The Never-Ending Goth Debate

It is time, Snarklings, for the Lady of the Manners to delve back into a topic that is resurrected wherever goths gather. Well, perhaps “resurrected” is the wrong term, because the Lady of the Manners is very aware that this topic has never died. Ever. This fight discussion probably lurched forward at the very instant the subculture coalesced out of the shadows: what is goth?

:: a momentary pause while the Lady of the Manners hides her face in her hands and takes a deep breath ::

This post is prompted by the never-ending discussion that has bubbled up again across almost all of the social media places the Lady of the Manners frequents, and is also creeping across the places she doesn’t. So, it’s time for the Airing of Opinions and Holding Forth, with a side of research. To start, here’s how someone on Tumblr asked about this whole thing:

Sorry if this has been asked already but I see a lot of people […] gatekeeping and saying that goth is and only ever was a style of music but… Is it not, specifically, what the music was *about*? Like not just the sound it has but also the feelings and stories behind the lyrics? To me it’s like saying the enlightenment era was just a style of art and not the thoughts it was trying to provoke. ¯\_(ツ)_/ ¯

In the Lady of the Manners’ opinion, goth is, and always was, about more than a style of music. The “gothic” label was originally applied by the music press to the formative bands because despite a having a range of different musical styles, those bands were exploring the ideas, stories, and art that were historically considered gothic.

Then the Lady of the Manners dug out a stack of her reference books about the subculture. Here, have some quotes! (But if you’re interested in the history and antecedents of goth, all of these books are good ones.)

From GOTH Undead Subculture, edited by Lauren M.E. Goodlad and Michael Bibby:

“A discordant bricolage of hyperromantic elements, goth drew inspiration from its glam, punk, and new wave subcultural antecedents. But it also culled freely from Gothic literary-historical traditions; from vampire cults, horror flicks, and B-movie camp […] and from a historical canon of the gothic avant-garde. […] it is worth noting that the goth tendency to embrace gothic literature and art has made the subculture more dialectically engaged with the past than is typical of most “youth” cultures, providing yet another source of exceptional vitality.”

From The Dark Reign of Gothic Rock by Dave Thompson, about the dawning of the gothic music scene:

“[…] an examination of what transpired when one specific tentacle of the post-Punk British rock octopus stopped flailing around in the wastes above its head and burrowed instead into its blackest cave, there to contemplate … whatever.

Some of its thoughts were indeed of a distinctly Gothic bent. Mrs. Radcliffe, Edgar Allen Poe, Mary Shelley, Alice Cooper and Sir Francis Dashwood, Gothic archetypes one and all, each plays their part in the pantomime.”

And finally, from the man who was there at the start of it all, the man who is the historian of the subculture, Mick Mercer, in his Gothic Rock Black Book:

“Goth onstage cries, howls, and growls. Goth offstage goes quietly insane and wraps itself in drunken worship, pagan worship, and the loins of psychologically damaged French philosophers.”

But the key statement from Mr. Mercer’s excellent book is this:

“It takes a lot of explaining, but very little understanding, to see that Goth is an invisible substance at the heart of empathic but essentially differing forms of music — Goth in reality being its audience —”

The Lady of the Manners has seen a lot of comments that essentially state that music is the only marker for being a goth. If you’re interested in other dark artforms, fashion, history, and so on, you are gothIC, but not a goth. These sorts of statements make the Lady of the Manners pause in her rereading of Dracula and dismissively wave a black lace handkerchief. There is no One True Goth Sound, there never has been (except for a possible fondness for minor keys, and even that’s not a constant). The common black silk thread between the Original Goth Bands is that they all drew lyrical influences from fiction, art, and ideas around the romantic allure of the dark, morbid, and horrific. For that matter, none of those Original Goth Bands were (or are) comfortable with being called goth or gothic. The perennial joke about the sure way to identify a goth band is if they say they’re not goth has survived this long for a reason, Snarklings.

In addition, one of the markers of the scene since the beginning was a dark, morbid, and romantic aesthetic and fashion. That was how goths recognized each other! Back In The Day it was expected that if you were a goth, you dressed in a gothic style. If someone went to a show or a club and wasn’t recognizably dressed goth, they were regarded with disdain. (The Lady of the Manners is fervently glad that this attitude has been slowly dwindling over the years.)

Gatekeeping has not kept goth alive or undead, because telling people they’re not whatever enough to be part of a community dooms that community to being a fossil trapped in amber, a historical relic. (With whatever being the aspect that the person doing the gatekeeping is most invested in. In the Lady of the Manners’ experience, gatekeepers are usually divided into two types: Music Is Everything or You Have To Dress The Part.)

People who seek shelter under the inky umbrella of goth have to start somewhere, and NO ONE comes to this subculture knowing everything about it. Yes, people should learn about the outline of goth, and no, not everything can or should be defined as goth. But those outlines are not a rigid template, and expecting people to rattle off a list of all the bands on the original Gothic Rock and Gothic Rock 2 CDs is more than a little ridiculous.

Finally: the song that is widely recognized as codifying the goth subculture, the song that is the musical touchstone, is about an actor in a stylized B&W movie that is an adaptation of one of the classics of gothic literature. The Lady of the Manners is talking, of course, about “Bela Lugosi’s Dead”.

And now in the hopes of interesting discussion, the comments are open! The Lady of the Manners is going to keep an even closer eye on them than usual, as this is a topic that can bring out less-than-civil conversationalists, but she is very interested in seeing what sort of discussion happens. Feel free to disagree with the Lady of the Manners or other posters, but keep it polite.

11 Responses to “The Never-Ending Goth Debate”

  1. melissa willis Says:

    I always felt when it comes to define the word “goth” it had to do with the music, literature,films and lastly the fashion but I know it still seems that it still a big debate which I feel I don’t understand that why there’s this big issue about defining it.

  2. Nyx Shadowhawk Says:

    Thanks so much for addressing this again, Lady!
    It’s always interesting to me and somewhat amusing when people insist on distinguishing between “gothic” and “goth.” The meaning of the term “goth” is basically a series of tangents. It originally described a tribe of Germanic people. Then was used to describe a style of architecture associated with barbarism because it wasn’t classical (even though it was used almost exclusively in churches). Then, it referred to a genre of literature often set at locations with gothic architecture, that explored themes like death, misery, horror, the romantic, the supernatural, and the sublime. Then it referred to a style of music based on those themes. Then it referred to the subculture of people that sprung up around the music!
    So what does “Goth” mean again?

  3. Victorine Says:

    This is an interesting topic for me since I’ve been thinking of a similar situation. Admittedly, I’m not exactly interested in most “classic” goth music besides a few songs, though I do enjoy more modern goth music. I’ve heard before that the music I listen to isn’t technically considered goth, although I’d like to beg to differ. However, my favorite piece of the goth subculture is the literature, which isn’t something I’ve heard often. It honestly frustrates me when people say that the literature and architecture isn’t as important as other “gothic” things because to me, the music, literature, architecture, fashion . . . it’s all important to what goth is today.

  4. alix Says:

    I must admit, I go back and forth on this question myself. While music is by no means more important than any other aspect of the subculture, it was the catalyst for the modern goth subculture-there really wouldn’t be goth clubs, goth fashion , etc. without the music. Yes all that stuff comes from gothic art and literature as well, but I feel for the modern goth subculture (in its beginnings) goth rock was almost kind of a gateway to that? Because again, gothic art and literature has been around for years and other than the Romantic poets, I don’t think one can say it started a subculture directly. So it is important to acknowledge in that context, gothic rock as a music genre may’ve been more of the jumpstart to the subculture than the art/film/literature.
    However, I don’t think anyone is inherently less goth if they’re more interested in the art and literature side than the music side-I think as long as you know what goth rock is/the music roots, you’re fine. Also just because the art and literature didn’t directly kickstart the subculture doesn’t mean it isn’t a big part of it and to be perfectly blunt, people into that side are rarely “poseurs” (ooh that word makes me cringe but I’m at a loss of what else to use) and no where near as bad for the subculture as people who believe it’s solely some sort of fashion statement.
    I also hate the notion that goths can only listen to goth rock or even worse, that they have to like all goth rock (I do think goth and related genres have something for everyone, but one person’s treasure is another’s trash). Like you said, no one comes to goth completely versed in it, and shutting people out because they don’t know Peter Murphy’s blood type or whatever is stupid and lame. They won’t learn unless you teach them. If you care so much about goth rock, then do that. Its fun sharing musical knowledge anyway 🙂

  5. Caroline Carnivorous Says:

    Nowadays when people love labels and REALLY want to use goth, I get annoyed if they think it’s just about buying pricey and edgy killstar clothes and listen to metal. I try to help babybats, but it’s hard when they get defensive as they feel lile their whole world is shattering just because they were wrong about something.
    I don’t think there’s anything wrong with “gatekeeping”, we need people to take care of the scene. The goth scene means a lot to many of us, so I wouldn’t want it watered down. If everything is goth, goth is nothing.
    I do agree that the gothic is a part of the culture (but they’re not goth on their own), but the music is the main part of the subculture (if it wasn’t, people would have been calling themselves goth in the victorian period).
    Click my name to read my own take on the age-old question!

  6. Alix Says:

    ALSO (came back because I had another thought like two or three days later. I am a mess. ) I think it’s important to acknowledge that while many goths are into gothic art and literature, not everyone who is is a goth or wants to be called that, nor is it every goth’s favorite art or literary form. There are goths who like Beat literature, modern YA, Humphrey Bogart movies, Dadaism etc just as much or more than they like goth art literature and film. Whereas nine times out of ten, someone who listens to goth rock and post punk/darkwave/ so on and so forth identifies as a goth (there are exceptions which is why I think defining goth as simply a fan of goth rock is a little short sighted). So I think assuming the art/literature inherently makes someone goth is…presumptuous, I guess. Again as long as you know the music/the history and like some of it (chances are even if you think you don’t you probably do and don’t listen to jerks who think you have to know everything about a band/have to worship every single goth band/can only listen to goth music) and you just happen to be more into the arts and literature side that’s different.

    I agree with Caroline’s point about if everything is goth nothing is goth. That’s kind of what happened to grunge is it not? Not really an example of a lasting subculture. Also I must admit I did not think of the option of babybats not wanting to hear the roots. Makes me as sad as the elitism to be honest :(. I suppose I have my own biases in place in that I am someone who’s always liked hearing about music , and my one negative experience with the subculture was an elitist eldergoth being all “you can’t listen to xyz they’re not goth bands maybe learn what real goth music is”. Despite the fact I already KNEW what goth rock was, because when I was thirteen and first got into the subculture (and through my interest in the art side actually!) I did research because I’d heard Marilyn Manson was not really goth rock (still love him though ), and discovered a playlist on YouTube or something of trad goth rock and post punk, realized I liked it and decided it was for me. Just shocker I happen to have interests OUTSIDE of my fondness for goth rock.
    Ugh. Still makes me mad, but I digress. I do suppose some baby bats get hyper attached to their definition of goth but I do think most just need patience and a willingness from older people to share music reccs. Maybe it’s better phrased in a “oh (insert nu metal band is cool)! Have you listened to Bauhaus/The Cure/Siouxsie and the Banshees/etc ? They’re really cool-one of the traditional goth bands from the eighties/a modern goth rock act (I didn’t list any because I know none sadly 🙁 time for a Spotify search!)” rather than saying “that band isn’t goth”. The second phrasing comes off rude in my opinion, and kind of snobby, whereas the first really just seems like an honest music reccomendation. If they still get whiny and defensive at the diplomatic phrasing, then they’re probably kind of a stubborn spoiled brat and should probably be avoided until they grow up a bit.

    An aside-there’s nothing wrong inherently with goth off the rack, but Killstar is overpriced, appears to be poor quality, and is part of a fashion obsessed consumerist culture. I used to watch goth youtubers but all some of them do are hauls and it’s consumerist and frankly disgusting. Fashion is not bad, but those kind of attitudes are damaging and so aggressively capitalist it is a bit sickening. So yeah, seeing goth turn into a hyper capitalist fashion statement via Killstar is depressing at best.

  7. Lady of the Manners Says:

    To me, gatekeeping is different than taking care of the scene. Taking care of the scene is showing what the outline of it is, and how we got here. Gatekeeping (to me) is the equivalent of a “you must be this tall to go on this ride” sign; if someone doesn’t meet an arbitrary checklist, then they’re Not Allowed. Which brings us back to the problem of who decides? Who picks the criteria? Is it fair to ask someone who’s just discovered goth to know everything on that checklist? Gatekeepers, in my experience, are invested in telling people they’re not “cool” or “authentic” enough, but rarely offer suggestions of “if you like this, check out this other band/artist/author/movie”.

    Of course not everything is goth, nor should it be. But people having interests outside of goth shouldn’t be told they’re not Goth Enough.

  8. Caroline Carnivorous Says:

    Good points there, Alix!

    I’ve only heard of behavior like that through third parties, but never seen it happen or talked to someone it actually has happened to, so I almost believe it doesn’t exist, lol. Cause behavior like that is definitely horrible! That definitely shouldn’t happen. But since I haven’t seen it happen (and it’s so appalling that it’s unbelievable), I see gatekeepers as dedicated people who want to help keep the scene like it’s been (minus the inevitable changes that comes with time). Even though I would NEVER say someone wasn’t ”goth enough” or expect them to know a lot of stuff, I still get called elitist and all that – so I don’t even see it as insulting anymore, hahaha. If I’m elitist for trying to help and educate them, so be it!

  9. divonne retribution Says:

    an absolutist, hardline stance on what is and isn’t Goth everywhere and forever is probably never going to be useful or helpful in a goth subculture that’s *still alive*. a prescriptive, traditionalist attitude towards music and musical expression was… one of the driving forces behind the creation of post-punk as a whole, so it’s ironic that not even a full half-century later, people are already drawing lines in the sand around the genre and its various derivatives.

    i understand the frustration with people who use goth incorrectly, or as a descriptor solely to make themselves seem more important or nebulously edgy. however! constantly shifting the goalposts around the word doesn’t… do anything to actually make people like that stop. if someone’s wrong and doesn’t care about being right or honest as much as they care about looking cool, no amount of ‘gatekeeping’ is going to really do anything to stop that, because they have no interest in actually being inside the proverbial gate. (and the use of ‘gatekeeping’ is a persistent frustration of mine, since gatekeeping is by most definitions NOT neutral, and people using it as a neutral/positive descriptor for ‘trying to maintain a standard’ is both annoying and makes any argument for their particular stance sound amazingly naive.)

    i personally feel the rallying against fashion as an aspect of being goth is largely reactionary (and there should really be a distinction made between fashion as an art and the fashion INDUSTRY, because 99% of the time that’s what the actual criticism is of, rather than the entire concept of using clothing as a visual artistic medium), more based on being recommended certain videos and search results (by algorithms that are not looking at how ‘meaningful’ popular content is), seeing certain celebrities gain traction based on misidentification, and taking frustration with that out on… usually teenagers and young adults who like things, rather than the people with money that perpetuate the whole business and are actually doing the exploiting.

    the visual artistry of goth (and whether some people like it or not, goth is/can be as visual as it is anything else and still have and express meaning) is as open to experimentation as the musical and written artistry, and that’s not going to change because corporations are trying to make money off cheap imitations of the community. goth isn’t a counterculture, and what that means is that rather than attempt to destroy it outright, capitalism is going to do its best to milk it for all the capital it’s worth.

    and i promise it isn’t because The Kids These Days Are All Too Busy Being Online To Appreciate Real Goth™ Pastimes And Real Goth™ Music.

  10. Alix Says:

    Fair points, Divonne. I agree totally the real problem is, as always, with the companies. It becomes easier to blame teens and young adults simply because they’re more accessible than corporations or celebrities. It’s not fair by any means, but it often happens.
    And it’s not solely an issue with goth-the non goth young people are being indoctrinated into a consumerist culture as well, and I personally think a lot of it has to do with internet celebrities. Vloggers shove sponsorships down young people’s throats, collaborations, etc.
    That’s personally what I find really disheartening-the kids don’t know better but these youtubers are adults passing this message down to them and making them think it’s okay.
    Again , it’s a much bigger issue than goth, but when I found out about goth youtubers I had been kinda hoping it’d be more music/book/film reccs and focused on the more artistic side of fashion and makeup rather than “look at all this stuff im buying!” all over again.

  11. AquaBat Says:

    I think sometimes, people just like things and don’t really care about the history of it. I don’t think not knowing the history of something makes you any less “real”. That’s just me, though! 😊

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