Genres and labels have become a necessary yet arbitrary force in the music industry. A band is analyzed by their sound and then grouped with similar acts in order to forever place them in a cube of adjectives to help describe just what they sound like. It can be both good and bad, with the good being certain people who browse through these labels might find that specific artist, but bad if a band just wants to make music and all of a sudden they are labeled as something they didn’t even know they were or want to be associated with. That being said, an authority figure has to police the authenticity of certain genres, right? Welcome to Genre Benders, a fun and inventive column that uses wit and research to tackle just what it is that makes a genre well, a genre.
I apologize for the very long absence of this column. I originally wanted to kick 2017 off with this particular genre in January, but I took acid one night and the moon turned a dark and beautiful tie dye color. It was beautiful. You should have been there. This forced me to redefine what the term “shoegaze” meant to me, and how it originated as a genre. Every sign in my life has pointed me to writing this particular genre bender, with another example coming last night when at the bar my friend named Molly (actually a person) decided that Nothing was the best form of ‘relaxation’ music.
There I was, buzzed from Jim Beam when all of a sudden I felt this calm rain down from the atmosphere above and seep into my muscles. I then lifted all the dark sorrows from my emotionally disturbed brain and just let Nicky Palermo swoon me with that particular airy voice. See, I know nothing about the complexities of shoegaze (is there THAT much?) and I particularly am very confused about the genre because sometimes it’s just two chords over and over, which is a bit unimaginative. Which is not really fair to say, but like most people these days researching things on the internet, I have the attention span of a lab rat who likes fart jokes and pictures of penguins, and in particular, this great gif that explains the entire genre of shoegaze…
Shit, that’s funny (all credit goes to my boss Tony for sending me this).
Upon searching for the true origins of shoegaze; as a movement it (like a lot of genres) was a movement that loosely was wrongly affiliated with something else. Within the rambunctious and slightly erotic hair-metal 80’s, bands started rising in London that were more ‘pop’ but still ‘rock’ and became known as dream pop. The story goes that a band called Moose (who are good by the way) had some fun on stage by playing with their guitar pedals and reading lyrics taped to the floor — looking emotionally vacant — so the press decided that shoegaze was the appropriate term. Yet, people will (and rightfully so) consider dream pop and shoegaze two distinct genres even though back then shoegaze was the ‘American’ term and ‘dream pop’ was the British term. Regardless, indie rock and alternative rock had two drug induced babies and this column, right here, is the outcome. I wish the moon was out right now.
Diving right into the early predecessors of what would eventually become the dreamy, ethereal baby; we have George Harrison. That’s right, the ol Beatles steal the right of way once again! I mean, essentially the genre started with people finding ways to add more atmosphere into their simple song structures, and have you heard the record that is All Things Must Pass? The songs are jam packed with all the ingredients necessary: sliding guitars, feathery vocals and atmospheric psychedelia of the 70’s packaged into one glorious record. The song I am about to link has a bit more of a blues influence in it, but the idea is there, I promise.
Now, in comparison, much of the genre that would become shoegaze in its early forms were kind of all over the place (dare I even say there have been waves of it, like emo?). The Cocteau Twins had some dark, distraught moods running through their first record, even running the lines of that classic 80’s symphonic glee with “Blood Bitch.” Still, this started an idea in music that focused more about the textures of the sound rather than the slamming riffs, licks and motifs in listener’s ears. It was more gentle, slathered in effects and buttered in such emotional oddity that it instead created feelings inside of you, and it was all thanks to the U.K. (yet again). Lush (Britain), Slowdive (Britain), Cocteau Twins (Scotland) and My Bloody Valentine (Ireland) would kick off and become the architects sonically of the meat of this genre, with the early 90’s becoming this psychedelic euphoria of unleashing your soul in the form of music, or whatever you want to call it. The guitars started becoming less of an instrument and more of a way to create ambience, with the vocals becoming wisps in the air, gentle like a spring morning breeze. Everything just seems… different. Love is in the air, there’s music idly playing (softly) in the background and you just feel like your high on something, whether it be life or some mysterious drug you haven’t told your boss about. That’s what listening to “Sunbathing” by Lush sounds like; and it’s bloody brilliant.
Which takes me back to the incident at the bar where Nothing was playing. At that very moment I found myself just… present. Nothing exactly was happening, I wasn’t exactly doing anything but yet I felt a bit fulfilled. Nothing in my personal life has really gone exactly as planned as of late, but I was not angry about it, I wasn’t even slightly annoyed, I was oddly at peace. That’s the essence and bliss of this particular genre, which has seen a steady resurgence (stupidly called Nü Gaze I assume) into the forefront of the underground thanks to bands like No Joy, Nothing, My Bloody Valentine (mbv was phenomenal), Ringo Deathstarr and Whirr. These here are the beautiful, modern arbiters of what we can consider the shoegaze side of the spectrum, while the dream pop side has a definitive difference. See, these bands here in the gazing of shoes have drawn out guitars, predictable rhythmic patterns and vocals that tap dance on the music. Dream pop bands actually are more poppy, lively and incorporate sounds that are symphonic, like Beach House, DIIV, Local Natives, Wavves, and The Brother Kite. With shoegaze, the music is more expressive in melancholia (at least in my own head canon of the genre), while dream pop has some spark to it, some non ghastly vibrance that is very much like the one kid in your boring history class that won’t stop answering the questions (me).
Now, of course there will be outliers, like how No Joy sometimes actually have a pep in their step, Whirr play a heavy metal track and how regardless of which side you are on, the music always finds a way to leave you spaced out and emotionally apathetic to anything happening around you because there’s nothing like getting away with idol sitting. It’s comfortable. Nice and relaxing, hell I could do this every day. Like when I found out there’s a band called Blushing that satisfies that inner worry of not having a way to escape.
Which brings me back to two things: last night at the bar and the ’emotionally vacant’ side of the music. It’s okay to be entirely caught up by the glory of shoegaze, because that is its purpose. It’s not meant to be music to throw on at a party (unless all of your friends want to sit in a circle and become apathetic all at once), it’s meant to be a soothing background to what is already a considerably confusing life. It’s kind of like that scene from ‘Trainspotting’ where Ewan McGregor takes a hit and falls backwards onto the floor only to be brought to some other, beautiful place. It’s why “A.C.D. (Abcessive Compulsive Disorder)” discusses our inner human complex of letting people down, with music that is droning and texturally dark. It’s okay to feel, I promise.
Then there’s the godly My Bloody Valentine, who released a song called “Sometimes” and frankly I don’t give a damn about the rest of the world or what you’re saying but it’s the best piece of music that swallows my emotions and puts me in the corner of a black hole so I can be alone and love myself.
P.S. I am confused on if I should be wearing all black to express my emotions or tie dye to express my new found shoegaze psyche, send help.
Follow Sean on Twitter @seanthecaptain