How “Slowcore” Blew Up With Gen-Z on TikTok—Thanks to ‘90s Band Duster

The unlikely resurgence of '90s band Duster has sparked a Gen-Z revival and reimagining of slowcore music.

How “Slowcore” Blew Up With Gen-Z on TikTok—Thanks to ‘90s Band Duster
Michelle Hyun Kim
Michelle Hyun Kim
March 8, 20248 min read
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By Michelle Hyun Kim, a Third Bridge Creative contributor

Duster makes the kind of music that has historically been un-mainstream. Inspired by themes of space, the San Jose band’s sound was sparse and lethargic, where fuzzed out, hypnotic guitar riffs would take precedence over barely audible vocals and shuffling drums, if there were any. Through their association with the ‘90s slowcore movement, the three-piece group found some critical acclaim for their music, which was recorded on cassette decks, and had a lo-fi warmth that offset its overwhelming sense of loneliness. Yet the band broke up five years later after their inception in 1996, likely due to the lack of commercial breakthrough.

But over the past few years, Duster has unexpectedly emerged as one of the most influential acts in slowcore, which is now seeing a revival on TikTok. Glancing through the #slowcore hashtag, which boasts 124.3M total views, most of the videos either mention Duster outright, or also use the #duster hashtag, which has amassed 1.5B views. Duster wasn't necessarily the first slowcore act, though. There were bands like New York City’s Codeine, San Francisco’s Red House Painters, and Dallas’ Bedhead, who began to make alternative rock in the ’90s that was depressing and downtempo, had minimal instrumentation, and subdued vocals. Soon after, with the rise of Minnesota band Low, the “slowcore” genre started to make the rounds in music media, though many acts didn’t necessarily like the label. 


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♬ Constellations - Duster

Now, due to its popularity on TikTok, younger listeners are eager to slap the term slowcore on everything that could be sort of slow, depressing, or have hypnotic arrangements—even calling Alex G slowcore when barely any of his songs could be called downtempo. One new YouTube tutorial on how to make slowcore refers to the genre as “sad TikTok slideshow music,” showing that perhaps the genre is celebrated more for its utility in making memes and slideshows, similar to “slow and reverbed” sounds, than for its artistic merit.

The reinterpretation of slowcore also comes during a time where shoegaze is bigger than ever with Gen-Z listeners. While the two genres easily overlap (especially in music from ‘90s and 2000s indie rock bands), the main distinction is that slowcore evokes both sluggishness and comfort through its slow repetitive patterns, like the feeling of being rocked to sleep. Meanwhile, shoegaze is typified by washes of guitar noise, which can elicit feelings of catharsis and looking into blinding light. Though Duster has been classified as shoegaze it’s their spooky, hypnagogic, and slow songs that have gotten the most attention on TikTok. These kinds of audios have been used to soundtrack over 349.9K videos on the app, with their 1997 single “Stars Will Fall” garnering 102.1K videos alone.

Even when Duster reunited in the late 2010s due to the emergence of an online cult following, mostly through message boards and YouTube comments, they likely would have never predicted their name recognition today. Since reissuing their entire discography and releasing two more studio albums—2019’s self-titled and 2022’s Together—indie rock bands like Girlpool, Hovvdy, and Ricky Eat Acid have named them as an influence, as well as 18-year-old Irish music producer Liam McCay, whose various music projects have topped charts on TikTok and Spotify. Artists like Ethel Cain have also incorporated slowcore into their music, bringing new interest in the sound. So how did Duster become the forerunner of today’s slowcore revival? And what is it about the genre that appeals to this younger generation?

Slowcore OGs: Duster

Duster’s prominence on TikTok is due to good timing and an insane amount of luck. As the band’s presence in the general cultural consciousness grew in 2019, TikTok was just starting to become a hotbed of music discovery, which exploded during the pandemic. “Moon Age” and “Constellations,” from their 1998 album Stratosphere, were among the first songs to be used on the platform in summer 2020, mostly posted by alternative/indie teenagers who wanted to reveal snippets of their everyday life. One TikTok commenter claims that the hype started when a Fortnite edit account posted slideshows and videos using Duster’s “Inside Out,” which ended up getting “a ton of likes.” Back then, Duster’s Spotify monthly listener count hovered around 140K listeners.

From then on, about five of Duster’s songs racked up tens of thousands of videos, with 2000’s “Me and the Birds” and 1997’s “Stars Will Fall” steadily gaining popularity throughout 2021. The attention began to convert to Spotify streams, with Duster cracking the 1M Spotify monthly listener mark about a couple months after the songs began circulating on TikTok. The growth has been astronomical ever since, with the band crossing the 5M monthly listeners mark and tracking steady momentum.

Duster have always carried a particularly attractive mystique, which might explain why they’ve won out with younger listeners over other seminal slowcore acts. For Zoomers, a band’s aesthetics play a big part on how listeners perceive the intention and mood of their sound—in other words, the music’s “vibes.” In the video essay “What Is ZoomerGaze?,” from the Gen-Z music commentary channel NEOPUNKFM, host Johnny Straightedge surveys the growing number of younger acts drawn to shoegaze and makes the case for the band julie blowing up because of “their ability to visualize all the things that people love so much about this type of music” through ‘90s and Y2K aesthetics. “From their cover art, to their fashion, to their social media, and to their music videos—it looks like how their music sounds,” he says. 

As for Duster, the nostalgia factor is already built in. There are not that many publicly available photos of the members, or information about who they are, and the music they made was centered around an aesthetic of space, cosmology, and stonerism. And now that DIY artists like Mitski, Alex G, and Clairo have gone mainstream, and bedroom pop is a viable path to fame in the TikTok era, it’s no surprise that today’s young people look up to a band who recorded on a low-tech equipment and wasn’t concerned about crafting things to glossy perfection.

New Gen Slowcore: Salvia Palth and Liam McCay

Another unlikely slowcore hero has emerged in salvia palth, a producer also known as Daniel Johann Lines, as his 2013 album melanchole has gone viral in recent years. He made the collection of somber, languid songs at home when he was 15, experiencing intense periods of epileptic fits and living in “deep poverty in rural New Zealand,” Lines explained in a Paste Magazine interview. That music also began circulating on TikTok in the pandemic—a time when young people could relate to Johann’s feelings of isolation and hardship. 

Now, Lines’ most popular track “i was all over her” has garnered 104.6K TikTok videos and 413.4M Spotify streams, while the guitar instrumental “(dream)” has increased by 11M Spotify streams in the past month alone. Throughout the years, his Spotify monthly listener count has risen to 7.3M, with it rapidly shooting up a decade after melanchole first came out—showing that the slowcore craze continues to grow. Though his music might have previously been referred to as bedroom pop or ambient, Lines’ use of circular guitar patterns that Duster fans might appreciate has led him to be folded into the slowcore revival.

The other Gen-Z figure carrying Duster’s torch is Liam McCay. Emerging in 2021 with the alias Moon Water (14.9K Spotify monthly listeners), the 18-year-old Irish producer has gone onto issue slowcore and bedroom pop-inflected projects across a number of monikers: sign crushes motorist (3.9M Spotify monthly listeners), Make His Ribs Show (81.1K Spotify monthly listeners), Take Care (2.29M Spotify monthly listeners), hold (114.63K Spotify monthly listeners), miserable teens club (76.4K Spotify monthly listeners), Birth Day (745.7K Spotify monthly listeners), and others. Across these different outlets, he often replicates Duster’s slow moving guitar sound, adding his own mumbling vocals and spoken word passages.

McCay’s prolific discography has grown considerably popular among Gen-Z slowcore enthusiasts, like “theres this girl” released under sign crushes motorist, which has amassed 288.2K videos on the app. Other tracks like Take Care’s “Think of Me Once In a While, Take Care” has grown so rapidly it’s landed in the Top 5 of the Spotify Global Viral 50 chart. Fans of his work praise it for it being “gut wrenching” and sounding like “every bad memory.” His projects sign crushes motorist and Birth Day have issued realized projects that best resembles Duster’s soft vocals and guitar style, but Take Care seems to be a new favorite among listeners due to its experimental nature, which includes spoken word passages over ambient tracks.

When explaining why he likes Duster in an interview, McCay says that he often turns to the band when he’s not in a good mood. “I like the slowness,” he explains. “Drums aren’t all that important to me. I like the repetitiveness. I like the soft, swinging [feeling]. It’s warm and comforting, I suppose.” His answer highlights how the dragging sound of slowcore can often mirror listeners’ emotions when they’re down, while still soothing them through the simplistic arrangements.

The Outlier: Alex G

Strangely enough, Alex G’s name and hashtag also often comes up in slowcore-related content on TikTok, making today’s revival more amorphous than ever. In recent years, Philly indie rocker has gradually grown a fanbase on the app, whose users have gotten their hands on his tracks from his 2012 album Trick—like “Sarah” with 24.6K videos, likely due to the unique sound of his wonky guitar riffs and pitched vocals. While the only overlap between Alex G and Duster might be the lo-fi quality of their recordings and the fact that they once toured together in 2018, it shows that for Gen-Z listeners, genres are grouped less by sound and more by aesthetic quality or association with certain feelings or social groups.

The Future of Slowcore

With Salvia Palth teasing a new album in the near future, Liam McCay consistently putting out new music, and a healthy landscape of slowcore-inspired acts emerging (like Horse Jumper of Love, link3, and Argo Nuff), it seems that the slowcore revival shows no signs of stopping. And as the genre gains more name recognition on TikTok, there’s also a high likelihood that acts like Grouper and Galaxie 500—which have not always been referred to as slowcore—will gain attention on the app by growing association. The boundaries of the genre are murkier than ever, as evidenced by Spotify’s “slowcore” playlist, which has gained 17.1K followers since its launch in February 2023 and includes everything from dream pop band Mazzy Star to the heavier shoegaze band Have A Nice Life. Gen-Z have already taken the slowcore label and run off with it, ensuring that its sound will also likely spin off in dozens of different ways—like an asteroid careening through space.

Edited by Sarah Kloboves, cover image by Crasianne Tirado