Goth contains multitudes. It’s a sometimes cartoonish, sometimes disturbing fashion statement — fishnets, black leather, noir-movie makeup, tortured hairstyles — that owes plenty to punk’s defiance and glam’s flamboyance. It’s theater but it’s also a mindset, a philosophy, steeped in 19th century literature and loner introspection. And it’s also a soundtrack, misfit music that ended up creating million-selling songs and arena-filling bands almost in spite of its underground attitude.
Though goth took root as a genre in the early ‘80s, its influences encompass a rich strain of centuries-old literature that sought to escape the commonplace by immersing itself in the supernatural and mystical (see the collected works of Edgar Allen Poe, Charles Baudelaire, Oscar Wilde, Emily Bronte, Louisa May Alcott and others). It draws from the darkest ‘60s music (particularly bands such as the Velvet Underground and the Doors, who delved into the macabre and cultivated a forbidding image and sound). Most especially, it was presaged by ‘70s rock star Alice Cooper and his grindhouse-movie stage show, shock-rock anthems and campy-villain persona: Welcome to his nightmare, indeed.
By Hunter Desportes, Wikimedia Commons
Goth first flourished in the U.K. Siouxsie and the Banshees got there first, with their heady compositions and Siouxsie Sioux’s ultra-intelligent, proto-feminist dominatrix charisma. If Siouxsie established the look as much as the sound, Joy Division unleashed a gaggle of songs that embodied the movement’s nocturnal mindset: “Dead Souls,” “Isolation,” “Love Will Tear Us Apart.” That singer Ian Curtis would kill himself at age 23 just days before the quartet was to embark on its first U.S. tour in 1980 only enhanced the band’s credibility among black-hearted goth devotees.
Banshees fan Robert Smith and the Cure blazed a similar path, and helped sketch out the musical territory: interior songs that felt spooky and intense yet somehow anthemic. Bauhaus, from the unfashionable East Midlands region of northern England, announced its arrival in 1979 with “Bela Lugosi’s Dead,” a song that served as both a celebration and manifesto for the emerging scene. Amid reverberating percussion and skeletal guitars, the baritone-voiced Peter Murphy emerged from his crypt to trumpet the news: “The bats have left the belltower.”
The arrival in 1982 of a London club called the Batcave — which drew an audience overflowing with pale boys and girls in fetish gear, ruffled shirts and religious or occult jewelry — affirmed a cultural shift that still resonates today. Contemporaries of the first goth wave including Echo and the Bunnymen, Cocteau Twins, Australia’s Birthday Party and the Misfits shared some genre traits, and later, commercially successful artists and bands — Ministry, Nine Inch Nails, Marilyn Manson, AFI — borrowed heavily from the goth instruction manual.
Doubtlessly, goth will remain relevant so long as there are angsty kids drawn to horror movies and intrigued by unconventional notions of beauty and mortality. It continues to give alienated misfits the license to experiment with sound, fashion and persona in a fantastical setting of their own making. Who could resist that?