On World Goth Day 2023, I thought I’d tackle this thorniest of subcultural quandries. There’s a brief, tongue-in-cheek version on the site itself, but I wanted to expand further on my opinion of what defines Goth – especially now in the 21st century. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments and on social media!
As I said in my intro, this is simply a matter of opinion – and opinion might be the glue that holds the entire thing together. The most significant presence in this subculture is a group of people willing to argue passionately about every aspect! What becomes ‘canon’ is simply mob rule on what people accept.
But there are a few foundation truths we all accept. Really, goth was a loose term used to describe a recognizable cohort of bands from 76-85 who made music dominated by heavy, repetitive bass and drum lines, jangling guitars and mournful vocals with lyrics explicitly referring to taboo subjects such as death, sex and the end of the world.
Because it was devised by music journalists, none of the bands liked the tag – after all, who wants to be boxed in? Crucially though, the word also came to describe the fans, who began dressing in a manner we’d still recognize today. There were Punk aspects, but the early explorers of goth also borrowed from BDSM, Victoriana, and even classic rock and roll.
The most important factor in goth’s enduring legacy I feel is the people. The music fanbase reached a critical mass that, even when the bands stopped being chart-successful, continued to support it! The initial goth fans kept on hitting gigs, clubs and (even more importantly) starting bands of their own, arranging meetups and festivals and networking through the music press and the emerging internet. Suddenly goth had gone from being just another youth music tribe, into a self-sustaining community.
Indeed not only did the scene endure, but it propagated spin-offs that made it even harder to define goth by loose stereotypes alone! All black outfits? There’s a famous viral video involving cybergoths under a bridge that will discredit that. Miserable? Learned scholars have written entire books disputing that stereotype! Was the music only released by English guitar-driven bands in 1983? Look, if a DJ spins it at the goth club, it’s going to fall under that black umbrella, like it or not – industrial, goth metal, darkwave, the lot. Goth is what goths like – like their totemic crows, they pick and choose what they like from the galaxy of culture and fashion it into their own wild and contradictory scene.
I strongly argue that lack of canonicity is actually the lifeblood of this subculture – it encourages innovation, it sparks furious debate, it’s always in flux and motion. There is no goth manifesto, but there’s a hundred and one people trying to write one. Which also shows the flipside of this scene – a colletion of vindictive, petty, exclusionary and judgemental gatekeepers determined to not only preserve what is the ‘truth’, but to stamp their own version of the facts all over the subculture.
Recently, author and journalist Liisa Ladouceur published an article on SPIN about her visit to England, Whitby and the Goth Festival during April of this year. Titled “Goth’s Not Dead” it met with two very different and powerful reactions online. On Twitter, it’s had over a hundred retweets and a chorus of appreciation from goths advancing in years.
Conversely, on Facebook the comments furiously excoriate the author for not attending the Tomorrow’s Ghosts music festival and therefore missing the bands (in conversation with Liisa, we both noted the organisers did not arrange for any press coverage). The importance of music to the contemporary goth scene is a tempestuous battleground and nowhere in the UK is it more charged than in Whitby, home for over twenty years to our premier music festival, albeit dogged with drama of its own.
From my blog alone, you can chart more than ten years of bickering, infighting and genre wars, from passionate fans of bands that reject, time and again, this ‘goth’ box they’re squeezed into. Without definitive ‘oracles’ like bands to give structure to the scene, there aren’t really any other tenets, truths or creeds. There’s no goth politics (except the drama). There’s goths with political views, often contrasting! There’s no goth religion (except revering St Eldritch the Arch-Denier). There’s goths with religious beliefs, often contrasting! A statement followed by an argument, that’s the goth family way.
The most commonly held beliefs (or at least what I wish to be true) is an attempt to live and let live, enjoy broadly the same music, and have a good sense of humour. Ironic as it seems, goth is ponderous solemnity with a wry smile painted on in black lipstick.
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