene. Other notable shoegaze bands in the UK included Ride, Slowdive, Chapterhouse, Swerverdriver, Moose, Pale Saints, Curve, and Lush.
Slowdive, who hailed from Reading, Berkshire, released their sophomore effort Souvlaki (1993). Since its release, Souvlaki has been hailed as one of the classic shoegaze records. The album’s single “Alison” brought the band’s biggest commercial success.
The United States also caught on the shoegaze scene, but only fleetingly. Bands such as Drop Nineteens, Swirlies, and Medicine were also making a name for themselves.
Eventually, shoegaze started to suffer from some backlash, like all other music genres. Critics began to slam shoegaze bands as “faceless,” “over-privileged,” and “self-indulgent.” This perception was in sharp contrast with acts of the bourgeoning grunge music scene in the US (such as Nirvana and Pearl Jam) and of the newly formed Britpop movement (such as Oasis, Blur, and Suede), both of which featured more upfront performers. Compared to shoegaze, grunge and Britpop were more radio-friendly.
As shoegaze bands were pushed aside by these new rock scenes, they were forced to either disband or continue by reinventing their style altogether.
The early 2000’s s saw some signs of a shoegaze revival. Although it won’t be the same as the shoegaze scene of the early 1990s, members from some shoegaze giants continue to ply their dreamy guitar style while incorporating other musical styles. For instance, some members of Slowdive formed Mojave 3, where they infused dream pop with country folk styles. In 2017, Slowdive returned with their fourth album, Pygmalion. Other shoegaze bands, though, either broke up or moved in other directions.
After 22 years since their last album Loveless, My Bloody Valentine came back with their third studio album, m b v (2013). It was released to universal critical acclaim.
Signs of renewed interest in shoegaze are also evident in its offshoot genres, such as “nu gaze” (also called “newgaze”) in the early 2000s and “blackgaze” (combining metal and shoegaze).
“Dream pop” is also a subgenre of alternative rock and the term is often used interchangeably with “shoegaze” largely because they share similar sonic textures. However, dream pop is more atmospheric, moody, and melodious. Shoegaze bands have taken influence from dream pop artists, and vice versa, over the years.