Goth. Identity, Style and Subculture

Extract from Goth. Identity, Style and Subculture, by Paul Hodkinson.

 

Citation information as follows:

Hodkinson, P. (2002), Goth. Identity, Style and Subculture, Oxford, Berg.

 

© Paul Hodkinson 2002.

 

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Please note that the following extract is taken from a pre-publication draft and does not include minor changes made prior to publication.

 

 

From Chapter 3, ‘Goth as a Subcultural Style’…

 

An acceptance of this notion of the breakdown of clear distinct styles pervades the reasoning of some of those who seek to replace the notion of subculture with terms such asneo-tribescene and lifestyle. While acknowledging some kind of stylistic organization to the range of floating artefacts, such descriptors seek to move away from the fixed, consistent and clearly bounded sets of looks and sounds implied by traditional subcultural theory. Bennett, for example, argues that music tastes tend to have as much to do with individualized processes of selection and meaning as with collective normative systems:

 

Sifting through various types of music, artists and sounds, consumers characteristically choose songs and instrumental pieces which appeal to them with the effect that the stylistic boundaries existing between the latter become rather less important than the meaning which the chosen body of music as a whole assumes for the listener. (Bennett 1999: 610)

 

Muggleton has also argued that style and taste are essentially individualized, playing down the importance of distinct collective styles on the basis of the testimonies of participants themselves. Even in those cases where his interview respondents cautiously accepted an involvement with a particular genre or grouping, he reports a strong perception that their tastes and those of fellow participants were individual and distinctive to themselves rather than determined by group norms (Muggleton 2000: 55-80). This is consistent with the observation of Sarah Thornton (1995: 99) that participants of early 1990s British club culture tended to play up the heterogeneity of the ‘crowd’ with which they associated themselves. On the basis of such apparent evidence of internal diversity, Muggleton concludes that contemporary subcultures are essentially liminal and, as such, ‘characterised as much by ambiguity and diversity as by coherence and definition’ (Muggleton 2000: 75).

 

Many of my own open-ended interview respondents were also keen to emphasize their individuality rather than talking about their conformity to a clear and consistent set of group-specific symbols, as in the case of the following respondent from Plymouth:

 

G1 (male): You can do what you want and you can get away with it, and not actually give a shit what anyone thinks of you.

 

This finding was replicated in some responses to the questionnaire I conducted at the Whitby Gothic Weekend.

 

WQ5b: In your own words, please explain what the goth scene is all about.

43 (male):  Having the absolute freedom to dress as you want and to express yourself as you want.

 

As alluded to in the introduction to this book, though, an over-reliance upon the ways in which subcultural participants choose to respond to direct questioning can sometimes result in questionable conclusions. Although individuality did manifest itself to some degree, as we shall see, a careful comparative analysis of the behaviour, appearance and testimonies of goths over a substantial period of time and in various places indicated that many interviewees exaggerated the extent of their stylistic difference from other goths and underplayed the internal consistency of the style. In Chapter 4, this tendency to exaggerate one’s individuality will be explained with reference to social pressures induced by subcultural received wisdom, or ideology.

 

 

… rather than conceiving of the goth scene’s values as forming a wholly exclusive singular subcultural way of being, it would be preferable to regard participants as engaging in a limited sort of pick ‘n’ mix, in which the vast majority of selections have to be drawn from a relatively clear subcultural range of acceptable possibilities. Therefore, although we have cautioned against overestimation of the role of individuality, it did manifest itself to a limited degree. Goths wishing to gain the respect of their peers usually sought to select their own individual concoction from the range of acceptable artefacts and themes and also to make subtle additions and adaptations from beyond the established stylistic boundaries. There was a need for a mixture of conformity and innovation, as explained by the following interviewee:

 

B6 (male): I think you have to conform to a certain extent and then just take bits from everywhere until you see things that you like and eventually you have your own look because of it.

 

Meanwhile, although it clearly placed one within the boundaries of the subculture, adopting ‘standard’ goth artefacts and modes of behaviour over-predictably sometimes resulted in accusations of pretentiousness or ‘trying too hard’. An element of individuality, then, guaranteed a degree of overall diversity and helped ensure the dynamism of the style as a whole.

 

Nevertheless, both individual variations and general changes tended to occur in the context of an overall consistency with the strict general stylistic regulations of the group. Significant transgressions also tended to be the privilege of initially established and respected participants, due to the safety net of their existing reputation and their possession of an in-depth understanding of what kinds of stylistic encroachments might be suitable. It tended to be more difficult for newcomers to the goth scene successfully to deviate:

 

S3 (female): You don’t really know much about gothic clothing at the beginning so you don’t know much about the scene to have developed your own style of gothdom (laughs).

 

Important though it was, then, the tendency for certain types of transgression to take place was less notable than the overall levels of commitment to the subculture’s distinctive range of aesthetic features. We shall see throughout the book that the range from which individuals would select was relatively consistent from time to time and place to place and, usually, distinctive to the subculture, even in non-extreme cases. While there were overlaps with various elements of external culture, then, goths were usually able to identify one another in the street on the basis of appearance, regardless of where they were, as alluded to by the following interviewee from Birmingham:

 

J12 (male): Like I go down to Cambridge to stay with friends of mine and I saw – like everywhere I’ve gone – I wouldn’t have noticed them before but I‘ve noticed them now – the goths, in all the different areas. I point them out. Its like ‘one of our boys!’

PH: Does it feel like that then?

J12 (male): Yeah, it feels like that in Birmingham too.  If I’m walking… and I’ll see someone from the Toreador [Birmingham goth pub] or some general goth, I’ll walk past and think, ‘that’s one of our lot that is’ and I’ll give them a nod or something like that.

 

Indeed, goths I spent time with often made use of their ability to recognize fellow participants. For example, if unable to find their way to an event, it was an established strategy to identify other goths and follow them, with considerable confidence, from their appearance, as to where they were going.

 

 

 

From Chapter 4, ‘Insiders and Outsiders’…

 

A well-articulated self-critique from one of my interviewees illustrates that proclamations of ‘individuality’ on the part of goths were a very well established yet highly questionable ‘common sense’ response to questions relating to style and identity:

 

PH: So what you’re kind of saying is that it is important to be different?

T3 (female): Yeah, although you always say that like, you’re all individuals, but everyone’s got the same boots on! Do you know what I mean – ‘oh aren’t we individual with all our ripped fishnets and our New Rocks [make of boot]’.

 

Indeed, while outright or hostile rejections of subcultural identity were actually quite rare in the interviews I conducted, this desire to emphasize individuality was sometimes linked with a degree of hesitancy about directly describing oneself as ‘a goth’. Nevertheless, it is clear from the aforementioned self-conscious slogans on T-shirts and badges that some individuals were keen to associate themselves directly and openly with goth as a label, something in no way diluted by the self-conscious humour which often characterized such attire. Consistent with this, although some were more cautious than others, all those who took part in my open-ended, unstructured interviews eventually indicated a strong sense of group affiliation. Indeed, in some cases, participants were positively enthusiastic to identify themselves as members of the goth scene:

 

J6 (female): If someone goes ‘goth!’, I go, ‘yes, I’ve been recognized!’

 

Meanwhile, others disclosed a conscious identification with a perceived goth scene in the course of placing themselves in relation to a number of perceived different ‘types’ of goths and some even described their own internal movement over time, from one to another:

 

C2 (male): I started off as a sort of tail-coaty goth and went more and more vampiry, and then I switched colours to beige – and I was sort of Nephilimy beige goth for a while – I had a beige tail-coat, beige leather trousers and beige boots.

 

For the most part, even those who were initially resistant tended to become more relaxed about disclosing their sense of affiliation as discussions progressed. At the very least, most became happy to talk about being involved in the goth scene or goth stuff, or to associate themselves explicitly with music, clothes, events and fanzines they chose to describe as goth. Most importantly, regardless of whether they initially described themselves as a goth, with or without prefix, virtually every respondent, at some point in his or her interview, emphasized feelings of identification, similarity and community, with others perceived to share their tastes in fashion and music. Here is one example of many such comments:

 

M2 (male): Goth is a tribe… it’s just a group of people that get together and say…  ‘we have something in common – we have how we dress, how we look, how we feel and the kind of people we’re interested in or music we’re interested in, in common.’

 

 

The danger of theoretical overemphasis on multiplicity and ephemerality is illustrated even more clearly, perhaps, by the connection between goths’ translocal affiliation with one another and an equally strong sense of collective distinction from those whose appearance or lifestyles were deemed antithetical to those of the subculture. This usually involved a generalized conception of ‘normal’ culture, ‘the mainstream’ or ‘trendies’. The importance of this sense of distinctiveness was demonstrated by the tendency for many goths to resort to such denigration of ‘trendies’ in response to questioning concerning the characteristics of the goth scene itself, as with the following comment in response to the Whitby Festival Questionnaire:

 

WQ5b: In your own words, please explain what is the goth scene is all about.

109 (female): Being different to all the mindless, brain-dead clones that walk around small town England.

 

The practice of distinguishing one’s own tastes from those of a perceived ‘other’ in order to legitimize them is referred to by Pierre Bourdieu as part of his study of classification and cultural tastes:

 

Tastes (i.e. manifested preferences) are the practical affirmation of an inevitable difference. It is no accident that, when they have to be justified, they are asserted purely negatively, by the refusal of others’ tastes… all tastes are perhaps first and foremost, distastes. (Bourdieu 1984: 56)

 

The specific importance of a single point of collective subcultural identity and distinction among goths, though, is particularly consistent with Sarah Thornton’s account (1995: 99), inspired by Bourdieu, of the negative construction by British clubbers of a similar ‘mainstream’, against which they defined and strengthened their own sense of identity. David Locher makes a similar point in the context of a study of a subculture based around ‘industrial’ music, arguing that in order to be an insider:

 

it is not enough to like that which the other members like, one must also dislike what the other members do not like… it is the exclusionary nature of such groups that reinforces cohesion among the members (Locher 1998: 101).

 

This emphasis is broadly consistent, of course, with Howard Becker’s discussion, some decades ago, of the significance of a derision of  ‘squares’ for the strength of distinctive identity and indeed superiority or ‘hipness’ held by jazz musicians (Becker 1963). The relationship between identity and difference in contemporary elective affiliations is also discussed in detail by theorists of more fluid unstable forms of collective identity, notably Chaney (1996) and Hetherington (1998a). As well as a general sense of the importance of distinction, though, what Thornton’s and Locher’s perspectives point to is the primacy to some individuals of relatively one-dimensional ‘us’ and ‘them’ distinctions revolving around a single affiliation. This can be contrasted with the emphasis on numerous cross-cutting and ever changing systems of tastes and distastes, identifications and disidentifications focused on  by more postmodern-oriented approaches.

 

Among goths, the strength of the distinction from perceived outsiders was particularly intensive as a result of the prejudice and occasional violence goths were prone to receive in light of their unconventional appearance. Many interviewees keenly recounted experiences of such abuse or assault, as in this example from a Leeds-based interviewee:

 

N1 (female): Me and [friend] were walking past Berlins and these couple of lasses were like going ‘ere you tarts, vampire bitches’… you go in city pubs and all the lads are like ‘what have you got that in your lip for, what else you got done?’

 

The perception among goths that such incidents reflected the narrow-minded characteristics of a societal majority is illustrated by the way the same interviewee used such experiences to justify her own dislike of ‘trendies’:

 

N1 (female): When you get treated like that why should you have respect for someone else from their type of group?

 

Similarly, a Birmingham respondent regarded ‘trendies’ with considerable caution as a result of past experience of abuse, in spite of placing some of his friends within this category:

 

J12 (male): I had a discussion with a trendy mate… and I said ‘well how many times have you been at a bus stop and had a goth shouting abuse at you and starting a fight on you? … it’s happened to me with your lot – we’re the ones that get trouble off you’.

 

The way the receipt of such hostility strengthened goths’ reciprocal dislike of a perceived homogenous group of ‘trendies’ has a clear resemblance to Albert Cohen’s circle of increasing subcultural delinquency (A. Cohen 1955). For Cohen, as subcultural members earn contempt or aggression from society outside, they collectively come to devalue ‘the good will and respect of those whose good will and respect are forfeit anyway’ and the subculture ‘comes to include hostile and contemptuous images of those groups whose enmity they have earned’ (ibid.: 68). The final part of the circular process is that the shared identity of subcultural insiders is thoroughly intensified by the process: ‘The hostility of the “out-group”, thus engendered or aggravated may serve to protect the “in-group” from mixed feelings about its way of life’ (ibid.: 69). Although Cohen’s account, like those of Jock Young (1971) and Stan Cohen (1972), may overestimate and oversimplify the importance of outside hostility to the construction of subcultural identities, a circular process along the lines of that described certainly appears to have fed and intensified goths’ sense of ‘us’ and ‘them’, as here:

 

J12 (male): The way I see it… all us goths should be mates because we’ve all got the one common factor and that’s the trendies taking the piss out of us all.

 

However, it was clear that goths’ dislike of the mainstream also tended to reflect a positive and necessary enjoyment on their part of feeling collectively different and, more specifically, superior to ‘outsiders’. Not surprisingly, perhaps, when it was put to interviewees that the sense of subcultural identity they so cherished was often reliant upon a rather elitist differentiation of themselves from outsiders, the instant reaction was often to disagree. The following response was typical:

 

T3 (female): I think it’s not what you are not into, it’s what you are into. It’s what goth is.

 

The questionable accuracy of the first part of this sentiment, though, was indicated when respondents were asked how they would feel if goth music and style were prominent in the mass media and highly popular throughout society. In response, the same interviewee articulated the link between shared identity and collective distinction extremely honestly and clearly:

 

T3 (female): If every single person in the UK was a goth then a lot of goths wouldn’t like it…  I think I’d still be one, but I wouldn’t like everyone else being one.

S7 (female): I wouldn’t like it

PH: Why?

T3: It’s not like you’re a goth because you want to stand out, but you do like sort of being different from everyone else, although when you’re with a load of goths you blend in, but you’re all different, if you know what I mean, from everyone else.

 

As well as re-emphasizing the somewhat one-dimensional sense of identity and distinction held by many, the way in which goths so frequently positioned themselves against those they perceived as ‘trendies’ is significant in that it implies they also shared a set of moral assumptions about their lifestyle which allowed many of them to understand it as culturally superior. These I shall refer to as the ideals of the subculture.

 

© Paul Hodkinson 2002.

 

 

 

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