The Internet Has a Hard Time Understanding Shoegaze (OP-ed)

My Bloody Valentine (Photo courtesy of Rhino Records)

The following OP-ed was written by Tyler Heathcock. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own. —No Echo


My time spent on the internet is pretty similar to everyone else’s; consistently shit posting memes and trying to get my tweets off in time to still be relevant to the discourse of the time before it changes, as it rapidly does. The internet has brought us many good things. Memes, exchange of new/old slang, sharing stories/lore, and sharing music and art. I would like to think the internet has done nothing but good things for music but I think it’s too early to tell whether or not that's entirely true.

With streaming services like Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube Premium (or whatever), Soundcloud, Last.fm, Pandora, etc. (you get the point), we can have access to any and all new music available to stream at any given time. Streaming is a profound method of sharing music. It’s unbelievable. And while I do think its impact has been positive in many ways, I also believe that it’s negatively impacting the way we appreciate and understand music in intimate settings.

Early in life I had three avenues of music discovery. The first was my Nana, who is a '60s free spirit who grew up in a military house and married a military man. She had an affinity for '60s and '70s rock and was against the grain since jump, which some might even say was punk but she didn’t really fuck with anything outside of the Pistols. She kept crates and crates of old 12” records buried in a hallway closet: Jimi Hendrix, Led Zepplin, The Rolling Stones. She also had an extensive CD collection that she would let me sift through.

My earliest memories of “extreme” music are of her playing the Black Album when she picked me up from school. She recommended CDs to me and let me borrow them to listen to at home, the first of which being the Slipknot's eponymous album from 1999. This where my love for extreme music started and continued to really take off, no brakes, from there. Much to my dismay, all of her records were lost to water damage before I was of the age I could really appreciate them.

The second and third avenues I can almost combine: MTV and the record store. As a kid, and before MTV's hard-pivot to reality television, MTV was a time-tested resource for finding good music ahead of the commercial radio curve. Programs like Headbangers Ball really stood out to me, although I think I was too young to appreciate it for what it was. I would stay up to watch my favorite Slipknot, Fear Factory, and Trivium videos and took notes on what I wanted to look for at my local Best Buy.

This brings us to my third and final avenue of musical discovery, the record store. My mom would take us every so often to the nearest Best Buy and let us pick out a CD or two. Generally, my selections were filling in whatever I was missing from Slipknots discography; my brother usually opted for Linkin Park or hip-hop. My first experience at a record store in the classical sense came in 2005, when I was 9 or 10 years old and was looking for the new Armor for Sleep CD, What to Do When You Are Dead. I went to Best Buy and they said they didn’t have it. The younger guy working suggested we try Zia Records, about 15 minutes away. My mom was familiar and drove me over there.

I was dumbfounded by what I had just discovered. We walked in and I felt as though we had teleported to a completely different location, in a completely different universe. There were Grateful Dead and Bob Marley posters on the wall and tons of weed paraphernalia for sale, which I found vaguely comforting. We found the CD I was looking for and my mom picked up the newest Madonna CD, Confessions on a Dance Floor, which is a pretty fantastic record, in my opinion. We popped the CD into the car radio on our way home and it was everything I wanted it to be. The more I reflect on this experience, and all my early experiences with discovering music, I realize how completely opposite these are from what 9/10 year olds, and even teenagers, are experiencing today.

Let me explain. Some of the key components of the memories I shared above are obsolete in the current music consumption meta. I had three things that helped me discover good music, relative to the time. I had older family members to help me navigate what was good of their generations, whether it was my Nana showing me Ride the Lighting and letting me blast "For Whom the Bell Tolls" or my mom forcing me to listen to "Come on Eileen" (or whatever '80s New Wave or pop music she listens to religiously).

Of the three, I think this is the least changed. I hope that there are still families who share music from generation to generation. Exposure to a wide variety of music was integral to my love for music today. The second is the notable differences in scope and accessibility between MTV and streaming services. The final, and I think the most important, is the hunt. With streaming services and the internet being so accessible, we've all but eliminated the hunt for music.

I have very fond memories of going to Zia to look through the record bins, the staff picks and the used record sections looking for cool album art and song names. Additionally, the listening process was more selective because CD's were a big investment were not cheap in the slightest, usually coming in at around $20 for a single new release. I was forced to sit and listen to these CDs until I found something I liked, listening through the whole thing many times, or until it scratched.

Here comes file sharing. Around 6th grade my mom finally put a PC in our living room. My life was drastically changed. I'd heard stories from people at school of this new program called “Limewire," more specifically that it was a website that let you download any music you wanted for free. This was incredible, life changing to be honest. The rest is history. My house now had unlimited access to any music we wanted and my brother and I spent days loading burnt CDs with playlists of songs. Around this same time, I was introduced to MySpace. This is when I really began to fall more in love with music and music discovery.

This is where I'd like to pivot to addressing the idea that whenever we hear distorted guitar we should to call it shoegaze, and why it's relavent to the above stories. With the introduction of streaming services we have lost the ability to hunt for music. We can simply search something up and be listening to the greatest hits in seconds. We don’t need the music to be passed down from someone older, or on game, we don’t need to spend hours and hours digging through bins. We don’t even have to skip through the throw away tracks to find the hits on the CD player.

I’ve become increasingly more bitter to the idea of music genres being subjective. I think it has to do with people not putting in the time to discover and sit with the music they are labeling. This does come from a place of experience. I play in a band where we pull influence from shoegaze bands, but I wouldn’t say we are a shoegaze band.

There are two key characteristics, or even questions you should ask yourself when listening to a band before we can label them in the shoegaze genre:

  1. Does this band sound like Loveless by My Bloody Valentine?
  2. If the answer is no, then they are not shoegaze.

As a joke that will probably get lost in context but when broken down it could be a fair assessment. My Bloody Valentine is a '80s/'90s alternative band that can maybe be credited as the first “shoegaze” band. Their sound is the example, the blueprint, of the genre.

Shoegaze is characterized by layered, distorted, and maybe even bent (?) guitar tones combined with very soft, swirling vocals that results into a wash of sound where all the instruments and noise just blend together. Loveless is the be all end all shoegaze record and should be kept in mind when labeling a band as such.

You can also see similar acts like Cocteau Twins, Jesus and Mary Chain, Slowdive, Ride, and Lush that use/have a similar sound. There is also an argument that a woman’s vocals are a key element/integral to the writing of the music. As you can see from above, there are a few boxes you may need to check before you start shoegazing. In my opinion, My Bloody Valentines best music isn’t available on streaming platforms besides YouTube. I encourage you to check out You Made Me Realise. They have a few EPs that aren’t on Apple Music or Spotify.

The term “shoegaze” became a buzzword in our/my pop culture circle, for me, when Title Fight released their 3rd studio record, Hyper View. This was a left turn from their previous efforts. I started seeing this discourse that “Title Fight went shoegaze." Upon listening, and further reflection, this couldn’t be farther from the truth. We will put it to the test. Listen to "Murder Your Memory" then right after put on "When You Sleep." The sounds, the tones, the vocals are in different universes from each other.

I do have to admit, I can see why people would say this. I’ve come to the conclusion its just lazy listening. It’s an easy copout for listeners to hear some type of twang in the guitar tone to default to shoegaze. They probably don’t know anything else, so I don’t blame them, but this could be different if they interacted music a little bit more intimately. They probably don’t have anyone around them to really put them onto what’s poppin. Can’t blame them, but you also can. They have a hand held computer that will get them any information they please if they would just search for it, but they don’t know what they’re looking for. A continuous cycle of ignorance and laziness.

Music is consistently evolving and genres are blending and evolving. I understand this, but am I wrong for wanting to preserve something I love? I also want educate others so they can make correct judgements. If there is one thing I’m tired of it’s the word shoegaze, especially after writing all this. There is a similar discourse I have with hardcore music and the subgenres of the scene. In the '80s, a band came around called Youth of Today. They were young, suburban, straight edge kids playing straight forward hardcore. They traveled in a gang of friends and peers called the “Youth Crew." This started the revolution of the Youth Crew genre/sound. Not only is it not a genre, it’s also only specific to this time.

The Youth Crew is Youth of Today/Violent Children, Bold/Crippled Youth, and Gorilla Biscuits. Some could argue a few other adjacent bands like Judge, Chain of Strength, Sick of It All but I’m choosing to leave them out. These bands are the zeitgeist of '80s youth in the hardcore scene. Ray starts Shelter. Drew joins Into Another. Civ starts CIV. Walter seemingly invents alternative rock. Warped Tour happens. The Youth Crew died when Ray Cappo became a Yogi.

In the mid/late-'90s, you see a resurgence in this sound under the banner of a “Youth Crew Revival”. You see bands like Floorpunch, Ten Yard Fight, In My Eyes, and Bane. All using this very straight-forward hardcore sound, with lyrical tones of unity and being straight edge. It checks all boxes to get as close to Cant Close My Eyes as possible. This is the only time I make exceptions, because these bands are taking direct influence for their sound and they are so close in time that it makes sense. We could call it just straight forward, or classic hardcore, but they own the "Youth Crew" moniker.

The discourse comes in 20/30 years later. We have regressed so much in our listening habits, that if you were to ask the general hardcore subcultural participants of 2010 about subgenres you would only hear two: Youth Crew or beatdown. 2018/2019 were good years to shy away from these genres but now we have Turning Point/New Age Records worship and metalcore as trendy genre claims. Is this just a consistent trend cycle?

Are we destined to being caged into two flavor of the month genres? My remedy is that I think people need to listen to more music. They need to be involved more. They need to get into the trenches and listen to the b sides and the deep cuts.

This all comes full circle with alternative music. 2016-2019 was shoegaze, followed by dream pop, noise, prog rock, and so on. The more I explore different subgenres and getting involved in their social circles I think everyone has this problem. My only solution is that there needs to be more involvement. There needs to be more skin in the game. Music is extremely accessible and it’s almost disrespectful to listen to your same playlist over and over again without checking out new stuff.

I encourage everyone to dive through the related artist hole. I encourage you to read interviews of musicians you like to listen for recommendations. I encourage you to buy physical music and look at the record sleeves for the thank you lists. I encourage you to read zines for reviews. These are all amazing resources for finding cool stuff. You may learn something new along the way.

Tagged: op ed