Tobi Vail was a founding member of Bikini Kill, one of the best and fieriest bands to emerge from the riot grrrl movement in the 90s. With an abrasive sound and radical feminist anthems, it was music with a point to be made; Bikini Kill knew what they cared about and they proclaimed it loudly.
It probably shouldn’t be surprising, then, that Vail finds little substantive quality in the shoegaze and dream pop genres. The drummer and activist set Music Twitter alight this week with her posts about the apoliticism and swirling apathy of those two genres.
“Can someone explain to my why people who play guitar have decided to revive shoegaze/dream pop and embrace dumb retro shit like Weezer in an era filled with violence, economic inequality, and abortion bans? The guitar pedal industrial complex is not the sound of the revolution,” she said.
“Sorry to be so grumpy but I couldn’t make it until noon before clicking on another touring band only to be assaulted by the sound of their dumb guitar pedal bullshit.”
Can someone explain to my why people who play guitar have decided to revive shoegaze/dream pop and embrace dumb retro shit like Weezer in an era filled with violence, economic inequality, and abortion bans? The guitar pedal industrial complex is not the sound of the revolution.
— Tobi Vail (@mstobivail) November 20, 2021
The past couple of years have been marked by a strong resurgence in shoegaze. My Bloody Valentine, the greatest band from the genre, released their entire discography on streaming platforms for the first time in March; dream pop icons Beach House returned with the first four songs of their new album just a few weeks ago, sounding as momentously majestic as ever.
A scene has even sprung up in San Francisco of all places, largely based around the excellent Paisley Shirt Records, with numerous bands delicately utilising intense feedback, elusive vocals, and haunting distortion. There doesn’t seem to be a grand reason for this revival in shoegaze and dream pop; music has always been very cyclical.
After Twitter users commented and quote tweeted Vail en-masse, she doubled down. “What I’ve learned today: a bunch of assholes really like the music I dislike and misunderstand the question I’m asking: why are people who play guitar focused on performative introversion, abstract soundscapes, and banal formalism while there are literal fascists on the streets?”
What I've learned today: a bunch of assholes really like the music I dislike and misunderstand the question I'm asking: why are people who play guitar focused on performative introversion, abstract soundscapes, and banal formalism while there are literal fascists on the streets?
— Tobi Vail (@mstobivail) November 20, 2021
What it comes down to is a fundamentally diametric understanding of what art is, or what it should be. For someone like Vail, whose entire existence in the 90s necessitated incorporating politics into everything she did, to smash the patriarchy and prove the immense talent of female musicians, the idea of abstract expressionism will of course be anathema to her.
Does a retreat into sonic obscurity also mean a retreat into privilege? In an NYT op-ed last year, the writer Viet Thanh Nguyen discussed the future of literature in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s Presidency.
“The mainstream — poetry and fiction written by white, well-educated people and regulated by a reviewing, publishing and gate-keeping apparatus that is mostly white and privileged — tends to be apolitical,” Nguyen wrote.
“But Mr. Trump destroyed the ability of white writers to dwell in the apolitical. Everyone had to make a choice, especially in the face of a pandemic and the killing of George Floyd, both of which brought the life-or-death costs of systemic racism and economic inequality into painful focus.”
He continued: “But in 2021, will writers take a deep breath of relief and retreat back to the politics of the apolitical, which is to say a retreat back to white privilege? Explicit politics in American poetry and fiction has mostly been left to the marginalized: writers of color, queer and trans writers, feminist writers, anticolonial writers.”
You can easily imagine Vail agreeing with Nguyen’s words. She was a figure of this marginalised group in the 90s; when the last five years have probably been even more dangerous than that decade, you can understand where her frustration stems from.
It’s important to note, though, that art can be just made for art’s sake, which is what a lot of commenters were quick to emphasise. The last 20 months of suffocating lockdowns and overwhelming insecurity have required – certainly for me at least – an immense amount of escapism.
I listened to Slowdive repeatedly, needing to be awash in their nullifying volume and melancholic introspection. I kept returning to Vashti Bunyan’s Just Another Diamond Day, imagining I was back home in Scotland on a beautifully remote island just like the folk singer. There is a reason, to make a more general point, that so many millions of us watched Tiger King at the start of the pandemic.
This is all to say the the choice for art remains up to the individual: put away your guitar pedals, take to the streets, protest! Or buy yet more guitar pedals, close the curtains, and fade away into ethereal beauty.
Vail, at the very least, deserves a nod for her very funny barb in the midst of her Twitter comments. “If you got a problem with me hating your band go stare at your own feet I don’t care!” Shoegaze bands, you could at least look up at the crowd when you’re trying to be so elusive.
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