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Goth – black shoots of recovery?

May 6, 2010 4 comments

I’ve been busy commenting on other people’s blogs, writing stories (3000 words in one day – phew!) and dealing with distance learning assessments. But I thought I’d share just one thought with you. This is prompted by the fact that I tracking what people look at on this blog, and the most popular blog entry appears to be the piece I did a while back on the state of goth.

In that piece, Now We Are All Goths, I mused on a number of things, but one was that goth seemed to go into decline at the point the mainstream (fashion, for example) began to plunder the style.

There are still many, many traces of goth in the mainstream – consider the ‘look and feel’ of Florence and the Machine for example, which borrows some goth elements, and the continuing fascination with goth style evident at Trendhunter.

But gothic seems to operate on a cyclical pattern, and after a drought of maybe a year or so in which venues closed, goth nights stopped running, niche clothes shops stopped stocking the fashions and a bunch of internet traders to the goth market folded, there are some, er, black new shoots of recovery. Events are starting to run again, though not that well attended as yet. There’s a bit more action on some of the LiveJournal goth discussion forums. Even the BBC is back in on the act, with an upcoming BBC2 documentary series on the 1980s that will cover goths and New Romantics. So goth didn’t die: like some batwinged and lace-covered flower, it allowed its flowers to shrivel, put energy back into its bulb and sat out the seasons waiting for an appropriate time to emerge again.

Whether it will come back exactly the same as last time is yet to be seen. The flyers I’ve seen for upcoming events seem to suggest a bit of fusion going on – mixes of goth with psychedelic, trance, dance/rave and so forth. On the fashion side, Trendhunter seems to like rebranding goth as ‘postmodern postmortem’ or lump it in with ‘dark grunge’ or ‘edgy punk’, but it’s there all right.

So it’s a case of ‘watch this space’ I think.

Incidentally my CD player (I’m too retro to go with an iPod quite yet) is largely playing Angelspit and Emilie Autumn at the moment. Emilie Autumn seems to be very divisive, people love it or hate it even within the goth scene, but you have to admire someone who’s not merely coping with her bipolar but turned it into an art form – it’s a brave and out-there thing to wear on your sleeve!

I was going to write something else entirely about pensions and politics, but as it’s an election day it would be in bad taste – so that’s one for tomorrow.

Now we are all goths

February 2, 2010 Leave a comment

People who know me will now that I’ve been, if mostly marginally, involved in goth culture on and off for around a decade. But it seems to me that over the last three or four years it has become its own memento mori, with many fewer people at goth events and a certain ossification of its forms. And yet this has happened at a time when the fashions of goth, and interest in some of its preoccupations, have become very much part of the mainstream.

So what happened? Has the subculture, having been plundered by fashion houses, TV productions and publishers, given up the ghost? Was it just a case of mainstream culture picking up on it as it began to fade? And what does my crystal ball tell me about the future of goth?

First things first. ‘Goth culture’ is a subculture that started in the late 1970s/early 1980s, around the time punk lost its initial visceral attractions. It’s about music and fashion, but it’s also a state of mind, a set of values, a worldview. Like many subcultures, the view from ‘inside’ is much more fragmented than the view outsiders would have of it. There are 20 or so different identifiable styles in fashion and music sub-genre, and they often don’t talk to each other. However it does have unifying aspects. Most goths (in the UK at least) will acknowledge the subcultural importance of the twice-annual Whitby Goth Weekend that’s run since 1994.

The music and fashion is clearly of central importance, and other cultural forms – literature, art and so on – are very secondary. That’s not to say they don’t exist. There’s a gothic ‘literature’, from novels to comic strips, much of it in the horror and dark fantasy genres. A great deal of it is published in niche magazines that run for brief periods of time before folding, or is available online (I wrote some of it myself, incidentally, for a magazine that’s long since vanished). There are artists such as Anne Sudworth and Emma Tooth who enjoy success within and sometimes outside the subculture. And there’s even Repo: The Genetic Opera, a gothic and gory successor to Rocky Horror that was first produced in the US and is now becoming known in the UK (remarkably, the DVD version has Sarah Brightman and Paris Hilton among the cast).

But none of this eclipses the fashion and the music, and none of it really constitutes a ‘core’ of subcultural work that many (or even a small percentage) of goths would recognise as specifically gothic in nature. In a recent book, Contemporary Gothic (2006), Catherine Spooner namechecks half a dozen contemporary artists and several authors and film-makers who work in the gothic mould – yet it’s comparatively rare to find goths who recognise the names and know the works. Indeed it’s likely that almost any material perceived as gothic by those outside the culture would not be accepted as such by those inside it, even if they are aware of it and perhaps even cite it as an influence on them.

As a side note, among the various subgroups (romatigoths, cybergoths…) we should probably now add academigoths: a group that specialises in finding, and claiming as gothic, cultural artefacts that deal with dark and deviant themes – whether or not goths generally would accept such claims or even be familiar with the material.

That said, Spooner is perceptive in identifying other common elements of the worldview.

First, gothic subculture as we know it today was essentially an invention of the late 1970s and 1980s. While it has appropriated older and often literary themes – Frankenstein, Dracula, Poe, Sheridan Le Fanu, Lovecraft – it is very selective in so doing. It is in no way a reprise of Victorian gothic (okay, Lovecraft was the wrong period, 1890-1937, but you get the idea).

Second, its preoccupation with darker themes – death, self-harm, insanity, sexual deviance, obsession, the occult – can be read as a preoccupation with the end of innocence. It speaks of a politics of cynicism, betrayal and exploitation, and discovery of sexuality outside conventional bounds. It is about a world-view that sees society as fragmented, power and authority frequently misused, and the rules of civilised society treated with contempt and hypocrisy by those who are supposed to uphold them. In such a situation, it becomes a rational response to create one’s own subcultural tribal affiliations and one’s own rules.

Goth is hardly the only subculture in which we can find these sentiments. From the beginning of the rock’n’roll era onwards, youth subcultures have seen adult society in negative ways. For that matter, dystopian views are equally common in many areas that even today remain severely damaged by the economic and political shifts that started with Thatcherism. Yet one doesn’t see these dark themes explored in the same way, or with same detailed attention to fashion, in mining villages that suffered at the hands of the police in the 1984-5 miners’ strike and have never recovered from pit closure, or in socially excluded council estates.

Moreover, it’s not as though goth subculture expresses its understanding overtly or with political self-consciousness. There is, as it were, no ‘goth manifesto’. There is no ‘movement’, no collective view about how society should change, no social, economic or political agenda. It is, however, a ‘fashion statement’ that is a statement. The look says: contemporary society and normality is just not good enough. It says: the dark themes that preoccupy us are not fictions; they are metaphors, descriptions of the way the world really is. After all, how many of us feel our employers would really like to drink our blood, or that our political masters secretly believe we are no better than zombies?

Similarly, if liberty and personal choice mean anything at all, why should we not please ourselves in our private lives? Within the goth world, gender roles and looks are often fluid and practices ranging from S&M to chastity are easily accepted (and yes, there are people who are into both; beat me, bite me, but you can’t fuck me). The attitude is: the choice is ours to make and no one has a right to take that freedom away. We can invent and reinvent our own lives.

It would be easy to see goth as a 1980s hangover, a subculture with a dwindling number of members, a social curiosity on a par with Teddy Boys or Mods and Rockers. And in some respects it is. Goth clubs over the last few years seem to attract fewer and fewer patrons, and the bands smaller audiences. Even the headline goth event,  Whitby Goth Weekend, has (so I’m told) begun to look emaciated compared to several years ago. Many of those who were goths in the 1980s are now in their forties, settled with jobs, families and mortgages that make dressing up and clubbing a more complicated lifestyle choice.

Yet it is somehow more than this. Even as the goth subculture began to weaken, gothic sensibilities began to slip into mainstream culture. There had of course been weak forms of it for many years, in the form of Buffy and horror/vampire movies aimed principally at a teenage audience. For a slightly older audience there were, for example, Poppy Z Brite’s novels. But from around 2008, gothis motifs and styles started to find their way into TV advertisements, especially for perfume, alcohol and chocolates, and especially during the winter/Christmas season. In 2009 this trend was pursued by TV programming such as True Blood, based on a series of novels by Charlaine Harris that first appeared in 2001. They might best be described as vampire horror for adults, with the TV series including relatively explicit sexual scenes and some S&M. As of January 2010, a search for ‘goth’ as a tag on trendhunter.com brings up the following, all new developments in fashion and design identified between October and December 2009:

  • A new brand of black lipstick
  • A new line of handmade goth/vampire wedding gowns
  • Two fashion designers independently promoting a ‘dark’ goth look for spring 2010
  • A cluster of designers promoting gothic-inspired headwear, tiaras and jewellery
  • A cluster of new fashion accessories coming on the market with futuristic metal cybergoth-inspired designs
  • A series of CD album covers and music videos for pop/rock artists (incuding Rihanna and Lady Gaga, neither of whom immediately inspire particularly gothic associations) using goth-inspired imagery

Some of this slippage is likely to be because fashion designers and artists take inspiration and style from a wide range of sources; pastiche, and subcultural or cross-cultural borrowing is extremely common. Many of those inside goth subculture would no doubt want to put a great deal of critical distance between themselves and the mass media/mass culture representations of gothic. Even so, one might ask why certain borrowings, in particular those tagged as gothic, seem to have more cultural resonance and be more influential and enduring than others.

The answer is probably that the look and its perceived message does chime with a widespread perception that we live in dark times. Now, I don’t want to over-sell my pitch. Wearing eyeliner and listening to Nine Inch Nails, Rammstein or Combichrist isn’t exactly a revolutionary or seditious act. Goth style isn’t a solution to an existential dilemma. Goth subculture is, in political terms, inchoate and unformed (though because many of its members are relatively well-educated and net-savvy it’s not uninformed).

But its seepage into the mainstream is a marker for, a reminder of, the existential problem we all do face. At one level it might represent the teenage angst of ‘what is the meaning of life?’, but it also represents a deeper dissatisfaction with the exploitation, cynicism, hypocrisy and uncaring policies that surround all of us as adults.

For all that, goth doesn’t provide answers. It doesn’t even raise critical questions. But it does make visible an attitude that is increasingly shared across mainstream society. Plus, it looks startling and feels good. In the right environment, it still does what it wanted to do in the 1980s: épater la bourgeoisie, in the same way that Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Wilde and other did over a century ago.

So what’s the likely future of goth? As a subculture it’s had ups and downs, and is currently down. It seems static in many ways and may continue on a downward spiral for a couple of years yet. But there are still young people newly adopting the style, and some crossover with emergent trends such as steampunk. At some point it will no doubt be reinvented through a myriad of individual choices, and probably self-consciously seek to distance itself from whatever aspects the mainstream has plundered. It is and will remain very much the style of the outsider, of those who want to be outsiders. But since current social and economic trends are hell-bent on making us all outsiders, I’d wager that in some form, goth style is here to stay. It won’t be so much a case of goth creeping out again from its shadow, as the shadow expanding to cover us all.

After success… failure!

December 12, 2009 Leave a comment

Well that’s the business of writing, isn’t it? Of three SF pieces I submitted in the last month, I’ve had emails back from two mags to say that they’re suspending publication indefinitely, though hope to be back sometime in the future when the economic climate is better.
Thinking more generally, at one level it’s easy these days to set up a magazine. Plenty of programmes exist to code HTML or create PDFs, and print-on-demand is relatively straightforward – Lulu, Fictionwise, Feedbooks, or Issuu for free stuff. The key demands are time, energy and motivation. The problem is getting any kind of income from it that pays for the publisher’s and writers’ time and creativity, because there is a huge expectation that ‘culture’ of any description should be free. Plus there’s the ‘Youtube effect’ – what we do for entertainment has become the province of blogs written for specific social networks and people messing about with digital video for their own amusement. Sometimes it escapes that context and gets a bigger following though mostly it doesn’t. Music can be downloaded for free from all over the place; art and photography can be got from Flickr.
Conclusion: it’s never been easier to set something up, it’s never been harder to set something up and make money from it – even enough to pay small running costs.
The traditional solution has been to take advertising. But that’s a problem in the current economic climate. There are other possibilities – provide more in the print version that is viewable online, for example. Have added-value extras that are charged for, such as prints of artwork and podcasts of stories, or book-style anthology collections that contain additional unpublished material. Look for Arts Council grants. Or, like Wikipedia, just invite donations. The other way to go or course is for publishers to treat creatives as the source of their income by charging reading fees though as a creative (I hope) that doesn’t sound too attractive.
There’s a way to go before the new economic shape of small independent publishing will find new models that work, and in the meantime no doubt a few more will go under…

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