Shoegaze has a certain level of self-effacement; not for nothing was it called “the scene with no name”. Its swirling sounds disguise voices, and the floppy hair hides faces. Unlike the genres that held more sway in the early 1990s, like grunge, hip-hop and Britpop, there’s a notable lack of swagger to shoegaze.
Benjamin Halligan has studied this, as a culture researcher and director of the Doctoral College of the University of Wolverhampton. He tells me, “The point of shoegaze is that, although the people seem to disappear, in fact what’s left is a sense of their subjectivity – of their minds, of their feelings – so you get a sense of the inside of their heads rather than the outside of their bodies.”
Halligan notes that the musicians are often absent from classic shoegaze album covers, music videos and even photos, whether they’re replaced by cats or hiding behind their fringes. He suggests that this reinforces a “sense of isolation, or people who were too shy to look you in the eye”.
Onstage, performers frequently seem isolated, and band members don’t interact with each other. “There’s a weird eradication: the human presence almost vanishes,” Halligan muses. Though live music, in general, is often described as a social experience, a shoegaze concert challenges that idea.
Gazing lives on
Along with a spacey sound and liberal use of feedback and reverb, these kinds of personality traits are referenced today by a new crop of shoegaze and shoegaze-influenced artists, including those far-flung from the British and Irish stomping grounds of the original shoegazers.
These include the tongue-in-cheek ‘slippergaze’ of Canadian band Not You (following on from the ‘nu gaze’ subgenre of the early 1990s) and Indonesian band Secret Meadow. The latter’s lead guitarist, Ricardo Taufano, has said endearingly of their stage presence, “I don’t know how to describe the way we rock. I think we’re just four shy guys when we’re on stage.”
Whether the shy folks are on stage or in the audience, shoegaze’s legacy continues to include the validation of a certain kind of undemonstrative, pensive music lover – myself included.