Originally published on H2g2 in | Updated May 7, 2017
Historically, the Goth scene grew out of the post-Punk movement of the late 1970s. The separation of the two was brought about, in the main, by youth from materially-secure, well-educated families. They saw Punk as a way of revolting against the perceived mind-boggingly-boring and indifferent life of their parents. Pretty rapidly discovering that they couldn’t hack Punk’s extroverted lifestyle, these people went on to create their own sub-culture. Their rebellion was not political or social – it was an aesthetically-inspired one – creating a gothic lifestyle.
Since the mid-nineties, after a decline at the end of the eighties and perhaps spurred on by ‘pre-millennial tension’, the Goth scene has undergone something of a revival – gigs are frequently well-attended, and there are a fair number of ‘big’ bands on the Goth scene, although few have enjoyed real commercial success. It is frequently argued that commercialisation of Goth events destroys what is referred to as the ‘family’. These events are, at times, called ‘family gatherings’… a family which does not mind that there are more black than white sheep in it.
The biggest event world-wide is the Wave-Gotik-Treffen (WGT) which takes place in Leipzig, Germany, each year over Whitsun. Alas, in 2000 the organiser went bankrupt halfway into the four-day-event and most of the 300-plus bands were not paid. The future of this event is up in the air at the time of writing1.
Somewhat unsurprisingly, the mainstream music press that tried to bury the Goth scene in the 80s has cottoned on to its re-emergence – probably through the dark imagery used by mainstream bands like Garbage. It has attached the tag to the black metal and industrial rock scenes, meaning that hordes of Marilyn Manson and Cradle of Filth fans identify themselves with the Goth movement. As there is very little recorded history of the Goth scene from the 80s through to the present day, barring perhaps works like Mick Mercer’s Hex Files2, there’s very little actual evidence to refute the music press’ claims – other than protestations from the Goths themselves, whose voices have always been in the minority.
The Black Heart Of Goth – Philosophy
The whole Goth movement is intimately linked to music. But you cannot understand Goth music if you do not know what the very heart of Goth is about.
Those in the Goth scene tend to view the Goth concept rather as an expression of individuality, something they take part in because it seems comfortable and natural for them to do so, rather than because it’s something they want to be. And as such, Goth is a state of mind. As with states of mind you either feel happy/warm/hungry/angry or you don’t; you don’t wake up and say ‘Hey, I’ll feel warm this week!’. Either you feel warm or you don’t. It is not something you decideto be, it’s more like a drifting into something and realising at some point that you’ve found what you have always been looking for. Goth is not about being cool-hip, up-to-date. Goth is more about being cool-chilly as in unemotional, detached, unmoved… at least on the surface. There’s an inner calmness, tranquillity to it. A need for being given and giving the others space to be at one with themselves. Respect towards the individual – at least as long as it is a fellow Goth.
On the flip-side of this respect for other people’s space, there tends to be a calm but deep disrespect, loathing almost, towards people who just want to be trendy. This explains the tensions between ‘Goth wannabes’ and ‘real Goths’. The ‘real Goth’ believes in ‘Goth’ as a genuine lifestyle; the wannabe just considers it cool to dress in an attempt to intimidate. They have no respect for the messages the bands are trying to convey about individuality; they just want to be part of a ‘weird, scary group’. The wannabes express their individuality by belonging to a group, while Goths belong to a group by expressing their individuality. For a Goth, first comes the state of mind and then the dress code; for a wannabe it’s the dress code first. Wannabes have a dubious mindset and a desire to remain part of the mainstream because they fear the reaction of ‘society’ if they were to deviate from it long-term. Goths on the other hand generally don’t give a toss about what society thinks or does – as long as they are left alone.
Mainstream Life Mundane
Goths have given up on mainstream society as a failed experiment in cultural evolution. They frequently sound discouraged about things when talking to people who they judge to be mundane. Goths have been said to ‘suffer the world’. Meaning, in short, to suffer the pain, stupidity, and mindlessness of the world which the mundane don’t seem to notice. Some Goths have aspirations to undermine the mainstream somehow – perhaps by recruiting from its ranks, or perhaps by campaigning to render fringe ideas acceptable. Others simply don’t care, and figure that when present-day society collapses under its own weight, they’ll be waiting in the wings.
A major uniting factor among the wide variety of Goths is the anti-mainstream Black Aesthetic. Goths take things that society claims are evil, sinful, painful, or wrong, and make them beautiful.3 There’s a sense that anything, no matter how gruesome or horrible, can be artistic when viewed from the right perspective. Many Goths would argue that the things which frighten or disturb people are precisely those things that are most beautiful. As the whole rebellion is aesthetic, this uniting factor should come as no great surprise.
Pain And Death
It’s not just that pain and death are accepted as a legitimate part of life; pain and death are revelled in, and revered as some of the most exciting and interesting parts of life. Death is being undemonised and seen as a legitimate part and consequence of life. This does not lead to a desire to die but rather to an acceptance of death. Goths are people who revel in their inner darkness, rather than suppressing it. They frequently think of themselves as far better adjusted than the typical mundane, who goes around hiding a lot of emotions because many sections of western society deem showing certain emotions, especially by males, unacceptable.
A Goth state of mind commonly, but not exclusively, entails embracing a certain taste in music and dressing; all part of the aesthetic rebellion. Goth music ranges from rock with a heavy heart-like drumbeat, through synthesised tunes with ethereal and mystical overtones, into classical styles – often drawing on liturgical works – and Gregorian chant. It is very difficult to draw a clear line designating what is Goth and what is not. One may find one Goth band that relies heavily on mixing of synthesised tracks, and another that works entirely with acoustic instruments and no amplifiers. As with many things about Goths, one can only say what is common, not what is necessary.
Symbols And Concepts
The lyrics of Goth music focus on much the same material as Gothic literature, including, but not limited to, symbols and concepts (death, sex, wine, blood, black or red roses, beginnings and endings) and supernatural forces (demons, witches, vampires, and even a few angels). There is a tendency for the songs to tell some sort of story. One might start feeling like one is at a particularly melodramatic opera which is being performed as a Halloween special.
The term ‘Goth’ was first applied to bands like Siouxsie and the Banshees and Joy Division. Later, in the early to mid-eighties, a strong rock element invaded Goth with the coming of age of bands like the Sisters of Mercy and the March Violets. However, the more spiritual, ethereal side of the music was also present, though less obvious. During the late eighties and early nineties, due to quite serious oppression by the music press, the Goth scene experienced a fairly major decline. The scene then consisted mostly of same-style, droning vampire-obsessed bands. The musical style played nowadays tends to be more light-hearted, but still with the deep lyrical content associated with more ‘traditional’ Goth music.
Goth by music falls between four main categories:
- 80s – Dark Wave
- Dark Techno/Industrial/EBM
- Dark Metal
To buy Goth-related music, check out the ‘Indie’ section in a large record store. The whole Goth scene is rather ‘underground’, meaning there are only a few internationally-known bands. Listen to the music, it will tell you more than mere words can.
The Medieval sound of Goth can be heard in bands that range from the likes of Subway To Sally (using re-built medieval instruments and chants, at times combined with e-guitars), Ataraxia, Corvus Corax, Hedningarna, Asgard. With these bands one can see how the band name hints at the medieval influence found in the music. And maybe Dead Can Dance4(DCD), although DCD did not see themselves as Goth. If you can’t lay your hands on DCD, you should try Lisa Gerrard’s solo CDs Mirror Pool and Duality; they both carry and convey the idea of inner tranquillity.
80s – Dark Wave
This genre is very loosely termed. It forms the main part, the heart of Goth music. The groups to listen to would be Fields of the Nephilim, maybe Sisters of Mercy, Cure, London after Midnight, Inkubus Sukkubus (maybe on the fringe of Pop), The House of Usher, Diary of Dreams, Christian Death, Nekromantik, Lacrimosa and Black Tape for a Blue Girl.
This is the newest style. Examples include In Strict Confidence, Dance or Die, Funker Vogt, VNV Nation, And One, Swamp Terrorists, Front 242.
If you want a song to sum up Goth, check out Fields of the Nephilim’s Celebrate (second seal). It can be found on the Psychonaut album and the Relevations double CD.
Another result of Goths’ preoccupation with aesthetics is that most, if not all, Goths are quite vain. But neither black, nor anything else visible to the eye, is an absolute necessity. Many stereotypical Goth items are ‘dress code’ in certain situations, just as a tuxedo is at a formal party. But a Goth might only wear his blacks to parties, and wear regular stuff most of the time. Remember, Goth is first of all a state of mind.
Goths generally are into jewellery in the form of symbols such as runes, pentagrams, ankhs and crosses. This is used to complement their dress. The last three can also be worn ‘upside down’. Worn this way the jewellery implies a reversal of meaning. Thus the reverse pentagram would no longer mean protection and the ankh would stand for eternal death rather than eternal life. The upside down symbol of Christianity would connote Satan (or the like), though it does not necessarily mean that the wearer is a Satanist or even believes in Satanism
Another common Goth thing is the use of make-up for both genders. Unsurprisingly, the preferred colour is black and is applied to lips, eyes and eyebrows. The effect is sometimes highlighted by giving the rest of the face a coating of white. Males, in the main, have black-coloured hair with the sides of the head shaven. Females either go for black or blonde for colour (a nice contrast to all the black gear) and whatever they fancy in styling.
The choice of clothing often varies according to the style of music being listened to. Difficult to categorise, here are a few pointers. The fans of Medieval can usually be relied upon to wear lace and frills, silk and velvet. Black. Females can be seen in very elegant robes looking like they were taken straight out of the last five centuries. Maybe a little more black in colour than back then. The 80s/Dark Wave people are generally rather plainly dressed. Black. Tecnho/Industrial tends to latex, leather and Metal towards spikes and leather. All Black.
Typical Goth dress items include capes, pikes6, long coats and laced-up trousers. Unkind people say that some female Goths wear in public what most non-Goth females wouldn’t wear in their bedroom with the curtains pulled shut. These independent-minded females often belong to the ‘SadoMaso’ branch of the Goth family tree.
Always remember: to a Goth black is not a colour – it’s a statement.
The Individual Goth Style
Perhaps unusually for a social subculture, there’s no real fixed ideal of being a Goth. No checklist that you can use to measure your Gothness. Every Goth has a different opinion of what being a Goth is. Common elements do include a sense of individuality and freedom. A fine sense of the ridiculous is essential. As for things being gothic or not: there’s no list. But there are limits.
- Mickey Mouse is not. Comics may be.
- Physical exercise is a non-starter. Sitting in front of the telly? Probably not.
- Backstreet Boys? A loud no. Beethoven might qualify.
- Gold jewellery is out. Silver, or similar jewellery, is in.
- Wearing gear because it’s a certain brand – Gap, Benneton, Adidas – is definitively not Goth.
- Beer, mead and blood-red wine tend to be the drinks of choice. Drugs are not over-popular – you could fall over and mess-up your hair.
- In the US there seems to be an ongoing discussion about whether Marilyn Manson is ‘Goth’ or not. In Germany this discussion never started for real, as his Goth claims have never been taken seriously. In most other countries the jury is still out.
- Driving an undertaker’s car could be described as the epitome of being Goth.
Peculiar Dance Style
When in a Goth club, one can observe a number of things:
- The peculiar style of dancing – two and a half steps to the front (or sideways) and back again.
- People don’t dance into one another and should they do so by accident they ask for forgiveness.
- People dancing Goth-style look as though they are looking for a lost contact lens.
- No violence. The Goth scene is very non-violent.
Sleeping In Coffins Not Mandatory
Closely related to the way that Goths dress up, is the myth that all Goths sleep in coffins. Some do and some consider a child’s casket a perfectly acceptable couch table. A Goth’s preferred colour of interior design would commonly be black with a tendency towards drapes, candles, torches, incense7, dried roses and maybe the occasional (fake) cobweb or skull.
Gothic Architecture Popular
Goths often additionally have a taste for things that are actually Gothic. The art and architecture of medieval Europe, especially cathedrals, illuminated manuscripts, and other products of medieval Christianity, are widely studied and appreciated8. They also appreciate ruins and graveyards, especially when old and overgrown with ivy. However, this doesn’t mean that any of the above traits apply to all Goths, or that they have to apply to all Goths. Neither are they necessarily taken to extremes; there’s a difference between enjoying Anne Rice novels and drinking blood for sexual pleasure.
Goth Specific Problems
There are some specific Goth problems areas.
- Pikes which you can’t wear when driving a car.
- Extra-long and pointed joint-rings9. Wearing these make it difficult to eat or reach into your pocket.
- Hot sunny days mean you suffer when you’re wearing five square-meters of black velvet cape.
- The colour black makes life difficult when you’re supposed to meet someone at a festival attended by 35,000 where everyone is wearing black.
- When you want a specific item (black) from your travel bag (black) in the middle of the night (black) but you can’t turn on the light and all the stuff in the bag is … black.