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Tobi Vail of Bikini Kill: “The guitar pedal industrial complex is not the sound of the revolution”

Tobi Vail
(Image credit: Ollie Millington / Getty)

Tobi Vail – the Bikini Kill founder and critic - has become the subject of an online pile-on after she posted a tweet arguing that the guitar pedal fetishisation of the recent dreampop/shoegaze movement and embracing of “retro shit like Weezer” was “not the sound of the revolution”. 

The writer and feminist punk icon posted on November 20: “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.”

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Her statement interpreted a focus on swirling introversion and stompboxes as a sign that many musicians are unwilling to use their voices or profiles to say something more meaningful, amid a concerning social backdrop. Predictably, the replies ranged from the reasonable (“to each their own”), through to the offensive.

The indie stalwart later clarified her position: “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?”

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It is not controversial (unless, apparently, you're a woman on the internet) to say there are several corners of the guitar music world that have long put the cart before the horse. Every guitarist knows a player who pursues particular boxes of wood and wires over artistic statement (political or otherwise). Vail seems to be trying to pop that bubble.

Further relating the proliferation of dream-pop and “retro shit” to wider social issues, Vail later considered the context of its emergence as part of a “weird escapist mix” that coincided with the Trump presidency and “legalization of cannabis”. 

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Vail's comments are indicative of a wider and ongoing debate in guitar circles – one that seems to be taking in everything from playing style to politics – that seems to be the inevitable result of a huge influx of new players taking up the instrument.

Matt Parker

Matt is a freelance journalist who has spent the last decade interviewing musicians for the likes of Total Guitar, Guitarist, Guitar World, MusicRadar, NME.com, DJ Mag and Electronic Sound. In 2020, he launched CreativeMoney.co.uk, which aims to share the ideas that make creative lifestyles more sustainable. He plays guitar, but should not be allowed near your delay pedals.