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Music Dissecting Gen-Z’s shoegaze obsession

Jan. 11, 2022
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Shoegaze is a genre you either firmly love or firmly hate. Someone’s trash is another’s treasure—or in this case, someone’s vacuum cleaner-esque noise is another’s dreamy distortion rock.

Three years ago, I too would’ve dismissed shoegaze as noisy dad rock. Now, I’m among the growing number of Gen-Zers who have become entranced by it. 

Like many trends created and revived by Zoomers, shoegaze has garnered a striking base on TikTok. As of writing, the hashtag has over 38M views. This increase has been noted by Spotify, too—in 2018, there were twice as many shoegaze recordings released or rereleased as there were in 1996. That number is only growing. 

For those who need a primer, shoegaze was coined by the British press in the ‘80s to describe a wave of bands using a plethora of pedals to create an overwhelming wall of sound. Shoegaze’s namesake emerged when it was observed that many of the guitarists seldom looked up from their shoes while performing. 

At the heart of shoegaze is the reverb pedal; it’s what gives it that dreamy, delicious psychedelic sound. Distortion is also key; most shoegaze tunes go through a hefty process of sound engineering. Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine—one of the most well-known bands of the genre—once revealed that an astonishing 45 engineers were involved in the construction of their 1991 album Loveless (though only 16 were credited on the album).  

“It honestly feels like a bit of a hug to me,” TikTok music historian organicgranola says about the genre in a video detailing the history of shoegaze. “But it’s an acquired taste.”

Indeed, for many, warming up to shoegaze can feel a bit like training yourself to enjoy black coffee. While some can manage to wean themselves off cream and sugar and enjoy the rich, decadent taste, others will always prefer a lighter cup. It’s all inherently a tad snobbish—but a lot of the time, there comes a point where the overwhelmingly distorted guitar becomes a comforting, lucid melody. 

Yet, why, thirty years later, has shoegaze made such a comeback? And why does it appeal to Gen Z specifically? 

A browse through the shoegaze hashtag on TikTok delivers album recommendations, 20-second demos from emerging bands, and of course, a slew of teens broadcasting their intentions to manifest a shoegaze boyfriend. The folks who post with the shoegaze hashtag don’t mind deviating from the norm. They have no intention of conforming to any specific ideal. 

At the same time, identity remains a key player in the genre’s revival. The fact that shoegaze has been reclaimed mostly by alternative teens is no accident—fundamentally, shoegaze has always been a genre for outsiders (or at least those who claim to be). They’re finding out who they are alongside their musical cocktail of Slowdive, Pale Saints, and Mazzy Star. 

“As an 18 or 19-year-old, you want to listen to cool, undiscovered, non-chart music. It’s a bit more yours,” Miki Berenyi, a former member of the shoegaze band Lush said in a VICE article. “I think you can put your own identity on it then as well, that no one else knows who the fuck these people are. Your peers can’t really sneer at it and if they do, they’re just fucking stupid that they don’t understand.” 

Could there be a correlation between the shoegaze renaissance and a year of collective isolation? Perhaps. In a recent article for VICE, Paul Toner suggests that Gen Z’s resurrection of shoegaze is, above all, a representation of the “bleak, post-COVID world” we’re in and all the melancholy that has pervaded throughout. At the same time, he argues that shoegaze has “unfinished business”; most of the bands never truly made it big in the ‘80s and ‘90s, so rediscovering them feels a bit like finishing what was started. 

Still, the shoegaze revival doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Shoegaze’s love child (or cool nephew), bedroom pop, arguably couldn’t exist without the dreamy distortions of bands like Cocteau Twins. Bedroom pop, which is described as the “product of young, budget singer-songwriters who want to share their music with the world,” borrows largely from the DIY distortion techniques of shoegaze. Before the dreamy indie-pop sounds of bands like Alvvays and Beach Fossils, there were shoegaze bands like The Jesus and Mary Chain and Broadcast who laid the foundations of the DIY, echoey reverb style. 

It’s easy to dismiss the escapism element of shoegaze as a feature of nearly every musical genre, but shoegaze serves up something different; its notorious style is hallmarked by melding vocals and instrumentals into a poetic, lucid melange. Its famed wall-of-sound production technique is what truly makes it stand out. The intention of the shoegaze band is to test the limits of the music studio, going above and beyond traditional stylistic boundaries. It creates an ethereal vortex for its listeners to take refuge, wherever and whenever they need a break from reality.

As an article in Underground muses, “the pre-occupied shoegazers on stage are playing for those who are just as coy as them, who crave nothing but a wall of sound and crescendo to drown out bad thoughts. The mere desire of experiencing heavy distortion and feedback is all that matters. There is no need to be performative, as agreed by both the performers and the gig-goers.” This unwritten agreement between the listener and the performer is what makes shoegaze so unique: it’s anti-performative. There is no struggle for perfection—the intentional distortion throws all traditional metrics of musical sophistication out the window.  

The shoegaze renaissance represents our collective desire to escape from the confines of the times—the most solitary year of our lives. Shoegaze encapsulates the defining mixtape of emotions we’ve encountered this past year—melancholy, solitude, and yearning—and by magic of the reverb pedal, merges them all into one liminal feeling. 

It’s also just really fucking good.