It’s all about textured distortion, dreamy atmosphere and a static performing style in this genre which cropped up in the British indie rock scene during the late 1980s and early 1990s
Shoegaze is indie rock preoccupied with auditory texture and atmosphere over structure, melody and lyrics. Largely interchangeable with dream pop, the genre is named after the performing style adopted by its pioneers, who were known for standing stock still on stage and staring at the ground while they played (due mainly to the need to constantly change effects pedals). They appeared to gaze at their shoes while the experience for the audience was all about dense guitar riffs with plenty of amp feedback, distorted electronics and dreamy, breathy vocals.
Shoegaze grew up in the British indie scene from the 1980s onwards and offered an alternative to the glam rock and energetic punk both preceding it and continuing alongside it. A lot of it was inspired by the “glide” technique of strumming a guitar while holding the whammy bar, used by My Bloody Valentine guitarist Kevin Shields in their late 1980s records like You Made Me Realise and Isn’t Anything. The term itself was originally a derogatory one dreamt up by the British music press whenever they described the post-psychedelic groups who opted for that static performance style and layers of distorted guitars, and it stuck.
The sound and the aesthetic
Shoegaze puts sound over visuals and that sound is all built-up layers of distorted guitar, soft lyrics, and long, droning riffs. It’s grungy stuff, but with a soft side. While performing statically, shoegazers typically don grunge garb—think old leather jackets, denims, striped t-shirts, lank hair and a bit of heavy eye make-up. As well as being pretty interchangeable with dream pop, the shoegaze aesthetic also came to be associated with what music journalist Steve Sutherland in Melody Maker called ‘The Scene That Celebrates Itself’, where bands tended to hang around together, going to each others’ gigs and stepping into each others’ lineups when needed (instead of entering into the rivalries traditionally seen in other commercial genres).
Shoegaze pioneers include My Bloody Valentine, with those guitar techniques of Kevin Shields’ especially inspiring the genre—and artists like The Cocteau Twins, Chapterhouse, Moose, All About Eve, Ride and Lush. Later on, bands like The Verve and more recently, Caribou (AKA Canadian artist Dan Snaith), took the aesthetic well into the 2000s.
The future of shoegaze
First-wave shoegaze really ended in the 1990s when the genre became too associated with being “The Scene That Celebrates Itself” (see “The sounds and the aesthetic”) limited to hanging out in rather niche, exclusive and ultimately off-putting groups in the Thames Valley. However, the dreamy shoegazers had paved the way for grunge and also the huge Britpop bands of the 1990s and 2000s, like Pulp, Oasis and Blur. Some bands are keeping shoegaze going, though, and the genre has a future with committed dream pop artists like Slowdive (formed in 1989 and relaunched in 2014 after 20 years of silence) and alternative bands like Young Galaxy, No Joy, Caribou and Echo Lake continuing to carry the shoegaze mantle, to name just a few.