Sunday, 29 October 2017

Modern Gothic

It's nearly Halloween, after all.

The online news branch of media company Vice is known for many things, and journalistic excellence used not to be one of them. Their London office used to produce, in general, snide, ill-informed, would-be-clever clickbaity nonsense that you learned never to take seriously, or ideally not read at all. It was a great surprise to me to hear Vice News journalists being interviewed on the BBC and brought into discussion programmes as though they actually knew something, and even more to realise that the company had gathered a reputation as a committed and serious news organisation. Even the London office got the message.

More than one person I know called attention to this recent article on the UK Vice website about Goth, as part of a series on subcultures. The writer spoke to ten people who identified as Goths (I use that phrase carefully because of what comes next) aged between 18 and 31. They talked about becoming Gothic (‘I felt the boots were wearing me’), their reactions to feeling accepted or disdained (and occasionally attacked) by the wider community, issues of identity, definition and diversity, bewilderment at being assumed to be Satanists, and the effect of the murder of Sophie Lancaster in 2007. Of course there were occasional infelicities (including on the part of some of the interviewees), but the overall tone was supportive, underlining what Catherine Spooner has said in Postmillennial Gothic about the increasing public approbation of Goths and Gothic. What a long way we’ve come since a Guardian columnist could write in 2002 ‘sullen, suburban and witlessly morbid, Goths have lingered like the living dead while other youth cultures have come and gone’, accusing them of ‘infantile notions’, ‘middle-brow suburban myopia’ and ‘paucity of imagination’. Shame it took a young woman having her head stamped on until she died to change that.

I liked what the young(ish) self-identified Goths had to say. Simone claimed that “The scene is becoming more diverse than ever, people are expressing themselves with more freedom than ever before without fear of judgement”. Klinga said 

It seems like the goth scene is much more open and diverse than in past years, there's still a bit of elitism but it seems to be dying out. There's lots of people in the gothic (and alternative) community that are kind, open minded, willing to talk to you and make you feel very included no matter how much of a goth you are. I feel like the gothic culture is much bigger now days, mostly due to the amount of subcultures that were created to the standard "goth" image, such as pastel Goths, nu-goths, Lolita Goths, health Goths... the list goes on.

The young man whose picture accompanies the article, Arcade, is a friend of my accountant Ms Death-and-Taxes, and illustrates the point; he’s wearing New-Rock boots (obviously), but a black faux-fur-collared coat from Bench, which is not usually considered a Goth retailer. Good.

Not everyone is completely happy with this. One person I know who linked to the article is Mal, a Goth DJ who’s been there right from the very beginning, and regards the  changes in the Goth world with emotions that shift between wry and irritated. I greatly honour the man, and his wife Bernice, but his and others’ statements on the matter do remind me of Mojo Nixon and Jello Biafra’s track ‘Nostalgia for an Age that Never Existed’:

You stay home, mad at the whole scene
For refusing to freeze
In nineteen-eighty-three

Mal is among a class of older Goths who have struggled for years to keep the torch burning, who have battled their way across the country to run and attend club nights playing music that fits that early-80s template. It’s not a surprise that they don’t respond well to these hard-won, scarred badges of identity being taken away from them as Goth transmutes into something less oppositional and marginalised. One person commented rather beautifully:

Goth is goth - pure and simple, the silly prefixes that became are a result of other alternative tribes that may have had the tiniest of dark leanings getting lumped into the ever expanding melting pot. As a result you get so far removed from the initial concept that for many they don't really know what it is anymore or didn't to begin with. I got into Goth in 1991 - I was 13 and really caught the tail end before imo actual goth music went underground. There I think was the changing point. To me first and foremost it's about the music - I wore my clothes, and still do to symbolise who I am, my tastes, the music I love with every fibre of my being - it's what kept me going in my teens when I was chased, spat at, verbally abused etc. It seems now it's all about fashion and no substance and way too much confusion over what actual goth music is.

The tension between ‘concentration’ and ‘extension’ is familiar to any kind of subcultural grouping, including Christianity. When exactly have you strayed so far from what the ‘thing’ originally meant that it’s no longer recognisable for what it was? Where are the boundaries beyond which adherents must not stray?

The trouble with maintaining that to be Goth, Goth must what it was in 1982 is that it never was that even then. I related a couple of years ago about meeting early-80s Goths who described cheerfully going to club nights that played entirely different sorts of music, wearing entirely distinct brands of schmutter, and thinking nothing of it because at that stage they didn’t know that they were supposed to be acting in an exclusive, oppositional way. The very band around whom the Goth world coalesced in many ways – although they were, like true Goths, always horrified by the very idea – was Siouxsie & the Banshees, and their music never stood still. They didn’t have the deliberate, restless need to experiment that PJ Harvey has, true, and their musical referents went no further back than Bowie and Bolan for the most part, but over their 17 years of active music-making they drew in a huge range of influences, chewed them up, and regurgitated them as Gothic. It was dramatically, excitingly creative, and I enjoy discovering bands who, in their own ways, do the same now. What’s the point in sounding exactly like the Sisters of Mercy in 1984?

Admittedly, I’m an entirely fake Goth because I came at it through culture and not through music; although I knew about the Banshees, I’d come across very little by other recognisably Goth bands and tended not to like much of it when I did. And I did it at a time – the mid-1990s – when Goth barely existed. The only Goth I met during the time when I was first identifying myself with Gothic was a young woman who came to the museum in High Wycombe researching local ghosts and who interviewed me on the subject. I started thinking about what Goth and Gothic were, and developed some very definite opinions on the matter, most of which I abandoned when, a few years later, I met some real participants in the subculture, which was just about to swing upwards again, and realised it was far beyond me to control, define, or even comprehend within my knowledge. I abandoned myself to the flow and it was vastly liberating. I was freed to enjoy the welter of incomprehensible and yet mysteriously, miraculously united eclecticism that I found at places like Intrusion, the club in Oxford. In the end, what I found most lovable about that world wasn't the music (most of it didn't resonate with me), or the style (which I never really adopted), but the companionship, a group of people who shared the same referents and language: a sense of home.

When Goth was rescued from oblivion in the late 1990s, it wasn’t early-1980s Goth that did it: it was the pagan movement and the bands associated with it, the internet, and very elaborate neo-Victorian dress styles that only bore a remote relationship with the more punky business of a decade-and-a-half before. The individuals attracted by that then discovered early-80s Goth, but very naturally didn’t see the need to confine their attention to that template. And so we’ve gone on, via Steampunk, Cybergoth, Lolita, CorpGoth, health goth, and all the things that my friend Cylene has tried out that nobody else seems to want to copy. And these subcategories aren’t all a matter of dress: they have ramifications in music, film, literature, art.

The blessing and the curse of Goth is that it isn’t, and never was, an isolated phenomenon: it’s part of a bigger, grander, deeper current in the river of experience and desire called gothic, and will continue to feed into wider culture and be fed by it. It can’t be constrained or controlled by anyone, and I don’t care. I like that about it. 

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