Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Shoegazing vs. navel-gazing

Shoegazing was an originally negative term to describe the indie rock sub genre that briefly came to prominence in the UK in the late 1980s and early 90s. Never hugely popular, though it still has a cult following, it was superseded by grunge and Britpop. Some recent bands in America (and other places), including Deerhunter, Atlas Sound, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, Film School and Japandroids have kept the shoegazing banner flying by including elements of it in their music (also called nu gaze).

The term apparently originates from a 1980s Sounds magazine review of a Moose gig in which the singer had his song lyrics taped to the ground to read from. The name stuck and came to define a movement of bands who mostly came from the Thames Valley and whose guitarists performed whilst staring at the ground, either from shyness, being deep in concentration or trying to locate their effects pedals. Either way, the bands didn't like the term, and music journalists didn't like the bands.

Their sound is characterised by loud, distorted guitars with lots of feedback. Vocals are typically mute and droning (haunting if you're being charitable) but not essential. Music critics (nowadays) will use terms like textures, waves, cascades, walls and washes (even lasagnes) of sound to describe shoegazing.

If I'm not really selling you the concept, listen to My Bloody Valentine's Loveless really loud a dozen times. The first few times it'll sound like a painful noise; by the twelfth listen it'll be most beautiful thing you've ever heard. Maybe.

Key bands include My Bloody Valentine, Ride, Lush, Curve, Slowdive, the Boo Radleys and Chapterhouse. Key influences are the Cocteau Twins, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Dinosaur Jr and Sonic Youth. Retrospectively, bands including Galaxie 500, The Cure, Spacemen 3 and Husker Du have shoegazing elements in their music.

Filmmaker Gregg Araki*, a big fan of shoegazing, likes to include examples of the music in his films, including bands Ride, Lush, My Bloody Valentine and Slowdive, as well as lots of geeky shoegazing references only diehard fans will get. Similarly, Sophia Coppola used shoegazing bands for the soundtrack to her film Lost in Translation, even managing to coax Kevin Shields out of bed to write a few tunes.

Navel-gazing refers to excessive introspection and self-absorption. In music, this manifests itself in the work of Leonard Cohen.

*A recent Guardian interview with Gregg Araki discussing shoegazing was most interesting for the numerous comments by shoegazing fans reminiscing about the old days. I'm not sure anyone even mentioned Araki's films, though I personally think they're great.

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