Shitgaze

April 15th, 2009 | brainjuice, music

Aha, it was still in a desktop folder. This is the "backmatter," a short essay, from #12 of DOKTOR SLEEPLESS, which I think came out last week. I do a piece for the back of (almost) every issue of the singles release of the series, sometimes a lot longer than this thing here. So, to make the previous post make sense, and just for the hell of it, here’s "Shitgaze":

DOKTOR SLEEPLESS
BACKMATTER
12

No shattering wisdom for you this month. I’ve got a metric shitload of stuff on my shoulders this week, and no time for this unpaid crap at the back.

Except for: shitgaze.

Bear with me, I want to nail this down quick.

When I was a kid, stuck in a collapsing coastal town with no money, I would scrimp and save pennies to buy music and music papers. The music papers were almost more important, because from them I could learn about music I couldn’t yet hear. It appealed to my imagination. And god knows that writers like the crowd on the Melody Maker (who, for a while there, were the best arts journalists anywhere in the country) loved their neologisms. At times they fairly delighted in making up names for perceived new musical movements. The best place to find them today is a music magazine called THE WIRE (which has a few MM alumni on its writing staff, at that). Which leads me to a term I read for the first time in their reviews section, earlier today: shitgaze.

The Wikipedia entry on shitgaze is three months old:

"Shitgaze is an emerging genre of alternative rock characterized by the use of musical instruments found in traditional rock and roll — guitars, drums, and keyboards — but recorded and played live in such an abrasive manner as to distort recordings and push amplifiers to their sonic limits. The emphasis of the music is usually on the treble end of the musical scale at the sacrifice of lower-end sounds, such as those emanating from bass guitars."

The entry claims A Place to Bury Strangers as shitgaze, which I wouldn’t have called. But then, in 2007 when they released their (pretty good) album, I’m guessing the work hadn’t even been coined yet.

Music writing as science fiction writing.

The neologism is central to sf writing, where it often also gives body to the novum. The novum, a term coined by Darko Suvin (though I read about it first in Samuel Delany), is, if you like, a unit of novelty in science fiction. A visible point of difference, a discontinuity from the commonly-understood present day. The time machine, the invisible man — these are nova. The storied line from Robert Heinlein — "the door dilated" — contains within it a novum, and the other touchstone of written sf. Differently-pressured language. In science fiction, the sentence "she opened her eyes" can mean two different things. That is, in the belief of many people, why a significant percentage of the audience is repulsed by written sf — because it demands you process its information in radically different ways, all the time. Some people feel like sf is trying to trick them with every line. I’ve heard it suggested that sf’s long reputation as infantile literature comes not only from the dismal writing and adolescent concerns of much of the genre’s history, but also that to a certain section of the populace it feels like someone’s trying to pull a gag over on them.

Shitgaze, as a neologism and a novum, is, of course, a gag. Minimal Western cultural experience is required to decode shitgaze as a joke at the expense of the musical subgenre of shoegaze, which is in itself a joke at the expense of the performance shortcomings of the bands that made up the shortlived Scene That Celebrates Itself — bands featuring guitarists who appeared to be gazing at their shoes while trying to replicate Kevin Shields sonic effects.

But these places are where the future leaks in. And, in fact, it took a science fiction writer of sorts to define the essential nature of the field and the correct response to those who maybe can’t really be bothered to step up to it and its needs: fuck you if you can’t take a joke.

So who spotted the Herbie Hancock reference in this issue? Blame this entire thing on that.

See you soon.

Warren Ellis
Frozen England
February 2009


8 Responses to “Shitgaze”

  1. You know when you search for “A Place To Bury Strangers” in Itunes, one of the results is a West Country (England) Travel Guide.

  2. […] Things like this just fall off of Warren when he’s taking his monthly bath, and it’s the most interesting thing I’ve read today. […]

  3. A Place to Bury Strangers and Times New Viking are my personal favs

  4. Ahh, a sly reference to a SPC ECO song at the end there. Nice one.

    And I knew there had to be a reason why I’d the burning desire to listen to “Another Day” first thing this morning.

  5. *edit* I forget the name of the story and who the author was, but I’ll always remember the first sentence: “He pushed a button on his forehead and changed his mind.”

  6. […] — Warren Ellis […]

  7. […] I lost count) through an echoing microphone, was not one of them. Wikipedia lists their genre as “shitgaze,” where the ethic seems to be “[to play] live in such an abrasive manner as to distort recordings […]

  8. […] –Warren Ellis […]