Is Goth the New Goth?

Over the Labor Day weekend, I attended DragonCon in Atlanta. I hadn’t been since probably 2006. At that time, there was a dedicated Goth track, mostly having to do with vampire-related materials. This time, the Goth track was replaced by a general Dark Fantasy track with a few panels on Goth-specific issues. There’s major overlap between Gothdom and Geekdom, but I suppose that as interest in Goth (as opposed to its musical & cultural cousins: EBM, Steampunk, whatever that plastic-hair, fairy-wings, tutu and Muppet-fur business is about) wanes, it gets rolled into the nearest welcoming category. There was a panel on “The State of the Scene” which I had to miss, but I was able to make it to the panel on the question “Is Goth the New Goth?” Purportedly, we were to hear a discussion on the rise of other Goth-adjacent music. The panel, composed of members of Bella Morte and The Last Dance, also included Doc Hammer. They didn’t get too deep into what identifiable causes could explain the leakage of Gothic imagery into other subcultural streams. The conversation quickly turned to whether greater popular exposure for Goth was good or bad. Hammer rejected the notion that all exposure for Goth was ultimately positive while the fellow from Bella Morte unhesitatingly championed the notion of being able to purchase Joy Division t-shirts at Kmart. Hammer expressed a concern that the version of Goth that gets sold back to us by mass media was a shallow, cheap version of the original. This distinction made him sound like an elitist and the other panelists took issue with his exclusionary view.

The thing is, I found myself agreeing with Hammer over the other opinions. He described his interest in Goth as akin to being an “archaeologist” of the obscure. Having music that you’ve carefully unearthed and treasured for its rarity suddenly explode into a commodity is an unsettling experience because it’s no longer your secret pleasure. It doesn’t “belong” to you anymore. I had to agree with Hammer that widespread popularity is a big discouragement when it comes to my personal cultural diet. I guess I am just being an elitist, the inverse of the poseur who professes love for whatever’s popular, but there it is. I also realize that there is no such thing as truly underground anything. Everything is a commodity, “coolness” is just a way to get us to buy more, and the genius creator is a Western myth, blah blah blah. I get it. But, there is also an element of ego-construction in these choices. I don’t want to be the person who cares what TMZ says or listens to Kreayshawn or invests in what the Kardashians are doing. Most of what we—as a culture—produce, is awful, soul-killing sludge, and it seems like the worse something is, the more attention it gets (Michael Bay, anyone?) It is any wonder that there are people out there who want to avoid everything with the mass stamp of approval?  The version of Goth that’s most heavily marketed—anything made by Tim Burton after Batman Returns, that “Goth” chick on that forensic TV show, all things heavily Halloween-themed—gets varnished in twee to make it go down easier. That’s the shallow, cheap version I suspect Hammer meant. I add here all the Gothic Lolita stuff, which just covers the Japanese rage for female infantilization in a coating of “spooky.” The Gothic aesthetic has absorbed a lot of kitsch, and it’s the kitsch version that sells. Maybe Goth can only be popular by being grafted onto something else—cuteness, quaintness, romance. At the panel, Hammer pointed out that Goth hasn’t ever peaked. Unlike Punk, Goth has never experienced huge commercial successes. Goth hasn’t dominated music charts or influenced bands that would prevail over rock like Punk has. There have been spikes of attention—late 90s Columbine hysteria, for example—that never last long. But Goth has been there, enduring. Goth is a bit like an underground stream. It goes on, (mostly) invisible and silent.

I've seen the future, brother. It is murder.

I wanted to know more about why Goth has become so appropriated. My theory is that for many people Goth is primarily a fashion to be “mashed-up” (I hate that term) with whatever else is lying around just for temporary amusement. The Millennial generation views culture as a box of crayons—they mix, combine, make whatever suits their fancies without ascribing any inherent substance to the tools. Putting on a “Goth” outfit is like costuming oneself as a hippie or fireman or a chimpanzee—it isn’t a reflection of an ideology or identity. The result of this philosophy is that anything and everything can be appropriated purely for the image. That hypothetical Joy Division shirt in Kmart isn’t going to be worn by someone who has an interest in the late 70s Manchester music scene. He may have seen Control, heard some covers, even read on Wikipedia that the singer killed himself and, you know, that’s totally emo and soo depressinggggggg. My belief is that much of what passes for Goth is just Metal or Techno dressed up in Goth clothes. But I also realize that this “kids these days” attitude finally proves that I’m an olde and cranky to boot. I wish I could find the article, but there’s an interview in which some early Goth musician expresses horror that people were getting into the scene (in the 80s) who hadn’t read Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories. So perhaps the future of Goth is plastic-haired Muppet-faerys (or however they’re spelling it) dancing to Witchhouse and I’ll just be the crank muttering the lyrics to “Amphetamine Logic” into my tea.

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3 Responses to “Is Goth the New Goth?”

  1. I’m glad you get it and Mr. Hammer will stand alone on a panel about it because somebody needs to.

  2. I guess I’m old and cranky too, because I agree with Doc’s sentiments. (*cough* 39*cough*) 😉

  3. michelle d Says:

    My guy and I would give you and Doc Hammer a high-five for saying what we have been talking about for years. I actually am doing a comic based on the themes discussed here called “Poseur Patrol”. I thought the conversations that my guy and I had were worthy of being born into a comic. Since we are so frustrated at seeing the scene be so diluted and filled with poseurs. One character is the elitist goth type because my guy has always pointed out, being pretentious and elitist IS GOTH.

    Love this!

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