The Music of the Goth Subculture and Aesthetics

Charles Allen Mueller
Charles Allen Mueller

The majority of bands associated with the English goth movement have never been widely known, understood, or appreciated beyond the confines of the subculture itself. In fact, few genres of popular music are associated with such a narrow demographic.

This is not to suggest that people outside the goth subculture could not or do not relate to the music of goth bands, or that goths were close-minded or excessively opinionated about their musical tastes.

I am simply acknowledging that the music of bands labelled as “goth” had a special significance to the participants as a source of cultural unity.

Previous investigations into youth subcultures such as goth have not given adequate attention to the music favoured and created by these groups, and this represents a significant gap in the field of subculture social theory.

Because music is often a source of inspiration to youth subcultures, this article focuses on how musicology could augment the work of social theorists.

The New Oxford Dictionary defines culture as “Artistic and intellectual achievement, and its appreciation.” A subculture such as goth could then be considered the creative and intellectual achievement of a group within a larger society, but this is not the definition that sociologists prefer.

Dick Hebdige, in his groundbreaking study ‘Subculture: The Meaning of Style’ describes these youth movements as symptoms of the breakdown in the political consensus of the postwar period, representing an expression of political impotence and pessimism about the future.

In essence, he feels that subcultures represent a menacing threat or challenge to the dominant bourgeois society, voiced through literature, fashion, and music.

Sarah Thornton characterizes subcultures as “underground taste-cultures that have been given a specific label by the media (like goth, punk, skinhead, mod), or groups of people that congregate on the basis of a shared taste in music and consumption habits.”

Based on my own experiences as both a subcultural participant, and musician, I would add that at the core of subcultures is what could be described as a distinct attitude, philosophy, or outlook that gives expression to specific concerns and fears, dissatisfaction with one or more aspects of contemporary life, and a rejection of mainstream social values.

It has also been my experience that members of subcultures are frequently underprivileged or have been subject to rejection or verbal or physical abuse either at home or by their peers and are in search of a means of acceptance.

Members seek kinship to escape feelings of anomie, to find a place in a social order of their own making and on their own terms, based on values that they share with others. What studies of subcultures often overlook is the fact that the members are people.

Subcultures often reflect and express the same loss of social community, the same fascination with the irrationality of society, emptiness, cultural pessimism, and the same preference for the imagination over reality that can be found in the works of many individual creative artists, from Baudelaire to Schoenberg, who sought to find humanity in an impersonal, urban, industrialized society.

Although musicology has been slow to weigh in on subculture theory, the discipline can help to inject some emotional sensitivity, understanding and empathy into the sociological theorizing. In turn, a familiarity with subculture theory can provide musicologists with additional approaches and perspectives for the study of popular music.

Several points of contention that are debated among subculture social theorists could be of potential interest to musicologists: the question of whether metanarratives (semiotics, psychoanalysis, Marxist criticism, etc.) are still useful in the analysis of subcultures, exploring how subcultures support or undermine postmodern social theories, the role played by the media in shaping the tastes and values of a subculture, whether an analysis should distinguish between the original members of a subculture and those who joined after the movement has been spread through the media, and perhaps most importantly, whether subcultures represent a serious attempt at social critique by its members or simply constitute postmodern play and consumerism.

I would like to examine what perspectives musicology could potentially bring to each of these questions.

One could perhaps simplify the question of whether metanarratives still have a place when seeking to understand post-war youth movements by simply asking, “Is Dick Hebdige still relevant to subculture theory?”

Hebdige’s book ‘Subculture: The Meaning of Style’, first published in 1979, set out to break the stylistic code of subcultures using Marxist and semiotic methodologies based on the works of Antonio Gramsci and Roland Barthes. Hebdige was primarily interested in how English, working-class, youth movements used fashion as a source of subcultural unity, from the body piercings and Mohawk hairstyles of the punks, to the mopeds of the Mods, to the appropriation of Edwardian clothing of the Teddy Boys.

He observed how a safety pin, a shaved head or a black leather jacket had a distinctive and rather anti-social connotation to the subculture participants. In other words, the members were imbuing their clothing, accessories, and hairstyles with the signification of rebellion. Hebdige saw the re-signification of signs as an important and subversive strategy that young people from the labouring classes used in the struggle to gain more control over their lives and particularly over their future.

In his view, refusal and rebellion at the level of style, fashion, and signs only appears to be a superficial gesture of defiance for in actuality, subcultures are a threatening breakdown of consensus, a signal to the ruling class that their power is not hegemonic.

The Marxist and semiotic approach employed by Hebdige is of course not foreign to musicology, for virtually any historiography of musical style will undoubtedly demonstrate how the economic and political structure of a society helped shape the form and content of the music.

In terms of popular music and subculture, many of the author’s ideas could be enhanced through musical analysis. For example, Hebdige feels that all aspects of culture have semiotic value, and every signification either subverts or reinforces the primary ideology of the upper classes.

Therefore, one must consider the sound and musical style favoured by the subcultural participants as much as their choice of fashion in order to understand what the various youth movements are trying to express.

One of the most important aspects of analyzing any post-1960s music is to observe how the artist is appropriating gestures from other bands, genres, or styles.

In the case of rock music, borrowing and appropriation can take many different forms.

The first of these is intensification, where the artists assimilate only the most forceful, prominent, or dramatic gestures from the music they are taking possession of.

For example, much of the guitar work of Jimi Hendrix, or Eric Clapton during his years with Cream, could be considered an intensification of the blues guitar vocabulary.

The second type of appropriation is recontextualization, where styles or gestures appear in new surroundings or circumstances but retain their usual meanings and connotations, for example, the Ghanaian and South African music that appears on Paul Simon’s album ‘Graceland’.

Artists’ choices of “cover tunes” and their attitude towards the music they are re-interpreting is an important part of recontextualization that musicologists should not overlook.

Other times, artists will combine multiple musical signifiers simultaneously to create a complex emotional experience, each appropriation contributing to a distinct mood or effect.

The works of David Bowie often use both of these approaches, particularly on the albums’ The Man Who Sold the World’ and ‘Aladdin Sane’.

In order for a musicologist to contribute to the methodology used by Hebdige, the musical borrowings employed by groups with whom members of a subculture identify, must be scrutinized for the way they are appropriating, what is being borrowed, what the styles and gestures typically signify to the mainstream, and the groups’ attitudes toward the music they are assimilating.

Of course, no analysis would be complete without examining what the musical appropriations contribute to the text setting, the key to understanding vocal music.

Musicologists should also be sensitive to how musical styles such as rap, heavy metal, punk, etc., which have typically been associated with sentiments of rebellion and refusal, are appropriated and recycled to determine if and how any meanings may have shifted.

Often appropriating gestures of refusal will allow artists to narrow the scope of their critique, making the general specific. Marilyn Manson for example, assimilates gestures from rap, punk, metal, and glam rock. He maintains the signification of refusal and defiance that the styles were intended to represent, but his simultaneous, composite use of multiple styles makes his music seem deliberately artificial, flaunting the way his popularity is based on recycled gestures, thus satirizing the shallowness of consumer society.

Re-signification, or a creative use of sign-play, is perhaps an underrated art form. Finding the right sights, sounds, and their combination to effectively signal a point of refusal requires sensitivity and insight.

If Hebdige is correct, and resistance at the superficial level of style is an important way in which the lower classes can defy the hegemonic power of those who control society, the role of music should certainly be examined.

Hebdige believes that members of a subculture wear their concerns on their sleeve, taking specific goods, hairstyles, clothing, and accessories and using them against the society that created them by recontextualizing the objects and turning them into symbols of refusal, rebellion, and non-conformity.

There is no element of randomness at work here; the participants are very specific in their appropriations, actively creating their styles by repossessing objects, goods (and sounds I may add) that have been invested by the dominant culture with meanings, associations, and social connotations.

To summarize, members of a subculture seek out signs and symbols that they know are going to upset the dominate culture when they take possession of the signifiers and turn their meanings upside down. They may also try to intensify those that already carry negative connotations in the parent society.

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