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Oh, my goth - dark, cultural phenomenon thriving, scholars say

Andrea Lynn, Humanities Editor

Released 9/18/2007

Photo of Lauren Goodlad
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Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
Lauren Goodlad, a professor of English at Illinois, and Michael Bibby, a professor of English at Shippensburg University, explore the world of goth in a collection of scholarly essays devoted to the cultural phenomenon. The editors say, “Goth subculture’s enduring vitality seems indisputable, despite phases of mainstream popularity that ought to have proved fatal.”

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Occasional fashion-mag spreads aside, punk, as a subcultural phenomenon, is toast.

Its dark, melancholic and aging love child, on the other hand, is alive and kicking.

In fact, goth is so vibrant, it’s positively undead, say the editors of “Goth: Undead Subculture” (Duke University Press), Lauren Goodlad, a professor of English at the University of Illinois, and Michael Bibby, a professor of English at Shippensburg University.

“If anything is clear about goth,” they write, “it is the undeadness of its appeal even as the social and cultural formations of the modern world become ever more globalized.”

In their book, the first collection of scholarly essays devoted to this cultural phenomenon, the editors argue that 25 years after its emergence, “Goth subculture’s enduring vitality seems indisputable, despite phases of mainstream popularity that ought to have proved fatal.”

The editors and contributors explore the gothscape in all its shades of black, its androgynous, mysterious and often perverse guises, and its many genres – including essays on goth aesthetics, fandoms, fashion, film, literature, music, TV, Web sites and zines.

In 23 essays, we encounter everything from analyses of Anne Rice novels and the music of Marilyn Manson, to the anatomy of goth itself as a brilliantly self-reinventing phenomenon that joins, weaves into and splits off from the mainstream culture. Many of the authors are scholars; some authors are practicing goths who speak frankly about their lifestyles and beliefs; some are both scholars and goths.

But what is goth?

Largely misunderstood by outside observers, especially since the shootings at Columbine High School, goth is a complex cultural phenomenon, a paradoxical “mainstream alternative,” a set of aesthetic conventions found across genres and media.

Anything but monolithic, goth is neither easily commodified nor defined.

Photo of Souxie Soux
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Courtesy Duke University Press
Siouxie Sioux, born Susan Janet Ballion, who began her career as a gothic doyenne in the Sex Pistols’ scene, moved from a punk-inspired neo-Nazi rhetoric to a more extreme gothic way of presenting herself.

Still, goth maintains a “vibrant presence,” perhaps most strikingly on city sidewalks and in suburban malls, where its superficial layer appears “spectacular” – in black and retro garments fashioned from leather, chains and lace; spiked heels, clunky Doc Martens, corsets; elements of Celtic, Christian, pagan, Egyptian or Asian iconography; dyed hair, shaved heads, tattooed and pierced bodies, decorative scarring and fangs. The “look,” the editors write, “signifies difference through stylistic innovation” trying to “violate the conventional barrier between object and representation.”

Goth also has a strong presence in urban nightclubs, in zines and most of all, in cyberspace. The Internet, Bibby and Goodlad write, “has quickly become the most important channel for the dissemination of goth culture.” Indeed, while gothic rock has been absent from the pop charts for more than a decade, the genre continues to attract fans all over the world, who support niche record labels by mail order and through the Web.

But where did goth come from?

Goth’s modern roots are clear enough, the editors tell us: the socioeconomic decline and Thatcherite politics of the late 1970s Britain – and punk.

Many “keynotes” of goth subculture can be traced to the early days of punk. As punk’s crass and trashy style became intensified and romanticized, “a gothic predilection for the dreadful and macabre emerged from within its ranks. Siouxsie Sioux, who began her career as a gothic doyenne in the Sex Pistols’ scene, helped to popularize a look characterized by deathly pallor, dark makeup, Weimar-era decadence and Nazi chic.”

Punk’s ethos – a militant, antisexual anarchy – was “challenged by the gothic’s romantic obsessions with death, darkness and perverse sexuality.”

“A discordant bricolage of hyperromantic elements, goth drew inspiration from its glam, punk and new wave subcultural antecedents.

“But it also culled freely from Gothic literary-historical traditions; from vampire cults, horror flicks, and B-movie camp; from Celtic, Pagan, Egyptian, and Christian mythology; from cyborg and techno cultures; from oppositional sexual practices including queer, drag, porn and fetish; from subterranean drug cultures; and from a historical canon of the gothic avant-garde ranging from the pre-Raphaelites, Nietzsche and Lautreamont, to Dali, Sartre, and the Velvet Underground."

Propaganda Magazine cover
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Courtesy Duke University Press

Cover of Propaganda magazine featuring an interview with Robert Smith of The Cure.

The goth tendency to embrace gothic literature and art has made the subculture “more dialectically engaged with the past than is typical of most youth cultures, providing yet another source of exceptional vitality.”

“The antique and archaic are central to a gothic sensibility, just as death itself is typically perceived as a source of inspiration rather than a terminus.”

Goth also is inspired – fueled may be a better word – by transnational capitalism.

“Late capitalism produces the desire for an aura that is felt to be prior to or beyond commodification, for a lived authenticity to be found in privileged forms of individual expression and collective identification. For as long as goth seems to answer that desire, it will thrive as an undead subculture: forging communities on the margins of cities, suburbs, campuses and cyberspace; defying constraints on gender and sexuality; and imbuing the stuff of everyday life with the allure of stylistic resistance.”

In her essay, self-described goth Rebecca Schraffenberger, a stage manager in New York City, illuminates the goth nature, conceding that it is “fraught with contradictions.”

Photo of Sisters of Mercy
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Courtesy Duke University Press

The Sisters of Mercy, a formative gothic band.

“We’re hard-core romantics, dreamy realists and cynical idealists. We find beauty in the macabre, while seeking fairness and tenderness in our daily lives. We love all things ancient, while being modern and liberal in our social outlook. We’re intelligent and creative without being cutthroat and competitive. We’re angry yet peaceful. We’re sure of ourselves but wary of strangers. We’re funny but bitter … but mostly very shy.”

The editors are careful to separate goth from the acts and actors at Columbine. It is misleading, they write, to believe that the subculture is associated with violence or racial hatred.

“It’s one of our many ironies,” Schraffenberger writes, “that we externalize the world’s destructiveness stylistically, without resort to actual violence. I’d even hazard to say goths are better adjusted than most people are, despite the isolation and rejection they experienced as youths. A goth’s anger, though rooted in personal suffering, is directed at widespread injustice and inhumanity. While our literature, music, and style express a disturbed and disturbing point of view, most goths are incredibly gentle people. We’re not a bunch of murderous psychopaths. I can’t think of any goth capable of committing the atrocity at Columbine.”

Goths make great friends, Schraffenberger writes, “if you can just get past all those barriers we’ve put up after our years of enduring ostracism and snap judgments from others.”