Beautiful noise: a deep dive into shoegaze
Exploring the hypnotizing brand of alternative rock
In 1985, a band called The Jesus and Mary Chain released their debut album: “Psychocandy.” The album combined traditional pop with harsh noise and guitar feedback. Despite its lackluster performance in the charts, this album fundamentally changed alternative rock.
“Psychocandy” opened up a space where bands could experiment with jarring noise and guitar distortion. A space that would lead to the creation of a new genre: shoegaze.
Born in the United Kingdom during the late 1980s, shoegaze originated from a diverse selection of influences.
Developed from The Velvet Underground’s noisy garage rock, Cocteau Twins’ dreamy, ethereal pop music and The Cure’s gothic, textured sound from the early 1980s, shoegaze grew from a myriad of sounds and artists.
These influences, and countless others, produced the shoegaze genre; a brand of alternative rock built around walls of noise, distorted guitars, high reverb, neo-psychedelia and often-indecipherable vocals that function as an instrument themselves.
Five key albums that influenced shoegaze:
“Pornography” by The Cure (1982)
“Treasure” by Cocteau Twins (1984)
The term “shoegaze,” or “shoegazing,” comes from a label that music reviewers gave to bands in this scene. Originally intended to be an insult, the term is meant to describe the performing habits of shoegaze artists, where band members would stand on stage motionlessly, staring at their shoes — more specifically at their guitar pedals — in deep concentration.
The first taste of real shoegaze music came in 1988 from an Irish band called My Bloody Valentine, who are recognized today as pioneers of the genre.
On Aug. 8, 1988, they released their EP “You Made Me Realise.” Critically, the project was a massive success, and gave audiences and reviewers a taste of a new, otherworldly sound — the sound of shoegaze.
Three months later, the band released their first album, “Isn’t Anything.” The record is dizzying, harsh and unlike anything the music world had ever seen. It has been described as everything from cubist to noisy to ethereal. The swooning, androgynous vocals mixed with the heavy, droning guitars marked the beginning of a new genre of music.
Shoegaze had officially been born.
Following the release of “Isn’t Anything,” the shoegaze movement blossomed, and bands from all across the UK started experimenting with the genre.
At the time, Chapterhouse was making psychedelic, almost pop-like shoegaze, with catchy and melodic tunes. Lush was a unique group, as their music was a lot faster and a lot less noisy than other shoegaze artists, with light songs with dreamy vocals.
Ride was one of the noisier, more rock-oriented shoegaze bands of the time. Taking heavy influence from Sonic Youth and The Stone Roses, Ride was known for making anthemic rock songs bathed in shoegaze and elements of psychedelia. Last, Slowdive made a hypnotic hybrid of ambient music and shoegaze. With the reverberation turned up to the max, they paired lush and soothing soundscapes with poetic lyrics.
My Bloody Valentine also continued their journey with shoegaze music following “Isn’t Anything.” In 1991, they released the album now known as the pinnacle of shoegaze: “Loveless.”
The unique thing about the shoegaze scene, both musically and socially, is how bands themselves supported each other. The members were friends — they went to each other’s gigs, they drank together, they performed together. The bands didn’t play into rivalries, they celebrated one another.
Critics dubbed shoegaze: “The Scene That Celebrates Itself.”
Five key albums of 90s shoegaze:
“Nowhere” by Ride (1990)
“Loveless” by My Bloody Valentine (1991)
“Souvlaki” by Slowdive (1993)
One of the main problems shoegaze faced was its marketability.
The “anti-showmanship” shoegaze artists embodied on stage resulted in a lack of audience and critical interest. The outlandish, unique sound of the genre compounded this, as mainstream listeners found it inaccessible. Critics saw the friendships between bands as a weakness, and labeled the groups as self-indulgent.
But as shoegaze was declining, a new genre was bursting onto the scene to push them out. Bands like Oasis and Blur were pushing forward a new, much more commercially friendly sound: Britpop. Britpop was a more lighthearted, accessible and catchier brand of alternative music. Celebrating Britain in its composition, Britpop took influence from classic British rock and pop music.
In many ways, Britpop was the complete opposite of shoegaze. Following growing disinterest in the genre, many shoegaze bands began to either split up or take their music in a new direction.
While Britpop’s popularity marked the end of the shoegaze scene, the genre itself lived on. In the early to mid-1990s, some American bands started making shoegaze music of their own. Drop-Nineteens and Swirlies from Boston and Lovesliescrushing from East Lansing, Michigan, are just three of many artists who took on the shoegaze sound at the time.
Since the late 1990s and early 2000s, shoegaze has experienced a resurgence. Some classify this wave of new shoegaze music as “nu-gaze.” Asobi Seksu, M83, Parannoul, The Radio Dept., Sweet Trip and Whirr are just a few of the bands that spearheaded 21st century shoegaze.
This new wave of shoegaze bands resulted in the reunification of many classic shoegaze groups. My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive and Ride have since reunited and released new music.
Five key albums of 21st century shoegaze:
“Velocity: Design: Comfort.” by Sweet Trip (2003)
“m b v” by My Bloody Valentine (2013)
“Slowdive” by Slowdive (2017)
“To See the Next Part of the Dream” by Parannoul (2021)
Although its heyday was short lived, shoegaze music is still a prominent part of the alternative music scene today. With the original pioneers back and making music again, and new groups continuing to evolve the genre, shoegaze is here to stay.
Check out “beautiful noise” — a comprehensive shoegaze playlist by The Eagle — a look at the genre’s origins, the bands that perfected it and how it has developed since.
This article was edited by Sara Winick, Zoe Bell, Patricia McGee and Abigail Pritchard. Copy editing done by Isabelle Kravis and Olivia Citarella.