The Commodification of Whitby Goth Weekend and the Loss of a Subculture

Karl Spracklen
Karl Spracklen

Popular music as a subculture in late modernity is one obvious space where social identity is negotiated and performed, and there is a wealth of literature on the topic (Bennett, 2000; Cohen, 1991; Frith, 1983; Whiteley, 2000). However, research on music tourism is less developed (although see Connell and Gibson, 2002).

In this article, we will examine the phenomenon of the Whitby Goth Weekend, a modern Goth music festival (Goulding and Saren, 2009; Hodkinson, 2002), to explore the construction of authentic “Gothness”, the performance of Goth and the role of music tourism as part of a wider neo-liberal tourism policy.

We will examine marketing literature and websites that sell Whitby as a spooky town, and suggest that this strategy has driven the success of the Goth festival.

We will explore the development of the festival and the politics of its ownership, and its increasing visibility as a mainstream tourist destination for those who want to dress up for the weekend.

Methodologically, we are following the approach of LeGreco, and Tracy (2009) called “discourse tracing”: reading around the subject, becoming familiar with the subject, living the subject and figuring out what the issues are in that subject.

Our starting points are our previous work on Goths and dark leisure (Spracklen and Spracklen, 2012) and our own engagement and involvement in the Goth scene: we are both to a greater or lesser extent still involved in attending Goth events, and we have both identified with the label of Goth at periods in our social lives (though one of us is probably more comfortable being called a metaller).

We have both attended Goth nightclubs and gigs over a period of many years, and we have both attended the Whitby Goth Weekend. We are familiar with the scene and people in the scene are familiar to us, and we have an ethnographic insider position based on our lived experiences, reflections and formal research.

All these tracings are joined by our lurking on-line on various Goth sites, including the Whitby Goth Weekend site, and our surfing of local tourist websites and news websites such as the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).

Finally, to the discourse tracing we have added semi-structured interviews with eight Goths in the north of England scene, people who identify as Goths, who attend gigs and Goth nights.

By interviewing established Goths in the north of England, we will suggest that the mainstreaming of the festival has led to it becoming less attractive to those more established, older Goths who see the subculture’s authenticity as being rooted in the post-punk era, and who believe Goth subculture should be something one lives full-time.

We will use the work of Habermas (1984, 1987) on communicative and instrumental rationality, as developed by Spracklen (2009, 2011) on leisure and tourism, to help explain the ambivalence of performance when applied to tourism by Edensor (2001).

We will argue that the modern Whitby Goth Weekend is something that has become commodified, commodifying, in turn, the Goth-as-weekender; communicative rationality still operates to give Goths ownership of the myths and symbols that make up the imagined [symbolic?], imaginary community of “proper” Goth, but the spaces where such rationality can perform freely are restricted.

Before we sketch out the history of Goths, of tourism in Whitby, and the rise of the Goth Weekend, we will discuss in more detail the work of Spracklen (2011) and Habermas (1984, 1987), and how this relates to debates in tourism and leisure studies about authenticity and belonging.

Performance of the tourist role or the performativity of subcultural identities such as Goth presupposes an understanding by agents of the roles and scripts that are permissible on the public stage and the work involved to pass (Goffman, 1971).

Performativity, then, relates to questions of the authentic: how do agents demonstrate their authenticity? How do they pass — as “real” tourists or Goths? And what is the authentic culture that exists behind the curtain? These questions raise the problem of how authenticity can ever be understood when everything is a construction of some kind (Spracklen, 2009; Wang, 1999).

In discussing the impact of the work of MacCannell (1973, 1976) on tourist studies, Spracklen (2011) writes, “As first sketched out in the work of MacCannell (1973, 1976), authenticity, something real or essential in a place or experience, was the ultimate goal of every tourist… The morality of authenticity elides smoothly into a Western, middle-class sensibility of culture: the authentic is good because it runs counter to the homogenising tendencies of globalisation, because it encourages diversity and respect and cultural heterogeneity. MacCannell sees authentic cultures as existing, in a Gofmannesque sense, backstage.”

“Although authenticity and the quest for it has played an important part in the research agenda for leisure (e.g., Urry; Rojek and Urry, 1997; Wang, 1999; Aitchison, 2006; Belhassen, Caton and Stewart, 2008; Reisinger and Steiner, 2006; Steiner and Reisinger, 2006; Matheson, 2008; Andriotis, 2009), the concept has been the subject of much academic criticism and development.” (p. 102)

In Spracklen (2011), it is argued that authenticity is something pursued by those seeking to belong and meaning in their leisure lives — attending something, travelling somewhere, being a fan of something, is made more meaningful for the individual if it is perceived by them to be more authentic (less instrumental).

In other words, we are all trying to demonstrate our good choices in a commodified world — as Victor Turner (1969) puts it, we are all searching for a sense of communitas, a sense of belonging and existential satisfaction in the cold light of modernity.

This search for meaning and community is a search for authenticity. This account of the authentic relates to and can be explained by the ideas of Jurgen Habermas, who identifies two types of rationality at work in modernity.

Habermas identifies the Enlightenment as a critical turning point in human culture, a moment when the restrictions of religion and feudalism are challenged by the creation of a free public sphere — a space exemplified by the coffee shop and the newspaper, where people exchange ideas and discuss matters freely (Habermas, 1962).

This public sphere is, of course, contested by nations who want to control and limit freedoms, and the public sphere is free only for the bourgeois elites who have free time and money to engage in it. But it nonetheless establishes a space in which people meet as intellectual equals, exercising their agency and free will, and applying reasoning to what they believe and how they behave.

This public sphere encourages the development of science, democracy, republicanism, secularism, liberalism and radicalism, and creates what Habermas calls our “life-world”: it sees its culmination in philosophers and writers such as Thomas Paine. However, the story of modernity is the rise of another way of thinking and acting that, ironically, owes its origins to the same public sphere.

By the end of the nineteenth-century, the rise of the modern nation-state and the rise of global capitalism introduce rationalisation, industrialisation and monetisation into the life-world.

All these ways of thinking limit the ability of individual agents to think communicatively, and all are used by hegemonic powers to control and constrain action.

For Habermas (1984, 1987), the critical work of Adorno and Gramsci can be reconciled with liberal ideas about freedom by recognising the tension between the two irreconcilable rationalities, which underpin our actions: communicative rationality and instrumental rationality, which is a product of capitalism and the emergence of the modern nation-state.

At the end of Spracklen’s (2011) paper on whisky tourism, it is argued that “One can see, then, that discourses around Scottishness in whisky and whisky tourism both define something felt as real in communicative experience and something consumed through the apparatus of Habermasian instrumentality.

The discourses traced in this paper demonstrate the way in which authenticity is marketised, how whisky tourists are still caught in a dialectic of control. It is at once the commodification of leisure expressed in the brochure and the dream of liberty and the choice of the open road in a hundred Hollywood movies: as Cohen (1988) argues, “the tension between desires, expectations of something tangibly authentic and the reality of the tourist’s commodified experience. Tourism then returns us to the paradox of leisure: the way in which it is both freedom and choice and constraint and commodification.” (p. 114)

Edensor’s (2001) point about the ambivalence of performance can be rephrased using this Habermasian framework. The agency of performance in tourism is something that can be valued if it is something communicative: communicative rationality is at work when individuals get to decide for themselves how they are going to act and what roles they intend to play.

Authentic performances are guaranteed by communicative rationality: what is the right way to be a tourist, to be a Goth, is the product of public dialogue and critical debate between agents.

Fears about the authenticity of a tourist experience, or a subcultural identity formation, are connected to the negative nature of Edensor’s (2001) ambivalence: the fear of commodification and control.

This dark side to performativity is associated with instrumentality: the control of the tourist industry, the bottom-line economics that put profit before anything else, and the ways in which individual agency has been limited to making meaningless choices in a (post)modern market.

This fear of instrumentality is expressed by many researchers in tourist studies (Rojek and Urry, 1997; Rossetto, 2012; Urry, 1990), and has led some to argue that all tourism by definition is instrumental and hegemonically Western (Smith, 2012).

The very notion of being a tourist is problematic, despite the arguments of Crouch et al. (2001) that travel and tourism can be meaningful encounters for both sides of the encounter: tourists and travellers might think they are exploring themselves and others and contributing to the betterment of human relations, but they visit the places they travel to with money and power.

Music tourism, while clearly exhibiting instrumental rationality and the ambivalence of performance (especially where globalised pop and classical music is at stake, such as the Glastonbury and V Music Festivals – see Gelder and Robinson, 2009), might be better understood as a communicative drive for belonging and identity among music fans (see Bennett, 2000).

Music fans create self-referencing, subcultural communities that are symbolic and imaginary (Cohen, 1985): there are levels of belonging inside the communities that are accessible to those who can demonstrate knowledge and awareness of the symbolic boundaries that exist.

There is an enormous literature on music, music fandom and subcultural theory — from Hebdige (1979) on punk and reggae fans resisting the system to Kahn-Harris (2007) on extreme metal.

Although there are differences in theoretical and methodological approaches, subcultural theorists all recognise the importance of popular culture as a place for enacting agency in a (post)modern world. Fans control access to music communities, and define what (if any) spaces might be considered worthy of the tourist pilgrimage.

Lucas et al.’s (2011) research on black metal serves as a good case study of this communicative play in constructing belonging, identity and community.

The black metal scene might be a particularly conservative, traditional leisure form, but on the other hand, it thrives on the construction of subcultural identity, the establishment of neo-tribes and the globalisation and commodification of leisure.

It is in many ways a scene that seems to fit with the idea of the intentional and the liquid. But even though individuals are using agency to create community and identity and belonging from this obscure leisure form, there is a limit to this activity.

Black metal fans insist that individuals define their individuality by conforming to the idea of the elitist, misanthropic outsider (Lucas et al., 2011).

Playfulness and pastiche are not allowed, and fans and musicians alike police the boundaries of what is considered to conform to true black metal identity and ideology.

Beyond the boundaries of the scene, the instrumentality of the music industry and its relationship with hegemonic masculinity impose other structures on the individuals who choose to like the music.

There is some intentionality and some liquid transitions at work in the scene (fans take on the role of iconoclasts in their bedrooms, safe from the boring jobs they have), but this is bounded by wider social structures of late modern mainstream society (Lucas et al., 2011).

Using Habermas allows us to see beyond the existential, psychological mindscapes of Turner (1969) into the material spaces and places of contemporary society. Habermas allows us to situate the subcultural and the symbolic in the real processes of instrumentality.

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