If you’ve had your ear on the sounds of the 1990s, then you’ll instantly recognize these genres. Gangsta rap. Grunge. Britpop. Techno. But shoegaze? Unless you’re a music nerd, there’s a chance you’ve not heard of it before.
So what exactly is shoegaze? Well, it’s a subgenre of rock that originated in the UK and reached its peak in the early 90s. Characterized by its long, distorted riffs and the almost atmospheric sound that mixes flowing vocals and stirring melodies, it received the term after the motionless and introspective stances of the bands performing onstage. In other words, the genre to listen to when you’re dreaming about your significant other.
Shoegaze was known to have started in the late 1980s, thanks to the Dublin quartet My Bloody Valentine and their seminal 1988 album, Isn’t Anything. Subsequent bands would take their cues from them and would provide the growth of shoegaze. Their later album, 1991’s Loveless, would form the cornerstone of the genre and live on as a cult classic.
My Bloody Valentine – Sometimes (1991)
Another contemporary of theirs is the London-based band Lush. As one of the first bands under shoegaze, Lush released their debut album Scar in 1989. It marked the maturing of the sound and helping them getting much-needed recognition in America, due to a personal request from the Lollapalooza music festival’s organizer.
Lush – Sweetness and Light (1990)
Out of the multitudes of bands within shoegaze, perhaps the band that best represented the sound was Slowdive of Reading. Thanks to the release of 1991’s Just for a Day, they defined the genre with their scintillating rhythms and thoughtful lyrics. They would release two more albums before dismantling in 1995.
Slowdive – Shine (1991)
For such a promising and imaginative genre like shoegaze, it became clear it would struggle to compete with bigger, more forceful genres of rock. The first blow came with the rise of grunge rock in the United States and bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam, who combined aggressive riffs with angst-filled lyrics. But shoegaze came to an end with the homegrown popularity of Britpop, with bands like Radiohead and Oasis and Blur leading the way.
Aside from the intense and sizable competition of grunge and Britpop, shoegaze was also hampered by the vast amount of equipment needed to produce the sound and the closed and self-centered image of the bands under it. Time was closing in for shoegaze when the press labeled it, “The Scene That Celebrates Itself”.
However, it seems that shoegaze is experiencing a revival of sorts in the 21st century due to groups like My Bloody Valentine unveiling a new self-titled album in 2013 and Slowdive reforming a year after. Also, its revival is credited to newer acts like M83, Neon Indian, and The Radio Dept. Bands like those mentioned take inspiration from the easygoing, otherworldly melody that shoegaze provides, and modern advances in equipment like synthesizers have enabled largely electronic groups to replicate the effects and rhythms found in shoegaze back in the early 90s.
So in short, shoegaze is an often-overlooked genre huddled within the enormities of 90s music. But for those who persist in finding it, the rewards can be as expansive as the kaleidoscopic atmosphere in shoegaze itself.