What Isn’t Shoegaze?

“Shoegaze is a dumb term made up by clueless NME idiots,” argues Mogwai’s Stuart Brathwaite, a My Bloody Valentine fan as well as a friend of its architect Kevin Shields. “It’s pretty demeaning as well. If someone called us shoegazers, I’d be pretty unhappy.”

For good reason. During the late ’80s and early ’90s, the term reductively compressed the dense feedback, droning riffage and ethereal soundtracking into slang and slag, especially in the British press. No doubt, its employ was a byproduct of the British press having fallen in love with the derivative Britpop of Oasis, as much as America had fallen in love with the derivative metal of grunge.

But in the end, it was used to describe bands like My Bloody Valentine, Cocteau Twins, Swervedriver and pretty much anyone else, like drone minimalists Spacemen 3, who didn’t fall into the comfortable confines of easily classifiable music.

That was its figurative objective.

More literally, it described bands that monitored their instruments or pedal arrays, or stood comparatively still while concocting experiments in compelling noise. Performance, under the weight of the term, came to be valued more than the music behind it. And so its multiple effects were palpable: It effectively marginalized and, in some cases, even doom musical careers.

But shoegaze has since outlived its derogatory origins, in the process becoming a commonplace genre classification designed to initiate late adopters into bands like the aforementioned, as well as comparativelynew acts still floating beneath the mainstream’s radar, such as Film School, A Place to Bury Strangers, Ulrich Schnauss and more.

Punch shoegaze into Wikipedia or the All Music Guide, and you’ll get a list of mostly stellar groups, some who sound nothing alike. And though time may have forgotten a few, the rest have been copied or reimagined at length.

“It’s kind of ludicrous,” Adam Franklin, vocalist and guitarist of the newly reunited Swervedriver laughs. “If that’s how people describe it, in some ways it doesn’t matter. People accept it for what it is. It’s like naming a band: Some toil to find one, others just making something up. But I do think it was easy and lazy to throw us in with bands like The Verve and Slowdive, simply because our names sounded similar.”

Swervdriver has a serious case against shoegaze. Unlike My Bloody Valentine, the band didn’t receive much credit for its muscular anthems until it was too late. After releasing the stunning Mezcal Head in 1993, Creation dropped the band like a dirty bomb in order to focus on Oasis, a repetitive label headache that would plague Swervedriver up until its dissolution in 1999.

“I simply think that any musical term that has shoes in it is absurd,” Franklin adds. “In parts of the world, it is considered a huge insult to show the soles of your shoes. You’d like to think there is a deeper meaning to it, but there isn’t, is there? But I suppose all of those things are absurd. Grunge didn’t like being called grunge, punk bands in 1977 didn’t like being called punks. My personal position is that we were in the middle of all of that.”

That was then, and this is now. With the reunions of My Bloody Valentine, Swervedriver and other, as-yet-unannounced bands, it may be tempting to legitimize the term shoegaze for future generations.

But why? In the 21st century, where the internet and its unmatched ability to distribute, download and disseminate dominates the musical landscape, there is little need for an umbrella epithet that has done little else besides piss off most every band it has touched. With this second chance now underway, it may be better to drive a stake through the term’s heart for good.

“It’s about time, although 20 years too late,” confides Jason Pierce of Spacemen 3 and Spiritualized, whose newest effort Songs in A&E shares more of an affinity with gospel and blues than its does with drone and noise. “Someone in the UK used it as a derogatory term and then America picked up on it to lump a bunch of bands who don’t sound alike together. It’s about people who didn’t produce anything, just gazed at their shoes doing self-absorbed things.”

This article appeared at Wired

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