They didn’t sell a lot of records, but everyone who heard them started a band.”
Still from 'Beautiful Noise'
Beautiful Noise, the recently-released documentary about shoegaze music and culture, opens with Channel 10 News reporting on a Cocteau Twins concert at the Newport Music Hall in Columbus, Ohio. “Critics say that this band is going to be influencing mainstream rock n’ roll music for years to come”, a reporter states in his perfect (albeit audibly confused) American Newscaster English. Neither the reporter nor Robin Guthrie of the Cocteau Twins himself could have predicted just how important of a legacy the band would leave in their wake. Today, it’s basically a given that bands all along the dream pop spectrum cite the Cocteau Twins among their biggest influences, a role that extends outward to the UK’s rich early 90s shoegaze scene as a whole.
The echoes of this short-lived underground community reverberate through rock music today, something that Beautiful Noise, a long-rumored project that was finally crowdfunded into existence earlier this year, deftly illustrates through interviews with both scene luminaries like My Bloody Valentine's Kevin Shields and musicians across the rock spectrum who followed in shoegaze's wake. Shoegaze’s greatest legacy in music was the notion that guitar-driven music can be an Impressionist painting, which, through layers of effects and buried vocals, can be so amorphous that the only true interpretation comes from the mind of each individual listener.
Introspection was key with shoegaze and dream pop, and both My Bloody Valentine's Deb Googe and Robin Guthrie speak about this aspect of their music in the film. Guthrie muses on how the Cocteau Twins gave listeners “a lot of room to think”: Liz Fraser, who famously sang in a divine, abstract tongue of her own creation, never presented her lyrics as an insight into her personal thoughts. To attempt to construe meaning from the Cocteau Twins is impossible, as the music relies upon nonrepresentational interpretation with Fraser's saccharine vocalized emotion as its only framework. These same ideas continue to play out in contemporary music. For example, Deafheaven’s ecclesiastical "wall of sound" approach to black metal mirrors Slowdive’s borderless guitars, as both bands draw on a philosophy of noise as a tool of introspection.
Beautiful Noise is also effective in pointing out another aspect of the original shoegaze scene: its gender duality. Shoegaze in its early 90s heyday was far more friendly to women-identified musicians than the dominant rock genres at that point. Often, we think of Riot Grrrl and the Lilith Fair community as being the most feminist music scenes, and hold them up as examples of what inclusivity in music can look like—they were alternative music landscapes by—and for—women. However, shoegaze was ahead of its time in that men and women played music alongside one another. Consider the confluence of notable female musicians in the more popular shoegaze bands: Bilinda Butcher and Deb Googe of My Bloody Valentine, Emma Anderson and Miki Berenyi of Lush, and Rachel Goswell of Slowdive.
While shoegaze never set out specifically to include women, it was certainly not outwardly hostile to women in the same way that most rock was up until that point. It was a much more subtle form of egalitarianism, with the idea that women could be included solely on the basis of their musicianship. They were simply equals, and it was not an issue. In a brief interview for the documentary, rock critic Jim DeRogatis observes that bands like Slowdive and My Bloody Valentine were almost past the dominant misogynistic attitudes in rock, noting that “Deb Googe was in the band because she was a great bass player, period.”
Still from 'Beautiful Noise'
The shoegaze scene was feminist for its time—not in a brash, DIY manner like Riot Grrrl (which had its own issues with inclusion)—but in a quiet way that eschewed fanfare for the understated act of men and women staring at guitar pedals together on stage. My Bloody Valentine’s best and more enduring lineup was 50 percent female, a percentage that even today is elusive in most indie circles. Shoegaze has also centered around a concept of conventional femininity as integral to its core aesthetic. Tumblr-friendly pastel colors of album art are soft and muted, female vocals are sweetly hushed, and male presumptuousness is refreshingly off the radar. Sadness and sensuality coexist dynamically in the walls of pink noise. There is a joke in the shoegaze community that every single My Bloody Valentine song is about oral sex, but it's the kind of oral sex taking place in a pleasant sunlit bedroom with a gentle lover.
The men who created shoegaze were, by design, required to embrace aspects of femininity in order to continue their sonic craft, which necessarily weeded out machismo attitude to a rather impressive degree. When listening to My Bloody Valentine, sometimes it is difficult to tell where Bilinda Butcher’s vocal parts and Kevin Shields’ begin. Shoegaze beautifully blurs gender conformation in much the same way it blurs heavily reverbed Jazzmasters.
The success of female musicians in UK rock was short-lived, however. Britpop’s glamorization of the frustrated, white, working-class everyman effectively pushed out women from a scene that they helped create. Kevin Shields laments that “When Nirvana and Britpop happened, it was a reaffirmation of the old energy.”
Still, rock music today owes much to shoegaze, even if many music fans aren't aware of the legacy. Shoegaze was very much a tiny genre by and for die-hard music nerds. The film’s tagline—“They didn’t sell a lot of records, but everyone who heard them started a band”—is not meant to be disparaging, but rather is a succinct affirmation that commercial success and influence exist on two different spectrums. Sometimes these spectrums align, but sometimes they don’t, and that’s okay, because quantifying influence is a tricky undertaking.
Still from 'Beautiful Noise'
It cannot be denied that rock music was changed because a handful of men and women decided to experiment with reverb. A montage of contemporary shoegaze and dream pop-influenced bands closes Beautiful Noise. We see the Jesus and Mary Chain’s arrogant riots lovingly reborn in Oliver Ackermann’s thrashing A Place to Bury Strangers performances and Slowdive’s gentle vocal breeze living on through the band I Break Horses. Thanks to the preservationism and communities fostered by the internet, some of the original shoegaze bands (notably, My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive, and Ride) have even reformed recently to critical and commercial success—the kind that was elusive in their halcyon days of the Scene that Celebrated Itself. Shoegaze was a tiny underground scene in the 90s, but Beautiful Noise implores us not to ignore the precious gifts the genre has given us: impressionism as a tool of self-exploration and femininity as a valid, powerful creative force.
Follow Meagan Fredette on Twitter.