The History of Dream Pop and its Recent Rebirth

Listen to While Reading This: ‘Cherry-Coloured Funk’ (Cocteau Twins), ‘Strange’ (Galaxie 500), ‘Lo Que Siento’ (Cuco), ‘Flaming Hot Cheetos’ and/or ‘Pretty Girl’ (Clairo), ‘Cherry Pit’ and/or ‘Afterglow’ (Luna Li), ‘Show Me How’ (Men I Trust)

Clairo and Cuco, two of Dream pop’s newcomers

Dream pop is easily one of favourite genres of all time, right up there with New Wave (which you, if you know me at all, know is possibly my favourite genre of all time). As one of the most pivotal trends in alternative music, Dream pop has been a massive influence of both alternative and mainstream music since the late ’80s. This influence is demonstrated by the continued presence of such Dream pop, packaged into various other styles as Bedroom pop, Trillwave/Cloud rap, Neo-neo-psychedelia*, chillwave, etc. There is much to love about Dream pop, and so it would be an utmost pleasure of mine to be able to dissect for you.

To begin with, we must learn a brief history of Dream pop. Dream pop was born in the mid-to-late 1980s from a confluence of various styles and sounds. Having taken an electronic influence from New Wave and Synthpop, the atmosphere of Gothic Rock (and Ethereal Wave; it’s moody child with New Wave), and the effected guitars and indie spirit of British alternative/neo-psychedelia; Dream pop was beginning to take shape. Wide consensus suggests that the Cocteau Twins were the first band that could be labeled as Dream pop (though the term itself was coined by A.R. Kane, another such influential group). With their heavy usage of chorused and delayed guitars, shimmering synths, simplistic basslines, heavenly (see: unintelligible) vocals, and (most of all) reverb-drenched production, they left an indelible mark on the development of Dream pop. The impact that the Cocteau Twins had on the sound and expansion of Dream pop can even now be heard in the synthy anthems of Beach House. Much of Dream pop’s characteristics can be discerned by listening to even just one of their songs (ideally from Heaven or Las Vegas, my favourite album of theirs).

The Cocteau Twins, progenitors of Dream pop

Anyhow, Dream pop continued to develop throughout the early ’90s and gained a much wider audience through groups like Lush, Mazzy Star, Galaxie 500, and so on. By this time, Dream pop had also come to be identified and conflated with another term; Shoegaze. Though the two terms are often used interchangeably, they are indeed different. Shoegaze is primarily dominated by heavily effected and distorted guitars and more often than not, the vocals are used like instruments, in that they provide textures but not much in way of poetry or lyricism. While Dream pop does also use vocals in a similar manner, they are usually given more importance and a place on centre-stage. Synths, also, generally play a larger role in Dream pop than in Shoegaze Moreover, Shoegaze is heavily influenced by Noise pop as well. Noise pop is a style that developed concurrently with Dream pop and was also born out of neo-psychedelia. Much as it’s name suggests, it is somewhere halfway between ’60s bubblegum pop and avant-garde noise music (see: Jesus and Mary Chain). I like to think of Shoegaze in the terms of the following formula:

Dream pop (60%) + Noise pop (40%) = Shoegaze

That aside, Dream pop began to live through Shoegaze from the ’90s onwards via bands like My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive, Ride, and others who pioneered the sound that has continued to make its mark on music till date. Shoegaze itself has inspired revivals and new fusion genres (Nu-gaze, Blackgaze, and Post-Rock come to mind), and has thus cemented its status along with that of Dream pop as a veritable pillar of Alternative music. That’s not even to begin to mention the various international scenes Dream pop and Shoegaze have inspired, but that is in itself a whole other discussion.

Contemporarily, Dream pop has found commercial success most popularly as Bedroom pop. It doesn’t take much effort to listen to someone like Cuco and hear the Cocteau Twins’ trademark dreamy vibes. Just give ‘Lo Que Siento’ a listen and between the soft drum machine, vocal layers, effected guitar, and lyrics that literally reference dreaming of someone, it’s not too tough to unearth a good chunk of its sonic heritage. Or take Clairo. Both ‘Pretty Girl’ and ‘Flaming Hot Cheetos’ use classic Dream pop clichés. From the usage of the (infamously dreamy) Lydian mode to the simple synth/keyboard lines and subdued vocal melodies, it doesn’t take a genius to make such a connection. New sounds and directions can even be spotted in the work of someone like Luna Li. Just give ‘Cherry Pit’ or ‘Afterglow’ a listen and alongside the telltale synths, jangly guitar lines, and ethereal harmonies, one can detect the influence of electronic and classical (orchestral) elements that (alongside the extremely tasteful use of dissonance and chromaticism) is an entirely vibrant, modern play on the sounds of the ’80s and ’90s. With this new renaissance of Dream pop-oriented Indie, it’s going to be very easy to spot talented newcomers who bring their own Dream pop-flavoured styles to mainstream music via Bedroom pop. We’ve seen it with Cuco, Clairo, boy pablo, Luna Li, Dayglow, The Marías, Men I Trust, and many others. That’s not to mention overt Dream pop/Shoegaze groups such as Beach House, Deerhunter, Alvvays, etc.

And honestly, I am really loving this revival of Dream pop as a legitimate sound in modern music! I’m so glad that a style so beautiful as Dream pop as a genre isn’t going to waste as some outdated 4AD back catalogues rotting in a dilapidated and long-abandoned records shop. Rather, its comeback only reinforces the fact that it is a form of art that carries inherent value that continues to appeal to people’s hearts, generations after it first came to be.

*Neo-neo-psychedelia is a term I just came up with to describe acts like Tame Impala and Melody’s Echo Chamber, who draw inspiration from not only Dream pop and Shoegaze but also the Neo-psychedelic music of the ’80s and the original wave of Psychedelia from the ’60s. As a result, they produce widely varied and original music that touches on all of these movements/genres. For more info, listen to ‘Feels Like We Only Go Backwards’ by Tame Impala. It manages to consolidate all of the aforementioned styles seamlessly.