Goth Subcultural Studies and the Postmodernism Lifestyle

Charles Allen Mueller
Charles Allen Mueller

Including a chapter on postmodernity and goth music may on the surface seem out of place, but I am convinced that the Marxist and semiotic scholarship of the Birmingham Center for Subcultural Studies, of which Dick Hebdige ‘Subculture: The Meaning of Style’ is the most famous and often-cited example, does have merit and validity.

My opinion is based on both my own experiences as a rock musician, the numerous interviews I conducted with former and current punks and goths in the United Kingdom, and the important role that popular music played in the counter-culture movements of the 1960s.

A postmodern approach to analysis typically rejects, or at the very least calls into question, the wisdom of using metanarratives or all-encompassing theories (Marxism, structuralism, psychoanalysis, etc.) to explain culture.

Postmodern theory also dictates that signs and symbols no longer have stable meanings, and it has little faith in political emancipation of any kind.

Rock musicians, as Hebdige, Walser, and I have documented, believe that signs still possess enough stable meaning, even if it may be residual, to be useful, expressive, and maybe even subversive.

I also believe, however, that many of the observations made by postmodern theorists such as Jean Baudrillard concerning the effect of the electronic media on contemporary society are also valid and credible, and I feel that scholars of popular music, such as Sarah Thornton, have been remiss in rejecting postmodern theory out of hand.

In this section, I do not propose to engage in postmodern debates about the possibility or impossibility of political change in an electronic media-dominated world, whether or not the media constructs a person’s sense of identity, or if reality has been permanently replaced by computer games and television shows.

Instead, I will focus on the way goth music could be considered a reflection of several of the major concerns raised by postmodern theorists to show how goth artists have used signs and symbols in ways that are consistent with beliefs about postmodernism, and to demonstrate how the media had a major impact on how goth bands composed songs.

The relationship between postmodern gender theory and goth artists has already been documented in Chapter 5.

The pessimistic and apocalyptic language of postmodern theory has much in common with the music of goth bands, and as Walser has shown with heavy metal as well.

Baudrillard, for example, speaking during the early 1980s stated “Our emotional mood oscillates between boredom and terror and its psychological signs are decomposition.”

Given the imagery, lyric content of the songs, and musical devices employed, the connection between goth (and most other British subcultures) and such a statement should be obvious as I have explained in Chapter 2.

The writings of Baudrillard and the music of goth artists share the same level of cynicism in their descriptions of contemporary living: “an incoherent cowboy film modernity: concrete, dust, duty-free, transistors, petrol, computers and the hubbub of useless traffics — as though the silence at the ends of the earth had to be obliterated.

All that is inhuman here is sublime in its natural desolation. All that is human is sordid, civilization’s waste.

There is some justice in the fact that modern man treats himself as a waste product.” Goth artists, by embracing visual and musical symbols of decay and ephemerality, underscore this idea of people as a waste product to an even greater degree than punk groups did. However, one could argue that the tone of their music reflects a sense of resignation, demonstrating the principle that people generally desire signs more than revolution.

One of the most important ways that goth music reflects postmodern principles in the realm of the social is the idea that “childhood and adolescence are today becoming spaces doomed by abandonment to marginality and delinquency.”

According to Baudrillard, childhood has virtually disappeared, and the reasons are primarily technological.

First, the media bombards young people with such a variety of ideas and images that they are forced to become instant adults in order to keep up with the media stream. This robs the young of a critical stage of development and a sense of otherness from adults.

This could be a reason why the expression of youth subcultures is often so colourful, dramatic, and deals with such sophisticated and mature topics.

Subculture music and fashion are also a means to capture and regain a sense of otherness.

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