October 1, 2018

Dream pop music's 15-year cycle

While catching up on indie music for the first time since I resonated with it in the early 2000s, I'm struck by how similar the mood is 15 years later.

What stands out most to me is the revival of what's variously called dream pop, shoegaze, or noise pop. Repetitive riffs without an intricate melody, lack of contrast between verse and chorus (similar flow across the phrase structure), layers of sound (often distorted), hazy vocals, an overall impression of an ethereal dreamlike state, and a warm tone rather than a cold or neutral tone, either sweet or bittersweet -- not downbeat, moping, or funereal.

In fact, it sounds uplifting compared to what's going on in the mainstream during the same time period -- the vulnerable phase when everything is sad and emo.

My hunch so far is that the indie world has its own 15-year cycle of excited, withdrawn, and returning-to-neutral phases -- but that it lags behind the mainstream's timing by one full phase. I speculate that the indie people are waiting for the normies to clear out of the arena, as it were, before they put on their own show of a similar mood and tone, so that they don't overlap in zeitgeist.

That is, when the mainstream is excited, indie is returning to neutral, when the mainstream then crashes into numbness, indie takes off into excitation, when the mainstream then returns to neutral, indie crashes into numbness, and the cycle repeats.

So, the bounciest that indie or alternative music is going to get, happens right after the mainstream has already gone through that phase and has entered its refractory phase. That would be the late 2010s, the early 2000s, the late '80s, and the early '70s.

But that's a broader topic for future posts. Sticking just to the dream pop phenomenon, here are two contempo songs that could easily have been on the soundtracks for Lost in Translation and Blue Velvet, during previous instances of this phase of the cycle (the latter was fittingly included on the Twin Peaks revival of 2017, two full cycles after Blue Velvet):

Alvvays, "In Undertow" (2017)

Chromatics, "Shadow" (2015)

From the last phase that was sad and numb for the mainstream, but upbeat for the indie world, here's one from the actual Lost in Translation soundtrack, and one inspired by the Jesus and Mary Chain sound of the previous instance of this phase in the late '80s:

Death in Vegas, "Girls" (2002)

The Raveonettes, "Remember" (2003)

Now one from the actual Blue Velvet soundtrack, and one that's close enough to the late '80s, which just so happens to be a cover of a song from the previous instance of this phase in the early '70s (by Slapp Happy):

Julee Cruise, "Mysteries of Love" (1986)

Mazzy Star, "Blue Flower" (1990)

Finding counterparts from the previous instance during the early '70s is a little harder, since the sound is so associated with female vocals, and there weren't many rock bands with female singers back then. The androgynous glam rock is about as close as there is, along with the birth of Krautrock and "cosmic" music in Germany:

T. Rex, "Cosmic Dancer" (1971)

Kraftwerk, "Autobahn" (1974)


  1. That's detached and downcast, like much of the early 2010s entries from lists of the history of dream pop / shoegaze.

    At least it has that drum beat to wake things up, but that places it in the returning-to-neutral phase. Not totally melancholy and drowsy as in its refractory phase, but not as bouncy and hopeful as in its excited phase.

    It sounds more like Bauhaus, early Cure, and similar post-punk groups from the early '80s -- another period that was manic for the mainstream, but just stirring awake for the indie / alternative world.

    It took until the second half of the '80s for the alt groups to kick into high gear -- Sisters of Mercy, Love and Rockets, peak Cure, Jesus and Mary Chain, and so on and so forth.

    They couldn't go off into their excitation phase in the first half of the '80s because that's when the mainstream was all excited -- and heaven forbid the indie crowd feel the same mood at the same time as the normies.

  2. To round out the description of indie's cycle, their vulnerable phase is during the mainstream's restless warm-up phase -- the late 2000s, early '90s, and late '70s. That's emo, grunge / shoegaze (downer type), and punk.

    The mood is more numb, nihilistic, or angsty. Nothing hopeful, uplifting, bouncy, yearning, or tugging at the heart-strings. It's not triumphant or invincible either -- but angrily defeated. It's socially over-sensitive, or over-stimulated -- wanting everyone to leave them alone and stay away. The opposite of their excited phase just before, when they were as extraverted as indie people can manage.

  3. Sincerity vs. irony marks the different phases too, even Millennials who are supposed to be so saturated with irony, nihilism, and snark.

    Everyone in Alvvays is a Millennial, ditto most of their audience, yet listen to how pure that song's emotion is.

    Same was true for the Gen X-ers who led indie's previous excited phase of the early 2000s. It was as if the postmodern ironic Nineties never happened.

    Or the late '80s peak of earnest, heart-on-its-sleeve indie / college rock / modern rock. That was by and for late Boomers, who came of age more during the disco and punk era -- nihilistic, decadent, etc.

    Since irony, meta-, self-aware, snarky-ness is mostly driven by the indie / alternative crowd, its presence largely tracks their excitement cycle.

    Peak irony during their refractory phase (restless warm-up phase for the mainstream) -- late '70s, early '90s, late 2000s. Starting to wear off but still plenty of residue during their restless warm-up phase (manic phase for the mainstream) -- early '80s, late '90s, early 2010s. Completely gone, overflowing with sincerity during their own manic phase (vulnerable phase for the mainstream) -- early '70s, late '80s, early 2000s, late 2010s.

  4. In 1996, Local H had a big hit with "Born to be Down" - a numb, depressed song. Would this be categorized as refractory, or is the level of anger more warmup/manic?:


    Intensity of negative emotions may have more to do with equality/inequality - music becoming more intensely sad, angry, etc. into the 90s and 2000s.

    Interesting that indie music lags behind when it comes to the zeitgeist. Not sure what's going on there - if this is a reflection of class difference, with the upper middle class existing in a zeitgeist sphere apart form the lower classes, or if its just that the indie subculture is isolated.

  5. I just heard this come on:
    and thought "Great Northern, they must be named after the hotel from Twin Peaks". A bit more noisy and drum-centric than most dream pop though. The album is from 2009, so you'd categorize it as part of the vulnerable phase of indie music. The lyrics warn about being part of large groups of people and advocate going it alone.

  6. Another example of the lag between the indie scene and the mainstream is Jimmy Eat World's hit "The Middle", released in 2001. The song has a manic, invincible vibe, and the music video features exhibitionism (partygoers stripping down to their underwear). For most of the public, the early 2000s were a period of vulnerability.


  7. The video features exhibitionism, but it focuses on the people who stick out for not doing so, and the lyrics are about feeling left out.

  8. "focuses on the people who stick out for not doing so"

    The first scene is of an attractive woman stripping down to her underwear. The exhibitionism is there to titillate. If there really was some moral message about toning things down, then they wouldn't have any exhibitionism - which is more common for videos during the vulnerable period.

    " the lyrics are about feeling left out"

    Pay more attention to the tone, rather than the plot or content. The lyrics assure the audience that everything is fine, and nothing bad will happen. In the vulnerable stage, people have a victim mentality; whereas this song exhorts the listener to be more optimistic and not self-pitying.

    Compare it to the recent hit, "Cool Kids", by Echosmith. "Cool Kids" is also about being left out, but has a much more self-pitying, self-reflective tone.


    As to why the video has the two main characters dressed, while everyone else is in their underwear... I believe this is more a metaphor to show that the song is targeted towards those not as socially advanced as their peers, but to reassure them that its no big deal.

  9. Interestingly, this isn't the first time you noticed the trend of indie rock and grunge getting angsty just as the mainstream was going through the warmup phase, though before you explained it as a backlash:

    "Contrary to this main trend of leading a series of warm-up exercises, this third phase also has a distinct trend of tortured and angsty rock music. It's not like the sullen, languishing, numb rock from the refractory period just before -- it's stirring awake, but not wanting to get up yet, and acting all cranky because everyone else is trying to drag you out of bed. Unlike the vulnerable phase where everyone's energy levels are drained, now these people actually could get more active and take part in warm-up exercises for the next manic spike, but they are inveterate downers and are choosing not to. They're consciously trying to hold onto the previous emo period. This gives their tortured downer-ness a deliberate, affected quality."

    "That would be the more self-conscious and angsty kind of rock from the late 2000s like Fall Out Boy's album Infinity on High, or My Chemical Romance's album The Black Parade. During the early '90s, that would be most grunge and alternative. From the late '70s, "Ballroom Blitz," "Barracuda," "Hotel California," "Because the Night" (covered and charted again in the next restless phase, 1993, by 10,000 Maniacs), and "Bohemian Rhapsody" (re-released to chart again in the next restless phase, 1992). "


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