As Hebdige has documented in Subculture, the style, fashion, and music of these British youth groups was inexorably linked to social and economic conditions in England.
The subcultures discussed by Hebdige primarily flourished from the late 1960s through the late 1970s. Goth, however, was at its peak of popularity through the 1980s, so this chapter largely begins where Hebdige left off.
Young people growing up in Britain during the 1980s faced many challenges as well. The Thatcher era was a time of considerable economic and social upheaval in Britain, and popular culture necessarily reflected a certain amount of tension and anxiety.
This chapter explores possible reasons why gothic themes and aesthetics appealed to some British youths during the 1980s, and why the goth subculture and its music were both subversive and an expression of British national identity.
Before discussing how the music of the goth subculture demonstrated a distinctly English sensibility, however, it is worth considering the ways in which this movement reflected the culture of the 1980s in general.
In his book ‘Decade of Nightmares: The End of the Sixties and the Making of Eighties America’, Philip Jenkins describes the Reagan era as characterized by an elegiac fading of idealism and an absence of any real cultural creativity.
The author was, of course, referring to the United States when he made those statements, but President Reagan and Margaret Thatcher shared a similar ideology, and most of Jenkins’s observations could equally be applied to Great Britain, since the two leaders achieved the same economic and social objectives, using similar rhetoric and political strategies.
The pessimistic nature of goth’s artistic expression (as well as punk and heavy metal) and its inventive approach to fashion and songwriting were a symptom of the prevailing attitudes chronicled by Jenkins; if society is no longer interested in a creative approach to solving social problems, the gap will be filled by the artistic expression of subcultures.
Another characteristic that defined the 1980s was, according to Jenkins, a tendency for political leaders and the public to discuss social issues with a rigid, uncompromising, black and white, “us” vs. “them” mentality.
Jenkins felt that Reagan and Thatcher set the tone for all discourse in their respective countries by characterizing not only the Cold War as a struggle between good and evil, but social problems like drug abuse, crime, and poverty, as well.
Subcultures like goth could be seen as a backlash, or counterpoint, to this type of thinking by so self-consciously casting themselves in the role of an extreme Other with their exaggerated make-up and discordant music.
The gothic themes in the music and image of the subculture (with frequent references to the supernatural) are perhaps understandable, since political leaders were continuously describing social problems in equally fantastical, metaphysical terms.
If the bleakness of goth music could be potentially criticised for not presenting a mature vision of reality, it should be recognised that young people during the 1980s were constantly assailed by apocalyptic imagery and discourse from films such as ‘The Day After’, to the sermons of Evangelical pastors (who were a primary target of the goth group Christian Death), to the rhetoric of politicians.
In 1981, a survey conducted by NBC and the Associated Press found that 75 percent of adults polled expected a nuclear war. Jenkins explains at length in ‘Decade of Nightmares’ that the fantastical nature of depictions of nuclear war in popular culture perhaps were not as far-fetched as some might believe, since, according to Russian defectors, the Soviet government initially believed NATO’s Able/Archer exercises were a real attack against Warsaw Pact nations and came perilously close to launching a preemptive nuclear strike.
In light of the real dangers that existed, the anxiety and fear expressed in the creative work of subcultures is wholly understandable and represents much more than just postmodern aesthetic play.
Heavy metal artists such as Black Sabbath, Ozzy Osbourne, and Megadeth composed songs about nuclear war more frequently than goth bands (‘Black Planet’ by The Sisters of Mercy is the best-known goth song to deal directly with nuclear holocaust), but the anxiety expressed in their music clearly reflects the pervasive mood of the 1980s.
I frequently asked former goths, or goths in their thirties, if Cold War anxieties were a factor in determining their choice of music and dress, and most answered affirmatively.
One of my interviewees, Simon, from Newcastle, stated, “I grew up not far from a military base rumoured to house American nuclear warheads. If we were walking to school and looked up and saw a single missile we knew it was a test, but if we saw more than one we knew we had about six minutes to live. I found the situation very terrifying and I suppose that the music of goth bands helped me deal with it, I knew I was not the only one feeling uneasy.”
William Graebner, in an article titled ‘The Erotic and Destructive in 1980s Rock Music,’ states that songs like ’99 Red Balloons’ by the German pop singer Nena managed to “package Armageddon and good times” and were using fun as an antidote to being dominated by fear.
Goth could also be considered part of this trend towards using pleasure itself as a counter-cultural signifier. Mick Mercer states that “I’d rather be playing when the bomb drops” was a common expression used by goth bands at that time.
The anxiety expressed in goth music was also, plausibly, a reflection of the sensational and dramatic use of media-covered tragedies of all sorts, and there was a feeling among some musicians that British audiences were not as desensitised to violence and trauma as Americans were.
As Dave from the band Dominion related, “26 people get killed in McDonalds wouldn’t shock in America the way it would in England.”
For goth musicians, sensitivity to the collective moods and feelings in British society (as propagated by the media) was one of their primary criteria for determining authenticity.
There is one final social trend from the 1980s mentioned by Jenkins that could explain why gothic symbols and values were adopted by British punk bands. Goth artists rarely sang about supernatural or fantastical subjects; rather they usually dwelt on topics covering cruelty from everyday life, anxiety, neurosis, seduction, failed relationships, and various types of social commentary.
It is probably not coincidental that bands frequently sang about insanity and adopted an exaggerated angst-stricken image (appropriated from films such as ‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’) at a time when views on the mentally ill were rapidly changing.
Jenkins explains, “Radical sociologists saw mental illness as a label arising from unjust power relations rather than any objective condition. From this perspective, mentally ill patients were dissidents rather than victims of pernicious illness, and hospitals in practice differed little from Soviet-bloc institutions that similarly tried to impose official ideologies on their particular deviants.”
With attitudes such as these in circulation, musical and visual depictions of insanity could easily be interpreted as counter-culture symbols.