Musically and aesthetically, Goth emerged from the bleak and disillusioned post-punk era of Britain in the early eighties. Whilst both Punk and Goth responded to what they saw as the fracture and failure of society, their disillusionment found expression in different moods.
If Punk’s dominant emotion was anger, Goth’s was sadness and melancholy: introspection, and a heightened awareness of dissonance in the emotional, psychological, or spiritual dynamics of the inner life, became a mainstay of Goth music, art, and literature.
Goth subculture is generally characterised by its musical and visual styles, but many Goths would argue that these are simply the expressions of an underlying aesthetic or world view which dwells on a fascination with the dark, the uncanny, and the mysterious.
For Goth writer Nancy Kilpatrick (2005: 1): “Goth is a state of mind […] a way of being that embraces what the normal world shuns, a lean toward and an obsession with all subjects dark and grim, a view of life that incorporates the world of night as well as the world of day. The gothically inclined make room for the noir in a global culture that favours white and prefers its darkness sanitized.”
Initially labelled “positive punk” bands such as Joy Division, The Cure, and Bauhaus laid a foundation of visual style, musical sound, and thematic focus.
Early Goth rock bands were characterized by their dark or black clothing, pale make-up, and heavy dark eyeliner and lipstick (for men and women); thin, reverberating guitars and eerily atmospheric synthesizers, with bass-heavy in the mix alongside deep, angst-ridden male vocals; and melancholic reflections on loneliness, disillusionment, mortality, and loss, often flavoured with motifs drawn from gothic horror, religion, or mythology.
The London club, The Batcave, set the tone for the classic Goth aesthetic in the early eighties by incorporating into its decor bats, cages, and instruments of torture in a deliberate harking back to the Hollywood horror films of the thirties and forties.
After a brief period of interest from mainstream music labels in the mid-eighties Goth faded from general pop culture by the nineties, but sustained itself in the British context as an underground scene, underpinned by independent record labels and promoters, local club venues, and a network of fanzines, supplemented later by a vibrant online community.
Overseas, however, and especially in Europe, Goth has gained a large following and expanded beyond the underground: in Germany, festivals such as Wave-Gotik-Treffen and M’Era Luna attract crowds of 15,000–20,000 people and magazines devoted to Goth culture, music, and style are generally available on newsstands (Brill, 2008: 4–6).
Goth music remains a significant component of the subculture’s distinctiveness. Tony Fonseca (2002: 60) characterizes it as: “the music of surrealism and decadence. It pushes musical boundaries to test what is acceptable in melody, instrument choice, chord progressions, and subject matter. To this end, the music revels in the power of raw experience, and often in the dark side of human nature, which sometimes finds its expression in the monstrous or grotesque.”
Whilst Goth music has diversified from its post-punk roots, the coherence of the scene still centres upon its core dystopian aesthetic, so that as sociologist Paul Hodkinson observes, there are few bands associated with the Goth scene which have no connection at all with “the themes of gloom and darkness” (2002: 47).
More than its distinctive musical styles and themes, it is perhaps Goth’s striking visual style which best identifies it as distinct from the mainstream culture. Sociological studies have indicated that self-identification as Goth, expressed in a commitment to the visual style which extends beyond purely leisure time and activity, is a primary component of many Goths’ sense of self (Hodkinson, 2002: 71–73).
Many Goths will wear a toned-down version of the style “as far as social pressures permit” in their everyday life, and books and websites for Goths often contain advice on the adoption of context-appropriate looks (Brill, 2008: 11; Venters, 2009).
The level of commitment required to construct and maintain their own version of Goth style is an indication of the importance of their subcultural identity to many Goths, and the growing numbers of mature or Elder goths in the scene supports the notion that for many, Goth is foundational to their sense of self rather than, as often characterized, an adolescent phase (Brill, 2008: 72; Hodkinson, 2011).
Goth visual style is frequently eclectic, spectacular, and transgressive. Classic Goth looks to combine elements as diverse as fetish wear and nineteenth-century mourning costume with pallid make-up (often referred to as “corpse paint”) to create a striking and startling juxtaposition of elements: “Drawing on such disparate sources as Punk, horror movies, Gothic novels, comic books, and Christian imagery Goths juxtapose familiar items in unconventional ways, changing meaning by shifting context. At once elegant and ghastly, earnest and parodic, this conflation embodies the paradoxical and dichotomous nature of the Gothmindset. Black clothing, hair, lipstick, nail polish and blackened eyes and whitened faces are both visually compelling and repulsive. While Goth fashion is striking and often very beautiful, it intentionally rejects and parodies mainstream ideals of beauty and good taste.” (Young, 1999: 78)
Fashion historian Catherine Spooner identifies fashion elements which foreground the taboos of sex and death as integral to Goth’s “internal iconography”, arguing that this is a crucial component in Goth’s positioning of itself as a subculture over-against “a cultural hegemony of the bland” (2004: 166).
Goth’s eclectic plundering of a rich mixture of visual and musical styles is indicative of the social constituency upon which it draws. In contrast to the working-class roots of many other subcultures, the majority of Goths are white and middle class, and as such the subculture has been described as “unusually educated and literate”, including a broader range of ages than many other subcultures and an unusually high number of professionals (Brill, 2008: 9).
Goths tend to be intelligent, thoughtful, articulate, and literate, able to appropriate discerningly not only from contemporary popular culture but from the historic gothic tradition, whether that be the medieval gothic or its eighteenth-century and subsequent revivals.
Catherine Spooner has suggested that Goth’s ability to continually appropriate new styles from the historic Gothic tradition and mainstream culture and blend them into its repertoire accounts for its longevity and richness (2012: 351), whilst Gavin Baddeley praises the scene as “the only youth cult with a literary and artistic tradition all of its own—outliving the trappings of youthful self-indulgence to become a viable lifestyle and aesthetic” (2006: 284).