Stories

Could this be the loneliest kind of music?

What does our musical taste say about us? If you’re a fan of the dreamy subgenre known as shoegaze, there’s a chance that, like me, you’re an introverted kind of music lover.

By Christine Ro

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Illustration of man playing a guitar.
Illustration by Anna Wray for Wellcome Collection. © Anna Wray. CC BY-NC-ND.

I’m in a dimly lit basement bar, trying to work out the song being performed on stage. The band, Swedish trio Echo Ladies, have run out of their own songs and are now closing with a cover. The song they pick features deliberate feedback, swirling layers of noise, and vocals that sound trapped behind the guitars. These shadowy elements are at odds with the rock-star bombast of the original, which I finally realise is David Bowie’s ‘Rebel, Rebel’.  

Well, shoegaze has always been less ‘rock star’, more ‘hide behind a rock’. It’s often associated with a certain kind of pale, floppy-haired, cardigan-wearing guitarist. And, of course, this musician’s head will frequently be directed down. This is partly because that’s where the effects pedals are, which are essential for producing that characteristic shoegaze fuzz. But the journalist-coined term has also come to apply to both the stage and gig demeanour of an awkward kind of music lover: one with arms crossed, a reluctance to dance, and an air of unsociability.  

I’ve been that person. I once brought a William Faulkner novel to a rock show to read between sets. I’m not the ebullient, fist-pumping type. But then neither are shoegazers in general.

Illustration of a face, with closed eyes, and surrounded by long hair.
Illustration by Anna Wray for Wellcome Collection. © Anna Wray. CC BY-NC-ND.

Shoegaze is often associated with a certain kind of floppy-haired guitarist and an awkward type of music lover.

Hiding inside sound 

Shoegaze features plenty of dreamy distortion and sonic exploration. In its heyday, from the late 1980s to the mid-1990s, mood mattered more than attitude, and texture more than beats or even melodies. It was much less catchy than mainstream pop.  

The subgenre was never big enough to inspire a wealth of specific psychological research, although several music writers have made arguments about shoegaze seeking a kind of “narcotised withdrawal” from social reality.  

Plenty of people in the shoegaze scene have also nodded to the personality traits linked with it. Miki Berenyi of the band Lush has said, “Shoegazing was generally seen as introverted, sensitive, and possibly a bit intellectual.” And shoegaze label founder Andy Oliver has suggested that the swirling sounds reflected shy personalities, as this music consisted of “indie-style dream-pop through layers of distorted guitars saturated with overdrive and fuzz set to an amplified volume so high that it created a wall… which they could hide behind.”  

A reflection of inwardness 

That desire to hide is characteristic of shy people, who may have a desire for social contact but feel awkward or anxious about getting it. Scott McGivern, a Chicago-based musician and shoegaze fan, tells me, “I’m moderately shy and can be pretty social, but I do have trouble expressing myself externally. I consistently try to find outlets through playing/performing music, conversation, writing, and listening to music.” 

McGivern’s shyness is about the gap between internal and external worlds. And as he describes it, “Shoegaze leans a bit… inward. It’s like a peephole to the inside of the vibrant colourful mind that some (most?) of us have.”  

For others, one of the characteristics of shyness is a preoccupation with what other people might think. It’s no surprise then that it’s often linked with low self-esteem. A 2015 research paper examined the music preferences and self-esteem levels of New Zealand undergraduates. One of the most significant findings was the correlation between reflective/complex music (which applies to the introspection of shoegaze) and lower self-liking, for male respondents.

Illustration of a pair of legs with awkward looking feet.
Illustration by Anna Wray for Wellcome Collection. © Anna Wray. CC BY-NC-ND.

The shoegaze musician’s head will frequently be directed down towards their feet, partly because that’s where the effects pedals are, but also marking their withdrawal behind a wall of sound.

Mind music 

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.

About the contributors

Photograph of Christine Ro
Christine Ro

Christine Ro is a writer and editor whose work is collected at www.christinero.com.