In contrast to metal and punk, which have been both been extensively discussed in queer musicology writing (due for the most part to the diverse sub-cultural communities the genres have a tendency to create around them), the Shoe-Gazing genre has been awarded remarkably sparse critical attention. This is surprising considering the potential avenues it opens up for discussion with regard to its proprietors’ appropriation and mutation of conventions upheld by traditional, phallocentric rock music. Instead, reception of the experimental, immersive music of foundational Shoe-gazers; Cocteau Twins, The Jesus and Mary Chain and My Bloody Valentine, as well as such protégés as Curve, Slowdive and Ride (all of which are heavily featured in Araki’s work), is divided rather uneasily between the aggravation of rock critics - who scorn complexities of form and act as harbingers of the potential emasculation of their macho fetish object - and the indifference of music theorists, uninterested in the perceived crassness of popular music genres.
The sound is characterised by heavy guitar distortion, a pounding bass line, leisurely (often simulated) drum beat and melodious vocal lines. The latter are frequently so heavily layered and manipulated as to render lyrics incomprehensible and the voice made indistinguishable from other instruments. This characteristic unity and equality of separate parts immediately distinguishes the music from the clear individuation of conventional rock tracks. Furthermore, the negation of lyrical clarity in favour of the use of the voice as a quasi-instrument with affective and meaning-formulating qualities of its own liberates the music from monolithic signification. The music is freed not only from the lyrical world of mainstream rock (pre-dominantly occupied with the expression of masculine bravado and desire), but also in more psychoanalytic terms, from the gendered restraints of language. As music theorist Freya-Jarman-Ivens describes “the issues surrounding the uses of language are deeply embedded in the human psychic make-up, with language figured as part of a fundamentally patriarchal structure: the symbolic realm, which incorporates law, culture, and religion… although female subjects must in some way negotiate entry into the symbolic order, their fundamental exclusion from it is also implicit.” This liberation extends to the characteristic androgyny of lead singers, both in appearance and sound.
If we listen for example to the aforementioned featured Cocteau Twins track ‘Crushed’ we find that lead singer Elizabeth Fraser’s wide ranging vocal levels achieve a level of emotional communication, sophistication and variation entirely without lyrical clarity. An ecstatic verse section is followed by an impatient, almost sarcastic chorus, an effect achieved by Fraser’s voice shifting from staccato high in the first to a droning lower register, drawing out blue notes, in the second. But the quality of the sound goes further than expressing a linear progression of emotions. As Richard Dyer has argued, the conventions of popular song are designed to reach a sense of security and self-containment. This is achieved through the adoption of a strict, in some senses ‘narrative’ structure (AA BA), in which the original melodic phrase is inevitably returned to, whilst the ‘harmonic anchor’ of the song, its tonic note, is invariably also its last. This structure, along with lyrics placed within “a conceptualisation of love and passion as emanating from ‘inside’ the heart or the soul” are symptomatic in popular music in general, of a refusal to engage with the body as the site of erotic pleasure and desire. He further argues that rock’s appropriation of the physicality of rhythm is rendered solely phallic as “thrusting, grinding…not whole-body”.
Such conventions encourage music to signify monolithically. Whether operating according to the terms of a phallocentric sexuality or more broadly functioning to teach the culturally learned codes of passion, such music can in a sense be seen to be ‘telling the story’ of heterosexual couplings and, by implication, the subsequent forward-moving hetero narratives they initiate (attraction, sex, child-rearing, death). By contrast ‘Shoe-gazing’ stands apart from this effect precisely because of its immersive qualities. By provoking a more bodily interaction with form (in contrast to cerebral rock and pop), the music defies narrativity to instead provoke immediate and transient bodily interaction with musical media.
(From Queer Images, Queer Sounds: The Musical Landscape of Mysterious Skin and the Films of Gregg Araki)