Is it really just a phase?

Archived Blog post, 2015

For some people, I am sure it is, and that is as it should be.

But for those of us who have continued to be Goth (yes, even when we said we were not) there must be compelling reasons for this ongoing connection: this is the primary focus of my research.

My research project will undertake an examination of the phenomenon of the Gothic youth subculture (Goth) in Australian and European contexts, engaging with participants whose connection with the Goth community has extended beyond the transitional phase of youth into adulthood. This post provides a brief introduction to my study, how this research evolved, its personal significance and the foci of investigations to come.

Info-graphic from EVERY NOISE AT ONCE – Gothic Rock 2015

Goth: How I first experienced the subculture

In the early 1980s as punk was subsumed by mainstream culture and exploited by the mass media, the language and representation of youth culture changed; commodification of the once extraordinary “big” hair, torn fishnets and icon-laden T-shirts synonymous with the punk era diluted the anarchic impact of radical fashion so much so that Goth – the slightly more polite voice of ‘teenage rebellion’ – could thrive.  It was at this time I first encountered the pale, interesting fellows in music press articles that loitered like ghosts under a mane of black back-combed hair and velvet frock coats, their lyrics apparently misunderstood and their dark theatrical style a media confection.  Though I had been too young to experience Punk, Goth immediately connected with my own sensibilities and the historic influences promised a deeper cultural link I felt was missing in my suburban Australia.

By 1990 Goth had traversed the post-punk rebellion of the 1980s, emerging globally, in the UK, Europe and Australia in particular, replete with its own brand of dark, collective non-conformist individuality that somehow embraced this difficult relationship with the media (and labelling) and emerged as an intact subculture.  The foundations of Goth identity became standardised and the scene progressed sufficiently to allow further diversification, resulting in varied style sub-sets that reflected other subcultural groups and celebrated otherness as distinct from mainstream pop culture.  The idea of otherness and the acceptance of social and aesthetic differences in identity formation will form significant themes within this research.

Goth is the Word

During the early 1990s, Goth experienced a brief and incongruous period of mainstream popularity, with the Goth style influencing pop music videos, Goth characters appearing in television programmes and films, and the term Goth* began finding its way more frequently into conventional media and social discourse.   A seemingly resultant quirk in the Goth scene is the almost universal custom of self-denying the label Goth [1]From Jaspers’ experience of the Dutch Goth scene, here in Australia as well as in Britain: it seems none of us liked to be labelled.  Through surveys, this paradox is an element of the subculture  I hope to discuss with other Goths in order to provide insight into the social etiquette of belonging in a subculture where authenticity and identity are seemingly visually apparent and yet naming it remains taboo.

Belonging & Social Connections

Connecting with other Goths, developing a sense of place within the subculture and understanding the basis of belonging within Goth will form recurrent themes within this research.  When I first began writing about the subculture in the 1990s Goth was just beginning its life with the internet and my research at the time used the fledgling networks of online communities and forums to connect with the now globally linked Goth scene. 

Through the use of the internet, from my desk in Perth Western Australia, I was able to connect with places, groups and individuals to a greater extent than ever before; replacing old methods of postal correspondence between Goths via NME (and other music press), tape/music exchanges and fan-based zines. 

Only a few years previous the social networks within Australia were tenuous at best and joined to the parent Goth culture in Europe only by our music and mail-order catalogues and supported by limited personal exposure.  For the Goth scene in Perth, one of the most isolated capital cities in the world, the internet could not happen soon enough and it appeared to promise the subculture longevity.

A Diverse Subculture

In addition to the emergence of genuine commercial opportunities allowed by the internet (which I will explore in future discussions), it also created an environment in which the Goth subculture could evolve with increasing rapidity, developing maturity and complexity as it transitioned from fashion fad to true subculture and in so doing refining and defining the parameters of Goth style, music and identity.  Goth now encompasses a range of subcultural aesthetics that have been absorbed from diverse sources which would perhaps not have occurred without the benefit of our global connection.  Traditional Medieval and Victorian historic periods hold enduring influence on Goth aesthetics, especially High Victorian couture, these sit alongside the pre-imagined futuristic realities of Cyber Goth and hard-edged and militaristic Goth Industrial.  Goth has incorporated the risqué fashion from other outsider subcultures (Punk, Bondage and Discipline/BDSM, fetish and erotic-horror) and conversely, appropriated elements of the cute and the kitsch from Japanese Harajuku and the 1950s-reminiscent Rockabilly styles[2].

…And yet somehow Goth maintains its own cohesive style and Goth remains easily recognisable as a distinct subculture, despite these aesthetic shifts.

As a subculture then, Goth is as diverse as any other community; since the early 1990s it has dramatically changed and adapted to expand the basic tenets of the style; it has diversified from the traditional Gothic Rock influences (Trad-Goth) of its early years to include a wide variety of ‘looks’ and a breadth of styles which enable it to reach a broader, more committed audience.  My research seeks to explore if this is a result of the collective will of participants or if the changing patterns of social interaction in broader society have enabled this evolution through an improved understanding of intercultural/inter-generational tolerance.  Discussion on the reduced importance of geography on social connection and how this has transformed the subculture over time will provide insights into the changing character of Goth from the early 1980s to today.

Revisiting this topic, nearly twenty years after my first research project, the profound changes in how the world now connects offer a new way in which to research and interact within the subculture and allow a deeper, more holistic understanding of the value Goth holds for participants  – myself included.

[1] ‘I am not a goth!’: The Unspoken Morale of Authenticity within the Dutch Gothic Subculture Agnes Jasper Etnofoor, Vol. 17, No. 1/2, AUTHENTICITY (2004), pp. 90-115Published by Stichting Etnofoor Accessed: 26/06/2013 23:27

[2] Brill, D. 2008 Goth Culture: Gender, Sexuality and Style, Oxford: Berg.

Curtin University Project #5251, Ethics Approval RDHU-17-15 see About for more info

*Notes on Terminology

Future posts will discuss this topic in greater detail.

As an insider-researcher (long-term Goth participant), I have chosen to assume participants in my study have an affiliation with and an understanding of the Goth subculture; as such I will not be providing extensive definitions of what is Goth.

Throughout this research, I have chosen to use the term “Goth” as the least contentious, most efficient way of identifying the subculture and its broad subgenres.  Therefore in the context of this study, Goth is inclusive of subsets of the Goth subculture e.g. Goth-Industrial.   On a personal note, I am more comfortable with Goth, Goff or even Goffix, however, I have never felt entirely at ease with the implied formality and historic significance of the term Gothic.   I will, however, use a capital ‘G’ – it is a name, and to me at least,  seems to have earned its’ big G….

The use of the term Gothic in the sense that it was being applied to a cohesive group or genre (rather than a vague atmospheric oeuvre or a single piece of music) was reportedly first used around  1979[1] by Nick Kent to describe Siouxsie and the Banshees thematic direction.

Imposing the term Gothic or repeatedly referring to the Gothic youth subculture would be disruptive to the research process; it is also my experience that Goths rarely identify in this way (if at all) and to impose this terminology on participants would be an irritant and potentially preclude completion surveys.

The longevity of the Goth subculture in the UK and Europe is further discussed by other researchers (including Paul Hodkinson, Lauren M.E. Goodland, Michael Bibby and Dunja Brill) whose writing has formed part of my background research for this project.

My surveys – a link to which will be published here in the near future – will be structured around three broad thematic foci in relation to long-term connection with the Goth subculture:

i)    Sense of place

ii)   Authenticity & Identity

iii)  Otherness & Outsiderhood

This research provides me with a way of understanding and documenting complexities and variations within the Goth culture and gives me the opportunity to reflect on my experience of growing up Goth whilst contributing to academic discourse on ‘youth’ subcultures.

[1]  Kent, Nick. “Magazine’s Mad Minstrels Gains Momentum (Album review)”. NME (31 March 1979): 31