Examining the Elements of the Goth Music Subculture

Charles Allen Mueller

Charles Allen Mueller

Writers who have been involved with the goth subculture have determined, that journalists for magazines such as New Musical Express, and Melody Maker were ultimately responsible for the “Gothic” or “goth” adjective being applied to a particularly introspective and morose type of rock music being composed by a select group of British punk bands during the early 1980s.

From reading the reviews of, and articles concerning, bands such as Siouxsie and the Banshees, Bauhaus, The Cure, The Sisters of Mercy, and others, it becomes clear that the adjective gothic was used by writers as a way of ridiculing the music of these artists.

Perhaps journalists were startled by the unusual sounds created by these groups and lacked the experience and vocabulary to describe such music. It is also probable that the writers could not help but notice the overwhelming foreboding quality of the music.

The obvious question that arises when analysing this music is whether there is anything truly “gothic” about this genre. Was the label simply the result of journalistic sensationalism and hyperbole, or is “goth” simply a misnomer propagated through the media?

There are many reasons why the appropriations of gothic aesthetics were an ideal way to build upon and intensify British punk rock. Dick Hebdige states that “Dread, in particular, was a sought-after commodity. It was the means with which to menace, and the elaborate freemasonry through which it was sustained and communicated on the street — the colours, the locks, the patois — was awesome and forbidding, suggesting as it did impregnable solidarity, an asceticism born of suffering.” The fashion of goths was even more menacing, consisting of ragged black garments. The style also retained the piercings, and spiked, or Mohawk hairstyles worn by punks according to my informants.

In addition, they stated that the androgyny and elaborateness of the fashion was far more extreme during the 1980s than what one would encounter in goth clubs today. The music performed by bands considered to be goth was undoubtedly consistent with Hebdige’s ideal of dread as a commodity.

The gothic in the arts inevitably carries an anti-establishment tone, and in England, it has been associated with capitalist critique (Stoker’s ‘Dracula’ for example), a fact that British art students were no doubt aware of. This corresponds in an indirect way with punk’s political terror.

Gothic aesthetics rely heavily on pointed contrasts, which harmonise with the “us versus them” mentality of subculture thinking. The Gothic spirit in the arts seeks to permeate and disrupt all that is commonplace, making everyday life seem unsafe. As Linda Bayer-Berenbaum points out, in modern horror stories, gothic writers always set their tales in the familiar. This aesthetic complements the punk goal of dramatising the urban decay which was all pervasive.

Many literary scholars and writers outside the academy have weighed in on what they feel makes a work “gothic” in style. Dave Thompson feels that artworks that are gothic are those obsessed with the harshest realities of life, but are simultaneously escapist.

Richard Davenport-Hines, in his survey of Gothic art, describes an aesthetic based on defacement that seeks to provoke strong reactions largely through shock and surface effects. He characterises the genre as possessing a theatrical intensity, an atmosphere that expresses a distrust of all enduring power structures and traditions. Gothic settings typically portray a world where nothing is sacred, or a society where individuals are in a constant state of risk or peril.

Vijay Mishra characterises gothic as being obsessed with trauma, excessive nostalgia, and apocalyptic narratives. Horner and Zlosnik remind us that in order to be genuinely subversive and adequately grotesque there must always be comic moments within a gothic work in order to bring its morose or disturbing elements into strong relief.

One of the most excellent summaries of essential gothic characteristics is found in Linda Bayer-Berenbaum’s book ‘The Gothic Imagination: Expansion in Gothic Literature and Art’. For her, the primary hallmark of gothic art is the exploration of extreme negative emotions: cruelty and melancholy. Gothic works often deal with personal or national tragedies and horrors, and the inability to achieve transcendence from them.

According to the author, the primary goal of such an artistic approach is the desire to increase the audience’s capacity for empathy. In order to stimulate this increased emotional sensitivity the artist must allow one to experience the world through the eyes of the victims, and therefore careful attention must be paid to atmosphere and setting.

The best gothic literature is composed in a way that allows the audience to partake sensually in the scene being described. Gothic artworks typically have no real climax but instead possess a constant tension, an overwhelming intensity and a sustained sense of foreboding.

Due to the inherent distrust of established institutions, conventions, and traditions, that are expressed in gothic artworks, restrictions of any kind-emotional, sexual, political or religious, are abhorred in the aesthetics of the genre.

The gothic love of beauty and decay is a manifestation of this desire to push and expand the boundaries of what is considered right or acceptable. Therefore gothic artworks are typically cast in a language that uses drastic, extraordinary gestures with no real concern for symmetry, order or proportion. Gothic art also relies heavily on symbol and metaphor — the ruined castles and decaying buildings in gothic settings are signifiers of mental and spiritual ruin.

The desire to expand consciousness and push boundaries often causes gothic art to have a great deal in common with decadent art, a style often associated with England during the 1890s. Both styles romanticise death, seek to beautify the grotesque, and simultaneously express both world-weariness and a love of the sensual. Both types of art view life as inherently dull and seek to remedy this feeling often by incorporating and juxtaposing many different elements and themes (orientalism is likewise associated with decadence in the art). But what both genres most strongly share is an interest in emotional ruin.

James Willsher sums up this idea by stating “Delirium and shattered nerves offer new, unfamiliar sensations and ways of looking at the world. This is the kind of distorted view of things that appeals to the decadent.” But whereas the decadent writer might embrace the perspectives offered by extreme emotional states for the quality of their experience in and of itself, the gothic writer’s primary motivation is their interest in the desire to produce the empathy that such artists feel is sorely lacking in society.

Willsher writes that British authors who often wrote in a decadent style “saw boredom and disaster” everywhere they looked and wanted to escape from it. The same could be said for many of those who joined English subcultures.

While most bands associated with the goth movement have not been pleased to be associated with such a limited audience, most admit that they self-consciously appropriated gothic aesthetic values from literature and film. This should not be surprising since virtually all art produced in the postmodern age is largely presumed to reflect a wide range of styles and influences.

The musicians were on the whole, thoughtful, well-read artists who wished to bring something of the intensity and style from the films and literature that resonated with them into their songwriting.

For example, Siouxsie and the Banshees admit that some of the songs on the albums ‘Join Hands’ (1979) and ‘JuJu’ (1981) were inspired by the work of E. A. Poe.’ Join Hands’ even contains a song called ‘Premature Burial,’ but it seems to have little to do with the Poe original; the theme is being used as a metaphor in the song for losing one’s identity or losing one’s principles.

Banshee’s bassist Steven Severen recalls “Siouxsie and I were really into Poe at the time and I wanted to try to recreate that suffocating motive he used so often.”

Mick Mercer asserts that Poe’s influence was crucial to the development of goth. He feels that the characteristics that goth music shares with Poe’s poetry and short stories are its brevity and “sheer concentrated power.”

The reader/listener is instantly immersed in the atmosphere of the scene, and both genres relentlessly scrutinise the actions, motivations and desires of others.

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