Even if you were unaware, there’s a war going on over the term “shoegaze”. No, seriously. Whether it be a battle over the validity of the term itself, versus its original coining “shoegazing” over on Wikipedia, or snarky ‘historical’ articles on HuffPoUK, there is a nerd war over the appropriate genre descriptor. The Wikipedia argument is a clusterbomb in itself, so we will herewith focus on Andy Ross’ article for Huffington Post, which, while accurately sourced, ignores useful historical and grammatical detail relevant to the argument.
Long story shortened, shoegaze (and shoegazing) essentially refers to the stage talent’s fixation on their effects pedals, rather than engaging with the audience during live performance. Reasonably referred to as “dream pop”, shoegaze is a term that was born out of the British music press’ bastardization of language.
Esteemed British music weekly Melody Maker was the first to coin the term, “The Scene That Celebrates Itself”. While Steve Sutherland could hardly call that a genre descriptor, it was effectively used to describe a loose affiliation of bands, friends and fans who hewed to a similar sonic and textural aesthetic; a mutual appreciation society, if you will. A small slight, perhaps, but nothing that might generate larger offense.
If Andy Ross’ piece is to be believed, he takes full credit for the term “shoegazing”. And he describes the pejorative (Americans, read: ‘insult’) behind the term’s origin. “This affiliation naturally attracted much, er, ribbing, particularly once I’d pointed out to Polly that the band’s idea of compelling stagecraft seemed to be a comprehensive uninterest in proceedings on, and in the immediate vicinity of, the stage, specifically when they were squatting it for forty minutes or so. They also appeared to be sucked into a state of trance by the footwear lurking semi-motionless beneath their low-slung guitars.”
If the etiology, the origin story, is to be believed, the pejorative term was dropped into casual conversation by the author over a lunch with Steve Lamacq and Simon Williams, both at the time writing for that monument to muck, the New Musical Express. Say what you will about the 90’s British music press (and many have), the NME cherished its role as critical troll more than most, and surely more than their prime competitor, Melody Maker, ever did. While both papers initially viewed ‘the scene’ with some skepticism, NME remained the most critical of both the scene and the bands involved. By the time Steve Sutherland left Melody Maker to edit the NME, the British press had effectively killed the scene. These music weeklies were often seen as elitist by bands both in and outside the genre: their whims of taste, and demands for 1979 punk-era “realness”, rolled over an entire scene as being “posh” and detached. All while NME was celebrating the virtues of Carter U.S.M. as the “next big thing”. Steve Lamacq is given credit for in-print first use of the insult on a popular platform, well in time for the collapse of the genre that his press helped to vilify.
Meanwhile, across the globe… music press was opening ears to the scene and the sound. Armed with AP’s Stylebook, and Strunk & White’s Elements of Style, folks off the island tried to take this pejorative, malformed genre descriptor, and lend some legitimacy. By this time, “shoegazing” as a term had already stuck in the U.K., but elsewhere it had to conform to certain norms. First: if kept as such, it would be the only known genre as a form-of-verb. Consider this: what other semi-popular genre is coined as an activity? Polka-ing? Punk-ing? Even “dance music”, as a generic descriptor, is never considered “dancing music”. So that’s a fail right off, then. At least “shoegaze” conformed to the established standard. Second: “shoegazing” was coined as an insult to the artists who practiced this sound, and wasn’t embraced or adopted by the practitioners themselves. So, while the international press were stuck with the ‘shoegazing’ moniker, they didn’t have to allow it to stick as coined for both reasons. Surely there was no legitimate need to antagonize the bands or their fans by describing them as listless and unengaging, plus getting closer to the Queen’s English was surely the appropriate approach. Not that the Queen labels many genres in her spare time…
We were avid consumers of the British music weeklies at the time. Not only for their rapturous coverage of My Bloody Valentine’s Tremolo EP, or their torrid live concerts, but for a whole crop of bands that sprung up around them, with widely varied interpretations of the sound. Slowdive, Cranes, Chapterhouse, Ride, Swervedriver, Lush… so many different approaches, with a loose connection to a specific sonic ethos. The weekly trip to Tower Records was always rewarding, to see what the scene was up to. Occasionally picking up NME, always picking up Melody Maker, didn’t take long for some of us (points to author) to subscribe to Melody Maker on import for two years, at ridiculous cost. No regrets. It was the only reliable, legitimate coverage of the sound to be found anywhere. By the time NME trotted out “shoegazing” as a term, the scene had pretty much been strangled in the crib by the critics who’d moved on, in an attempt to distance themselves from any of their previous praise.
For our part, you’ll never catch us publicly uttering the term “shoegazing”, for all the reasons listed above. We do have a reverence and respect for both the bands and the fans who love them. Plus, we can speak the Queen’s English. Or the President’s English, at least. A war rages on to either legitimize, or re-legitimize “shoegazing” for the world’s populace. We’re having none of it. We were there. We’ll take less insulting terminology, and proper English parlance, any day of the week. At least “shoegaze” reasonably conforms to both of those. Had we been responsible for giving birth to the term “shoegazing”, we’d not only be embarrassed to publicly admit it, but we’d have tried to drown any evidence of it in the nearest bathtub. Selah.
DJ Heretic (Greg Wilson) is an over-the-hill radio raconteur, who has never used the term “shoegazing” in polite conversation. This rant is only evidence of his indisputable role as a shoegaze n3rd, and is not reflective of the attitudes of the greater world music press, Queen Elizabeth, or President Obama. He may be contacted here.
Above photo: Bellavista in live performance, DreamGaze Festival, San Francisco, CA, taken by the author.