Why Call it Anything? Blurring Musical Boundaries in the Generation After Shoegaze

Standing at the foot of the stage at the Crocodile, a few years back, watching Seattle’s own C’est La Mort, Romance and Black Nite Crash open for a performance of the current touring incarnation of the Chameleons, I was reminded once again that, in music, time erases all boundaries.

Bootgazer?” I offered into the conversation I was having, on just that subject, with my friend Brandon. We were discussing whether C’est la Mort’s sound made them a direct inheritor of the shoegazer style, or if there wasn’t a distincly Siouxsie-ish, darkwave sense for the dramatic in there, too. A point of taxonomy, I’ll be the first to admit, that misses the point completely, but this is the kind of thing I like to argue about in Belltown after a few beers.
“I don’t know,” Brandon said, probably getting sick of the interruption. “Sounds fucking cool, though.”

Onstage, the bassist/singer peeked over her shoulder to sync up with the drummer and the two other guitarists, then their next song crashed into its opening bars. My point was, (as I no doubt told Brandon, who no doubt nodded politely along,) that if they’d played the same set twenty years earlier—when The Chameleons, for instance, were making their mark, I have a hard time guessing what the reaction might have been. Musicians, for all their open-mindedness, can be quite territorial about the hallmarks of their own styles. I was listening to an easy marriage of freewheeling, effects-heavy guitar rock and brooding, minor-key melodies, and it simply worked (as it has worked for many bands, both before and since.) But it was a pairing that could have divided an audience, a generation earlier, because those sounds, in certain forms, used to belong to different people.

I remember listening to the first wave of trip-hop artists as a teenager—acts like Tricky,  Portishead or the Kelli Dayton-era Sneaker Pimps, and finding it difficult to give them a fair shake. There was a cool sound, there, but the familiar and the unfamiliar just wouldn’t mesh, in my ‘rock kid’ head.  Fair or not, I heard them all as regrettably gimmicky, and relegated them to the ‘guilty pleasures’ bin. Today, of course, those three are all well-appreciated favorites. But growing into that sound took growing up with it. I had to make the disparate styles parts of my own sense for hearing music, before I could actually hear the music. And I suspect that’s a particularly important process for young musicians.

The music we listen to does become part of our sense for interpreting culture. It’s one of the many things we need art to do for us: to give us symbols. But there’s something else happening, too: the burgeoning creative sense is given a vocabulary, in that process, and the appetite is so ruthless and unsentimental, the artists who grow out of an age rarely even remember the divisions they will ultimately erase. Discussing the anxiety of influence, the painter Jean-Michel Basquiat was famously quoted as saying “influence is not influence; It’s simply someone’s idea going through my new mind.” He put it better than most, but that elevation of the self lives in every artist, to some extent.

When the next band, Romance, finished their set, their singer waited out the applause, and took the moment to acknowledge the headliner. He remembered listening to The Chameleons many, many years before, he said, and he counted them as inspirations for his own work. Frontman Mark Burgess, he said, “made a lot of us on the outside feel like there was one of us on the inside.”

That, for all the cliques and scenes of our youths, may be the one boundary that we don’t forget: Being on the outside of music, invention and rock and roll, and looking in.

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