“Blue Collar Goth”: Contextualizing Baltimore Identities Outside of the Club

Leah Bush

Leah Bush

Made famous as the home of 1970s cult filmmaker John Waters and the late transgender star Divine, both icons of shock and eccentricity, Baltimore has a reputation for embracing the deviant. Often overshadowed by its larger, brasher neighboring cities on the Eastern seaboard, Baltimore’s relative affordability and compact size have made it a safe haven for eccentrics well into adulthood.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re weird, this is Baltimore” is a common local catchphrase for when describing city life. Linda is especially glad to have a scene “with people who are my age and maybe a little older, who are still living life on their own terms, where they said ‘I’m older but I still want to go out, I still want to listen to wild and crazy music, I still want to look freaky.’” This internalized feeling of affinity with “being freaky” is so strong that Linda, whose short hair was dyed bright pink, was visibly uncomfortable among an affluent crowd when she attended a Skydivers show at an upscale venue in Annapolis, Maryland in September 2015, remarking to me on the rooftop bar that “I’m so used to city eccentrics that I don’t know what to do around these people.”

Although flamboyant sartorial styles are embraced in Baltimore on an everyday basis, Baltimore Goth is unique because the boundaries of the scene are not currently style-based, making the city an ideal site to examine how Gothic identities are expressed and understood beyond nightclubs. The subdued styles in Baltimore differ from the performative aspects of Goth which are apparent in other American cities.

Ryan Rhea’s 2005 documentary ‘American Goth’ presents the Goth subculture in St. Louis, Missouri, as a site of perpetual heightened performance. Rhea’s adult Goths wax rhapsodic about themes of vampires and darkness to spooky low-fi background music, and generally come across as a makeup-covered theatrical bunch fitting Dunja Brill’s descriptions of Gothic dress in the late 1990s: elaborately modelled, long, black dyed hair, effeminate male clothing styles, delicate fabrics, Victorian-inspired dress, skinny-fit clothes, skirts, and lots of black jewelry with crosses, magical symbols, skulls, and bats.

Over the past twenty years, the Baltimore scene has self-segregated from the neighboring Washington, D.C. scene which holds more frequent events: the weekly event Spellbound and monthly event Midnight, both held at neighborhood bars temporarily transformed into spaces for Gothic identities. With a more highly educated and transient population than Baltimore, the D.C. scene is very restrictive and appearance based; a clubgoer who wears street clothes to Spellbound is viewed with disdain for not conforming to Gothic styles.

Neska describes Baltimore events as very inclusive: “I think that’s another thing that makes Baltimore a little bit unique, in that it’s not costume oriented here. Everybody dresses a little bit different. Look at the crowd [at Batz] last night, there’s jeans, there’s t-shirts, there’s cowboy hats, there’s lots of kilts! … It’s not really fashion oriented… We’re not corporate Goth [like Goths in D.C. who make a lot of money], we’re blue collar Goth!”

Baltimore’s “blue collar Goth” is tied into the city’s working class identity. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, young Goths who came from a wealthy background were looked down upon by their peers, who cobbled together outfits from thrift stores.

Roy Retrofit of the synth-rock band Red This Ever describes his hometown of Baltimore as “weird, subdued, and welcoming”; a city where his trailer park background is not a basis for judgment and class boundaries seem to be an illusion because he and his wife Ada are surrounded by people who have “let go of the idea that they’re going to be extraordinarily wealthy and just live with the mantra of enjoying their lives… We live like kings, because we love what we’re doing!”

Waters’s Baltimore is a quirky, working-class city with pink flamingos in the front yard and marble stoops glistening on streets lined with historic rowhomes. These images of eccentricity and the proximity of nightclubs led Linda and Neska to choose an urban lifestyle, both moving into the city when they were in their late 20s.

Linda achieved her goal of moving into Hampden, a predominantly white former mill town full of boutiques, galleries, and bars which has served as an inspiration for Waters, who presciently described the neighborhood to the Baltimore Sun as an “uneasy mixture of redneck culture and hipster culture.”

Neska has rented the same studio apartment in the nearby Charles Village, a more racially diverse middle-class area which neighbors the Johns Hopkins University, for twelve years, commuting all over the state for daytime employment, while Michael has remained a suburban dweller, living with his wife and family in a single-family home in a quiet part of Cockeysville, the suburb where he and Neska attended high school.

Throughout this project, my surprise grew as I found out how much my life history has in common with my informants. All of us grew up in the Baltimore area and have lived in Cockeysville, a historic town fifteen miles north of the city which has been rapidly swallowed in the past fifty years by suburban sprawl, and straddles the edge of suburbia and the beginning of rural northern Baltimore County.

All of us grew up in middle-class households. And most important for this project, our impressions of middle-class normativity are shaped by the public high school that three of us attended, Dulaney High School, commonly and erroneously known in the local lexicon as “the rich kids’ high school” because of its location in the Dulaney Valley area of Timonium, which was white and upper middle class in the 1960s but rapidly became more ethnically diverse when the surrounding historic estates were sold to apartment developers in the late 1970s.

The apartments in Timonium and Cockeysville are now home to a mix of young white and African-American families, college students from the nearby Towson University, government-subsidized housing for low-income Baltimoreans, and immigrants from Asia, India, and Mexico.

The snooty “Dulaney Valley” attitude that families who have been longtime residents display continues to ignore these demographic changes, and Dulaney’s local reputation as a high school for wealthy white families remains intact despite clear evidence to the contrary.

The longer I spoke with Michael and Neska, the easier it was to picture them sitting in the school cafeteria with the same group of teenage outcasts with whom I shared my lunch breaks ten years later. And growing up ten years later is the key to unpacking our differences and framing this project.

My informants, who range from ages 40-48, are considered part of the much-maligned “Generation X” – a category which Gullette argues has been culturally constructed as a way to divide the public and the workforce against each other.

Cohort naming, such as “Xers,” “Boomers,” and now “Millennial,” serves the function of fracturing the life course and generational unity. “Xers” were first constructed by the media as lazy “slackers” and then as sympathetic individuals, with the effect of framing the then-midlife “Baby Boomers” as unhappy middle-agers rapidly on the path to irrelevancy.

But Gullette does not imply that there are no differences between people of different ages. Born in 1982, my age floats between generational categories – I am too young to be considered Generation X and too old to be a Millennial, growing up in a nether region of age which is neglected by the media’s generational separations – and the Goth subculture seemed somewhat different for people around my age.

At one point during our interview, Michael laughingly turned the tables and asked me “How many Goths your age or younger do you know? Like five?” – implying that Goth had changed so much in the eight years between our high school graduation dates that it was no longer recognizable, or that the subculture had simply vanished.

My high school years were spent in the shadow of the Columbine massacre, when Goth was inscribed in the cultural imaginary as a youth cult affiliated with violence and witchcraft rather than dark music and a collection of macabre fashion styles drawn from early ‘80s musicians, pirates, and Poe. And the answer to Michael’s question is “none.”

Although many of my acquaintances were accused of being Goths because of their trench coats and t-shirts with heavy metal band logos interspersed with flames and crosses, I never knew any Goths. I just heard rumors that there was a Goth club downtown called the Orpheus – the nightclub where my informants were spending their young adulthood during the same time period, and sorting through the confusions of life by growing up Goth.

The local commonalities I shared with my informants gave me the advantage of understanding the normative structures which my informants have chosen to shape their lives against.

The cultural signifiers which they repeatedly mentioned in interviews – “alligator shirts,” “lacrosse jackets,” “driving a [expletive] Lexus,” “Brooks Brothers suits” – add up to a specific image of white, heterosexual, middle-class structures portrayed as desirable by the mass media and local surroundings. These icons of normativity are all dependent on what Halberstam describes as a “middle-class logic of reproductive temporality.” But the Gothic signifiers which they also mentioned add up to an alternative temporality – a Gothic temporality – composed of music, style, and a certain attitude where, in Linda’s words, “at the root of it, you have to be someone that likes things that most people just don’t like… because [those things are] too dark.”

The dark things that Linda likes are black clothes, spiders, cemeteries, and most of all, Gothic music. According to Gunn, Gothic music is innately linked to self-description and self-identity: “the significations of darkness [in Goth music] are drawn on to create fantasies of identity that help to sustain a persona distinct from a perceived mainstream.”

Gothic rock bands from the early 1980s like Dead Can Dance, Sisters of Mercy, and Bauhaus repeatedly recur as references along their life paths. These bands are tied to darkness through their morbid lyrics, intense and passionate music, and the highly influential image which inspired the corresponding subcultural style.

Jacques Attali writes that “the only thing common to all music is that it gives structure to noise,” arguing that society’s musical process of structuring noise into music is also the political process of structuring community.

In a study of middle-aged queers’ involvement in music scenes, Jodie Taylor argues that the temporal qualities of music and the “youthful” qualities associated with subcultural participation suggest that music is a contributing factor in queering temporalities of middle age.

As, according to Hodkinson, typical elements of association with the Goth subculture throughout adulthood include attendance at nightclub events and the incorporation of Gothic styles of dress in the club and in their daily lives, continuing participation in the subculture represents a form of strange temporalities for Elder Goths whose lifeways allow for significant amounts of their available time spent attending, or in the case of Goth musicians and DJs, working, at nightclubs and socializing with other adults late into the night.

Gothic Studies scholar Isabella van Elferen posits that transgression in Goth is often signaled through music associated with a type of transcendence which leads to the dissolution of boundaries such as between the worldly and the divine.

This transgression and transcendence apparent in Gothic music also breaks down boundaries between youth and adulthood, allowing lifelong Gothic temporalities to form around music and style.

The draw of Baltimore’s “Blue Collar Goth” was and is more than spectacular style; it is an affinity with Gothic music which provided an entrance into and lifelong membership with the Gothic community.

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