The day the shops re-opened after the UK’s third national lockdown, I took a trip to Rough Trade East. Among the fellow vinyl scavengers were a group of three teenagers, who giddily scurried to the till once they’d come across a copy of Slowdive’s sophomore record, Souvlaki, which was released in 1993.
This trio of retro-loving Gen Zers aren’t alone when it comes to a modern-day love for shoegaze. Currently, the hashtag #shoegaze has 31.1m total views on TikTok, with the names of seminal shoegaze outfits My Bloody Valentine and Slowdive racking up a further 22.7m and 24.1m total views respectively.
To give a little context: Shoegaze was a label given to a sub-genre of reverb-heavy, late eighties alt-rock. The name was coined as a way of lumping together a group of bands – Ride, My Bloody Valentine, The Jesus and Mary Chain – for their tendency to stare at a complex puddle of foot pedals when performing.
Pretty quickly, the term became a way to lambast those who appeared to make moody tunes. “We became labelled as a bunch of boring, middle-class students, not really engaging with an audience,” says Miki Berenyi, former member of Lush and now member of Piroshka. “Which was totally unfair, I have to say, given that there’s more fucking middle-class people in Britpop than in shoegaze.”
By the time 1993 rolled around, publications such as Melody Maker were publishing that they would “rather drown choking in a bath full of porridge,” than listen to another Slowdive record. Instead, the music press dedicated column inches to the “Cool Britannia” bravado of Damon Albarn, lanky Jarvis Cocker and the proper madferit Gallagher brothers.
Thirty years on and the barometers of cool couldn’t be more different. Across TikTok, you’ll find Cocteau Twins-inspired make-up tutorials, Addison Rae edited dancing to MBV and e-girls burning incense and caressing their crystals in the hope of manifesting a “shoegaze bf”. My Bloody Valentine signed to Domino Records last month and (finally) added their full back catalogue to streaming services. Miley Cyrus is covering Mazzy Star.
“I feel like more people are moving towards that dream-like, distorted sound that never used to be too popular with Gen Z and beyond, until it started showing up on TikTok,” says Kelsie Herzog, a 23-year-old from Wisconsin, who uses the platform to recommend lesser well-known shoegaze bands like Slow Crush and the Lilys.
Herzog says she got into shoegaze “about a year or two ago”, but was particularly drawn to the genre through the pandemic. “[Shoegaze] feels like a giant fuzzy hug! Lots of people search for comfort music and I think shoegaze is a great contender,” she says.
In actual new musical terms, there’s been an increase in musicians adopting the reverb-laden sound. Spotify reported that there were twice as many shoegaze recordings released (or re-released) in 2018 than in 1996.
The Blossom (AKA Lily Lizotte) could easily be Gen Z’s answer to Mazzy Star. Signed to Kevin Abstract and Romil Hemnani’s label Video Store, the non-binary musician says they knew they wanted to make shoegaze from the jump.
“I find myself really leaning and reaching for things that are more textural and melodic and repetitive, as well,” says Lizotte, who was introduced to the genre through a combination of their father’s suggestions and hours spent scouring YouTube and SoundCloud.
Brisbane-born artist Joe Agius – who goes by the alias RINSE – says channelling a shoegaze sound came completely natural to him: “I think it was half me being very insecure about my singing and instrument playing that I would completely smother things in effects, and half my ears sonically being attracted to creating big walls of sound,” he says.
Mark Richardson, critic for The Wall Street Journal and former editor-in-chief of Pitchfork, says shoegaze’s appeal today comes down to its DIY obtainability. “You can make music at home alone with your computer and headphones and make a version of shoegaze,” he says, adding that the steady mixing of genders in the genre’s most prolific bands, Slowdive and Lush included, makes shoegaze seem “especially welcoming and inclusive”.
But when you bring TikTok into the equation, is it just a bunch of sad boys with heavy fringes trying to shove their obscure music taste down your throat? Or is being into shoegaze a new way to gloat how you’re “not like the other girls”?
Well, there’s a bit of that, but as Dev Lemons, a 21 year-old TikTok creator who unpacks hidden meanings of songs, reckons, the genre’s “blend of softness and chaos sonically feels like the experience of growing up”.
You only have to look at the Cocteau Twins-inspired Insta meme page to see how the genre is now attuned to life online. “I think there is a direct parallel between shoegaze and meme culture,” adds Lizotte. “I think because the stereotype of who listens to shoegaze is this melancholy, internet-tapped boy or girl, the music has become the flying flag for that subculture.”
16-year-old Jude Atkins says they got into shoegaze “about a year ago” through memes about My Bloody Valentine, but has stayed past the LOLs. “The atmosphere of shoegaze really fits with the bleak, post-COVID, world we’re in. Everyone’s trapped inside and shoegaze has a very dreamy quality to it,” says Atkins.
You could dismiss Miley Cyrus’ cover of Mazzy Star’s “Fade Into You”, back in January, as the catalyst for the current shoegaze resurgence. Though as Richardson points out: “there is something "unfinished" about shoegaze, a sense that something big was about to happen but it never quite did.”
By failing to attain mass popularity in the 90s, the likes of Slowdive, MBV and Lush come as rare, hidden gems, that Generation TikTok have claimed as their own.
“As a 18/19-year-old, you want to listen to cool, undiscovered, non-chart music. It’s a bit more yours,” says Berenyi. “I think you can put your own identity on it then as well, that nobody 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.”