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What is shoegaze music?


The style of music that was sarcastically coined ‘shoegaze’, is a genre for dreamers.

The idea of ‘shoegaze music’ is slightly ambiguous as it doesn’t necessarily pinpoint a specific genre. Having said this, while anything defined as such has a distinct brand of sound, the label of shoegaze isn’t as definitive as other genres such as punk-rock or hip-hop

Shoegaze is an emotionally charged impressionistic form of music that has as much to do with attitude as it does its specific sound. Because of this widely defined concept, there is a lot of room for a cross-over of genres.

Under the umbrella of shoegaze, there is dream-pop, noise-pop, psychedelic rock, synth-pop, ambient music, post-punk, new wave, and even the cliched sound of the new romantics sometimes crosses over to a hint of sonic authenticity.

In reality, any artist operating in any one genre can incorporate shoegaze elements – although, since the 1980s, several definitive bands have come to be heavily associated with the label of shoegaze

Another important consideration of shoegaze music is that it isn’t very social. It is introspective and sometimes dissident to the point of discomfort and disparaging to one’s thought process, nullifying logic and rationalisation and giving way to feeling. 

As a result, shoegaze bands and audience members have come to an understanding that such performances are less inclined to put an emphasis on the performative aspects of music and instead unified in an attempt to celebrate the introvert.

What is shoegaze music?

The term ‘shoegaze’ describes the act of a musician ‘gazing down’ at their shoes while playing the guitar. What are they looking down at? No, it is not their shoes specifically that they are staring at. It is their foot pedals, which is a necessity when playing shoegaze music. 

Guitar foot pedals provide a plethora of processed effects that enables one to create the luscious and visceral sounds of this specific style of music. 

What are these sounds? While there aren’t necessarily requirements as to which pedals one uses to properly fit into this categorisation of shoegaze (all music is subjective), there are, however, standard effects that typically constitute the quintessential shoegaze sound.

These entail layers of distortion, reverb (if it’s in reverse, even better), delay, tremolo and phaser. As one may suspect, bands that deal in the shoegaze arena could be criticised as too self-indulgent – shoegaze bands are not in the business of selling commercial records. 

The development of guitar pedals played a major role in the emergence of shoegaze. (Credit: Kelly Sikkema)

Who pioneered shoegaze music?

The question of who pioneered shoegaze music is difficult to answer definitively. However, the genre developed organically starting in the early 1980s and by the end of the decade and into the early 1990s, shoegaze had become a distinct style of music and even made an impression in the mainstream. 

Typically, many credit My Bloody Valentine as the distinct pioneers of shoegaze. While their 1991 masterpiece, Loveless, solidified shoegaze, like any genre, it began way before then in the garages and basements of countless experimental bands who had a hand in drawing out the blueprints. 

One of the early developers of the genre was the band, Spacemen 3, whose 1986 debut, Sound of Confusion, definitely exhibited early sounds of shoegaze fused with minimal, drugged-out psychedelic-garage rock. The singer and guitar player of the band, Pete Kember, wrote an article that was featured in Pitchfork, called ‘Where Were You In ’91?’ In his introduction, he wrote:

“If you had told me in 1991 that, 25 years later, I would be prefacing a list on shoegaze, I would probably have told you it would never happen,” he said. “Few of these bands paid even the slightest, fleeting lip service to commerciality. I couldn’t see it.”

The term itself, ‘shoegaze’ – as is the case with most genre tags – was coined by a journalist. Kember wrote, “Drifting back further, my memory of the British hack who first coined the term ‘shoegaze’ was that he was being derogatory.”

The tag would stick and while the intention behind the term may have been snide, it played a part in helping to shape the style of music.

My Bloody Valentine played a pivotal role in the development of shoegaze. (Credit: Paul Rider)

While Kember’s band Spacemen 3 demonstrated a brand of minimal psychedelia, it paved the way for newer sonic inventions in the way of shoegaze, but it didn’t exactly stylise the genre as much as My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless, or Ride’s Nowhere, which came out a year before the former.

On this point, Kember wrote, “Spacemen 3 have sometimes been referred to as ‘godfathers of shoegaze’, and that may be in some small part; I may not be the best judge of that. But, for my coin, it was My Bloody Valentine that held the alpha DNA.”

Kember claims that 1988 was the year that the genre was officially born. Spacemen 3 had been asked to tour with The Pixies, they declined, and My Bloody Valentine stepped in.

Still, Kember went to the show. “The whole set was epic, faultless, but one song stood out in particular: a warped, staggering guitar voyage that seemed to encompass the quintessence of psychedelia,” Kember wrote about MBV’s set at The Roadmenders Centre in Northhampton. Continuing to describe what he heard, he went on to say that there were, “Pulsing waves. Building elliptical loops. A reverbed synchromesh of vocals, bass, drums, and guitar.

“Looming to unholy crescendos, then, devastatingly, snatching them away. Evaporating into a silken heat haze to rematerialise again out of the effervescence, stronger and more entrancing each time.”

There have also been arguments for shoegaze finding its origins early in the 1980s. Cocteau Twins, as early as 1983, released their proto-shoegaze record, Head over Heels. Two years later, in 1985, Scottish experimental pop band The Jesus and Mary Chain released their highly influential Psychocandy, which touched upon a specific ingredient found in the overarching idea of shoegaze; noise pop. 

The songs on Psychocandy were extremely reminiscent of The Velvet Underground and despite its sonically experimental nature, operated within a highly formulaic format. Layered on top of these simplistic pop songs were dissident, loud, distortion and fuzz heavy processed guitars.  

This brings us to our next question: who are the bands that are most associated with the shoegaze genre?

Pete Kember formed the band Spacemen 3. (Credit: Pete Kember)

Who are the best shoegaze bands?

Many have come to define ‘the holy trinity’ of shoegaze bands as such: My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive, and Ride.

The idea is that each of these bands represents the different sides of shoegaze: My Bloody Valentine represents the ‘noise’ side; Slowdive represents the ‘dream’ side, while Ride represents the pop side of it. 

The following records are the genre-defining records from each of the aforementioned bands:

  • My Bloody Valentine – Loveless (1991)
  • Slowdive – Souvlaki (1993)
  • Ride – Nowhere (1990)
Slowdive are often credited as being pioneers of shoegaze. (Credit: DeepSkyObject)

Who are other prominent shoegaze bands?

  • The Verve
  • Mercury Rev
  • Swervedriver
  • Chapterhouse
  • Lush
  • Catherine Wheel
  • Swirlies
  • Blonde Redhead
  • Medicine
  • Lilys
  • The Brian Jonestown Massacre
  • The Dandy Warhols
  • Pale Saints
  • Spacemen 3
  • Cocteau Twins
  • The Jesus and Mary Chain

Leave a comment if there are other good shoegaze bands you believe deserve a mention.

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