An Introduction from Gothic Music to Modern Pop Goth

Justin D. Edwards

Justin D. Edwards

At the end of the first decade of the twenty-first-century, the expression “pop goth” has entered the lexicon of popular culture. It is most commonly used in reference to contemporary forms of fashion and music, but it is increasingly employed in reference to a strand of cultural production that appears in cinema, television, young adult fiction, visual culture and even dark tourism.

The above quotation from The Urban Dictionary, an online user-generated compilation of contemporary street slang, offers several insights into how the expression “pop goth” is used. Most notable is, for instance, the way it blurs the relationship between performance and performativity.

For in this passage the collective — a group of people — “act gothic” through self-presentation and dress, indicating that the fluid subject decides to take up and perform a Gothic identity while it is in fashion. This performance, then, presupposes the idea of a pre-linguistic inner core of the “normal kids” who put on the Gothic performance.

Likewise, it assumes a real Gothic identity to which pop goth artificially replicates, represents and even aspires. Yet this definition also suggests that pop goth includes a performativity that is based on the textual and visual language of merchandising, marketing and promotion. For pop goth acts are not only performed by the subject but performatively constitute the subject in that she is the effect of discourse rather than the cause of it. Here, pop goth performativity contests the very notion of subjectivity — our inner Goth — by rejecting the very presupposition of a pre-existing subject.

According to The Urban Dictionary, then, “pop goth” is the performance of a Gothic performance. It is not bona fide Gothic; it lacks the subculture’s street cred; it is a byproduct of a mass-merchandised style that is sold to “normal” kids who usually dress “normal” and act “normal.”

In this, pop goth is a manifestation of Gothic style and aesthetics in mainstream popular culture. But this definition also marks out its difference from Gothic: the “real” Goth does not drift from one identificatory fashion to another (one scene to another); instead, she lives the Gothic life, remains loyal and true to it.

In response to such reductive views of “pop-goth,” this volume explores what we are branding Pop Goth, a popular form of contemporary cultural production that fluidly moves both inside and outside of Gothic. Thus, in Pop Goth: Gothic in Contemporary Literature and Popular Culture, we are not necessarily proclaiming the death of Gothic — or, for that matter, any other subculture that is threatened to be killed off by mainstream appropriation — rather, we seek to examine how a strand of Gothic aesthetics has become increasingly fashionable and has been woven into the very fabric of twenty-first-century popular culture.

From the teen fictions of the seemingly endless ‘Twilight’ saga to films like ‘Zombieland’ (2009) and from the album such as Lady Gaga’s ‘Fame Monster’ (2009) to BBC television shows like ‘Being Human’ (2010), the tropes, politics and aesthetics of Gothic are omnipresent. Yet definitions of Pop Goth are varied and elusive, even at times spectral.

For some, Pop Goth is one more manifestation of Gothic’s staying power — its ability to live on in various forms and guises from the 1780s to the 1980s to what we see on our contemporary screens and texts (and purchase in our shopping malls or High Streets). For others, though, Gothic popular culture is not really Gothic at all; rather, it is — along with expressions like “Goth Lite” and “Black Dresser” — a commercialised aesthetic and commodified style that is associated with dressing dark and writing-up.

In this, “Pop Goth” is consistent with other “pops”: pop psychology, pop philosophy, pop music, even a fashion boutique called Pop Life. Here, the prefix “pop” refers to a popular form that is accessible to the general public and that is seen to, by extension, lack authenticity — it is pseudo and derivative, not bona fide and certainly not the “real thing.”

This raises several questions we seek to address in this volume: Is popular Gothic an inferior copy of a more sophisticated original? Might we conceptualise Gothic popular culture as a counterfeit form of Gothic? Or should we simply dismiss Pop Goth as something tainted by poseurs and wannabes?

As a starting point, we propose that one way to address these questions is by regarding Pop Goth as an offshoot of Gothic and, as a result, arising out of a form of cultural production that has always been concerned with blurring the boundaries between the real and unreal, authentic and inauthentic, copy and counterfeit (Hogle 295; Spooner 37).

From this perspective, the cultural phenomenon of contemporary Gothic pop culture is, among other things, the revenant of the counterfeited medieval narrative of Horace Walpole’s ‘Castle of Otranto’ (1764) or the fake translations and forged bills of exchange in Charles Brockden Brown’s ‘Arthur Mervyn’ (1800). For the presence of Gothic in contemporary popular culture bears an uncanny resemblance to other periods of Gothic production and proliferation; our use of the expression “Pop Goth” thus highlights a slippery signification that is simultaneously inside and outside of Gothic.

Moreover, there is an ambiguity here (a doubleness?) whereby Pop Goth moves fluidly between trends in popular culture — a series of “pops” — and an aesthetic (a lifestyle?) associated with Gothic. In recent Gothic popular culture, then, we find both continuity and rupture, a form of popular cultural production that reaches beyond binaries (either/or) as simultaneously Gothic and not Gothic.

Pop Goth: Gothic in Contemporary Literature and Popular Culture is not interested in Gothic subcultures per se. Instead, we examine how aspects of the various waves of Gothic (from, for instance, the 1790s, 1890s and 1990s) have become translated into the ubiquitous Gothic stylings of popular culture from 2000 to 2010.

Over the last decade, the mainstreaming of a Gothic aesthetic has been unprecedented; however, we also recognise that Gothic has always been profitable and lucrative. In the 1790s, for instance, Ann Radcliffe received the unprecedented sums of £500 for the copyright of her hugely popular gothic novel ‘The Mysteries of Udolpho’ (1794) and £800 for ‘The Italian’ (1797); likewise, favourite Goth bands such as The Cure sold out large venues in the 1980s, and Marilyn Manson packed arenas in the 1990s. Yet Pop Goth marks out a new stage in the genealogy of Gothic, for its influential stylings have moved well beyond the publishing and music industries, infecting all of the cultural industries: the film versions of ‘Twilight’ (2008) and ‘Eclipse’ (2010) have gross revenues of over $392 million and $693 million respectively, television programs like ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ (1997–2003) have attracted massive international audiences, the shopping-mall clothing chains Hot Topic, Le Chateau (in North America) and Marks and Spencer (in the UK) continue to market Gothic fashions, and some of the most popular video games include zombies (Burn, Zombie, Burn!, 2009), ghosts (Ghost Master, 2003) and vampires (Blade, 2000).

Thus, the aesthetics of what Goodlad and Biddy call “death chic” of the 1980s and 1990s — emaciated whiteness, black clothing, melancholy and imagery associated with death, dying and the undead — had by the start of the new millennium moved from the dark shadows of a subculture into the limelight of mainstream popular culture. Gothic sold. And one reason for its mass appeal is its ability to capitalise on the rebellion, alienation and melancholy of Gothic while also distilling it: pop Gothic successfully packages a whiff of the subculture’s subversive, creative and “auratic potential” by selling Gothic’s profound aestheticism of everyday life and packaging the world’s destructiveness stylistically to appropriate Gothic’s signification of difference through stylistic innovation (Goodlad and Biddy 11–13).

If, as we suggest, the waves of Gothic from the 1980s and 1990s disseminated a discourse of anti-commercialism while also being driven by commodification and market-oriented consumption, then Pop Goth is the return of that which has been repressed: it is a high-profile manifestation of the Gothic participation in the market and the recognition that Gothic cannot deny its ties to commodification and consumption.

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