In California, where there is little discernible weather to indicate the change of seasons (other than a recent surplus of wildfires), Halloween has always served as an important anchor for the onset of fall. You know that the season of blustery days and pumpkin spice mania is upon us when old strip mall mattress outlets turn into Spirit stores, the Walgreens aisles fill with fun size Milky Way Midnights, and you start considering whether you can hop house parties all night without a jacket. It's a feeling that change is coming, marking a definitive point in the year that is entirely relative to the loss of summer and the approach of winter. Fall is a time of transformation, and Halloween offers a night to shapeshift into whatever you want to be, whether that's Alice Cooper or a sexy can of White Claw.
But this year, there will be no pogoing to a techno remix of the "Monster Mash" or dipping of Solo cups into a crystal bowl of jungle juice while two guys dressed as Bob Ross and Post Malone fight over the aux cord. Per guidelines issued last month by the Los Angeles County health department, Halloween is (understandably) cancelled this year—and we're going to have to find some other way to envelop ourselves in the unique feelings that this season typically brings. Thankfully, we have shoegaze, the perfect music for sinking into that weird emotional intersection of anticipation, tranquility, and pining for old times.
If you clicked on this article, you probably already have some familiarity with shoegaze. But in case you are not a child of the 90s or someone who owns a lot of vintage sweaters, the term, by popular definition, refers to a group of predominantly British late 80s/early 90s alternative rock bands that used pedals and effects to make their guitars loud, psychedelic, fuzzy, and swirly, and their vocals soft and distorted, with lyrics that are generally obtuse and descriptive rather than narrative. My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive, Ride, and the Jesus and Mary Chain are among the most well-known shoegaze bands, but there are a million great ones: Chapterhouse, Catherine Wheel, Swervedriver, Lush, Pale Saints, Lilys, Swirlies, et cetera.
Over the past decade and change, a new generation of shoegaze has emerged that has both carried the torch and broadened the definition, from French electronic act M83 to indie rock headliners Deerhunter and Beach House to heavier new acts like Nothing and Narrow Head. What all of these artists have in common is an atmospheric quality conveyed through the power of guitars (and maybe some synths), resulting in something between a wall of noise and what Kip Berman of nu-gaze band The Pains of Being Pure of Heart once described as "sort of a John Hughes, magical feeling." Like obscenity, shoegaze has now become one of those things that you just kind of “know when you see it.”
As the lore goes, the term "shoegaze" or "shoegazing" was created in 1990 by Andy Ross of Food Records, an early hater of the genre, as a way of poking fun at how the members of these bands would look down on stage rather than out into the crowd. (Maybe they were deep in thought, but in all likelihood they were just fiddling around with their many guitar pedals.) Dream pop—a term allegedly coined by Alex Aluyi of A.R. Kane—is a parallel genre to shoegaze, and the terms are often used near-interchangeably, although the former seems to more frequently apply to bands that have women vocalists, like Cocteau Twins and Lush. Either name makes sense, though; this is music that is built for woolgathering and ruminating. It is both familiar and slightly unsettling, conjuring old memories or offering a space for listeners to trip out on new ones.
For these reasons, shoegaze is an ideal medium for capturing the unique brew of emotions we experience in the cooling days of October: that wistful fall feeling, a back-to-school restlessness we have been programmed since our teens to associate with the arrival of moodier, gustier weather, combining nervousness, yearning, and a higher-than-normal volume of ruminative daydreaming.
Compared to the cherry-blossom cheerfulness of spring or the sun-kissed pleasures of summer, the spiritual complexity of fall is characteristically difficult to pin down. On one hand, it's a time for excitement, as though anything is possible. In an essay for The New Statesman from 2014, Tracey Thorn, the vocalist of 90s alternative rock act Everything But the Girl, describes fall as a time that is strangely nostalgic, but also brimming with possibilities. "I find it hard to picture myself in daylight when I look back," she writes. "It seems we were always on our way somewhere through the dusk, the streetlights were always glowing, the evening stretched ahead, as did our whole lives."
On the other, it's a time of loss, as though summer's (or our youth's) seeming endlessness was all a trick. Slightly depressive types truly thrive in autumn—it is when we are confronted with the shimmer of existentialism that really turns us on, the poetic stage of our annual onset of Seasonal Affective Disorder, one that both grieves the passage of time and celebrates the psychic scars that it leaves behind. "[Fall is] a reminder that all things come to an end, even the longest, stickiest hot days of summer, when your freedom felt cast so wide it seemed it would carry on forever," explains writer Elizabeth Burnam in a Medium post titled "Autumn Nostalgia: Confronting the Inevitability of Change." "[When] autumn comes, and you remember that you’re only a visitor on this planet… You are confronted, once again, with inevitable, inescapable change."
Artists have been exploring this cruel and beautiful ephemerality for centuries, even millennia. (Dali's The Persistence of Memory may be a work of surrealism, but with its languid, melted clocks and golden-hour light, it unmistakably inhabits the vibe of fall.) It is the central theme of one of Robert Frost's finest poems, "Nothing Gold Can Stay," as well as the root feeling of several words in different languages that have no direct translation in English. There is a Japanese term, mono no aware, that denotes a pathos for the inevitable loss that comes with life, a recognition of the bittersweetness of how things cannot last, no matter how beautiful. In Portuguese, there is the word saudade, which could be roughly equated with nostalgia but refers to a more specific feeling: the state of missing someone tenderly, or longing for something that is lost in some capacity.
As we watch the leaves turn and realize that the end of the year is approaching, this is the signature emotion of fall. And many of the mental images that we have come to associate with the season—in modern times, those teen angst flashbacks; the pursuit of hygge; the tingle of a middle-school crush; memories of driving through the quiet streets of your hometown with a favorite CD in the stereo—all these things only become all the more indulgent, more potent, by listening to shoegaze. There is a pervasive but unsubstantiated myth that drinking orange juice when taking LSD will make you trip harder; if autumn is the LSD, shoegaze is the orange juice, or vice versa.
It probably has something to do with shoegaze's distinctively tactile quality, its experiments in production that paint abstract, ethereal images, from guitars as fuzzy as an old wool blanket to vocals that sound like whispers in an empty hallway. Speaking to Pitchfork in 2016, Pete Kember of Spaceman 3 described shoegaze as "creating sounds you could actually taste and smell." Many of its songs explore sensory perception, playing with themes of time ("Morningrise," "Soon"), the elements ("When the Sun Hits," "Vapour Trail"), color ("Cherry-Coloured Funk," "Black Metallic," "Elizabeth Colour Wheel") and taste ("Just Like Honey," "Sweetness and Light"). Above all, though, shoegaze is an attempt to capture and illuminate those in-between moods that are not pure happiness or sadness or love or frustration, but a combination of all these things. If contemporary pop music is a bright, saturated photo taken with a top-of-the-line digital SLR, shoegaze is a faded Polaroid found tucked in a drawer. In a way, the lack of clarity is the point.
It's no wonder that early reviews of My Bloody Valentine's now-seminal 1991 album Loveless, which many fans and critics consider the blueprint for the genre, focused less on the specifics of any particular song than the record's holistic evocation of a sort of everyday melancholy. In a review of Loveless for the Chicago Sun-Times, writer Jim DeRogatis argued, "The goal on Loveless was to capture the feeling of walking downtown on a Sunday morning when the streets are deserted and you feel strangely uncomfortable, despite the familiar surroundings." Writing for Rolling Stone, Ira Robbins said that the album "oozes a sonic balm that first embraces and then softly pulverizes the frantic stress of life." It is music eager to convey interior moments that defy words, and fleeting, everyday scenes within our lives.
If it seems like shoegaze's perspective is markedly suburban, that's because it is—and that's largely by design. When shoegaze first came to prominence, some critics took issue with the fact that many of its bands came from comfortable middle-class backgrounds. (A now-infamous photo of Slowdive posing with some fancy cars didn't help.) While this was an oversimplified view, many shoegaze artists did grow up in the suburbs: Kevin Shields of My Bloody Valentine was born in Queens, New York, then spent his teen years in the suburbs of Dublin, where the band was formed, and both Slowdive and Chapterhouse came out of Reading, a market town 40 miles outside of London. Much like the disdain for the ‘art school kids’ of early-aughts indie, detractors scoffed at the seemingly affected melancholy of these privileged musicians. What, they wondered, were they so eager to find escapism from? What offers them all this free time to ruminate while fiddling around with reverb pedals? On her 2017 song "Shoegazers," Australian artist Jen Cloher sang, "Indie rock is full of privileged white kids / I know because I’m one of them / Who else has the luxury to gaze backwards?"
But the lack of excitement in the quaint, supermarket mundanity of the suburbs is a crucial character in shoegaze: Boredom can sometimes help to spawn a creativity that is inward-facing. Growing up in a boring town promotes daydreaming, and daydreaming is a pretty fundamental part of the human condition, especially when you're young. "Too much music these days is about how bad these towns are, about everyday life, and all the dull details," neo-shoegaze artist Ulrich Schnauss, who grew up in the small German town of Kiel, told The Guardian in 2007. "Shoegazing is a way out of that—there's melancholy in it, but lots of heaven there, too."
When the very idea of nostalgia came about in the 17th century, it was initially considered a serious mental illness, a sort of ‘mania of longing’ or extreme form of homesickness. According to The Atlantic:
"During the Thirty Years War, at least six soldiers were discharged from the Spanish Army of Flanders with el mal de corazón. The disease came to be associated with soldiers, particularly Swiss soldiers, who were reportedly so susceptible to nostalgia when they heard a particular Swiss milking song, Khue-Reyen, that its playing was punishable by death."
Fall was especially worrisome, as the changing foliage seemed like a serious trigger for the ailment, causing soldiers to long for their families and the safety of their homes. Recent studies have found, however, that nostalgia is largely a positive coping mechanism, a tool that can help us soothe loneliness, or reestablish connection to a world from which we're feeling alienated. Our brain has created it to help us retreat to a safer emotional place when we're feeling out of sorts, which is likely why nostalgia and 'coziness' feel interconnected.
Many of us in our 20s and 30s see the memories of our youth as intertwined with the music of the 90s, which was dominated by grunge and alternative rock. But, in pop culture's predictable habit of operating in a cycle, the disheveled, guitar-driven aesthetics of 90s alternative has also found a new audience in Gen Z. Last year, exploring the genre's resurgence, Spotify pulled listener statistics and found that the biggest shoegaze fans aren't limited to the genre's original fan base—i.e., GenXers—but also teenagers. Many contemporary artists are not only nodding to shoegaze, but building upon it in new ways, like Nothing's synthesis of Slowdive’s wavy riffs with the melodicism of Oasis and the heaviness of Deftones, or Narrow Head's take on neo-grunge that pulls equally from Smashing Pumpkins and Swervedriver. The shoegaze revival may feel like a trend, but it's "the opposite of hype," Schnauss told The Guardian, explaining the timelessness of its setting and purpose. "It's about standing at a gig or walking around with your headphones on and being completely transported. It's about that kind of beauty."
Like any genre of music, shoegaze, with its blaring fuzz and forays into stoner depressiveness, isn't for everyone. Back in 1991, Richey Edwards of the Manic Street Preachers said he "hated [Slowdive] more than Hitler," and in 1993, a writer from Melody Maker said he would “rather drown choking in a bath full of porridge” than listen to a Slowdive record again. But there are other ways to tickle the nostalgic tentacles in your brain than to go out and buy a bunch of rare Slowdive EPs—you don't even have to listen to shoegaze at all. The same emotional spectrums can be found in chillwave, vaporwave, and jazz, all of which aim to quench different moods of nostalgia, and are imbued with the introspectiveness so suiting for the season. Mulatu Astatke's Ethiojazz classic "Tezeta (Nostalgia)" has no guitar pedals—or lyrics for that matter. But with its velvety saxophone and tenderly meandering keys, it is a perfect evocation of bittersweetness, which might make it one of the greatest shoegaze songs of them all.
This autumn, with the pandemic and the isolation and the election and all that, we're facing a reality that feels pretty far from the summer days when we felt like we’d be young forever. But ultimately, this is just one more year to stack on top of your own collage of semi-transparent memories, eventually blurring together into one colorful haze. On "Monochrome," the closing track of Lush's 1992 album Spooky, vocalist Miki Berenyi sings, "When I lost control I was cold / and I felt old." Winter will come, and we will all get old (if you aren’t already). But until then, you might as well wrap yourself in a cozy old sweatshirt and throw on a shoegaze record. In a daydream, you can still be as young as you wanna be.
Hilary Pollack is VICE’s deputy culture editor. You can follow her on Twitter here.