Popular Music Scholarship II: Goths are protesting – or maybe they just like black a lot….

Decadence, weltschmerz, vampirism – Goth’s got something for everyone….

Ian Curtis, lead singer of Joy Division, one of – if not THE – archetypal Goth band… (image courtesy

For this week’s look at the scholarly essay collection on popular music, The Resisting Muse: Popular Music and Social Protest, we’re going to look at the rise of Goth music – and, tangentially, the rise (and maintenance) of Goth “lifestyle”: at least the  superficial elements (dress, dancing, etc.). Kimberly Jackson’s interesting essay, “Gothic music and the decadent individual” explores the origins of Goth as a musical movement and, as the authors in this collection are wont to do, looks for ties between Goth and its antecedent musical forms that seem to suggest how Goth is a form of protest music.

One of the things that makes this particular discussion interesting is that Jackson sets the context by positioning the Goth movement as a decadent art form. This allows her to discuss Nietzsche and his opposition to decadence in art – and, more importantly (at least for her discussion), this allows her introduce Richard Wagner as an archetype of “decadent art” – and  to suggest that Nietzsche’s reasons for his opposition to the music of Richard Wagner are the same reasons for critical opposition to both seminal Goth rock bands such as Joy Division, Bauhaus, and The Cure and their inheritors. In both cases the opposition comes from those (who then are implicated as Nietzscheans – I’m trying to avoid violating Godwin’s Law here, but I’m not sure I can) who want to “resist” (which might involve “cleaning up” – i.e., eliminating – um, yeah, now you’re thinking about those ultimate Nietzscheans) decadence in its various forms. The problem, of course, as Jackson notes, is that, like Wagner’s music, Goth rock has attractions that make it more likely to survive than its critics.

This, I suppose begs a question: Whose Götterdämmerung is it anyway? If, as Jackson suggests, Goth rock is Wagnerian, which Nietzsche carped about as decadent, then the question becomes, perhaps, is being extravagantly decadent a way of protesting a decadent culture’s social and cultural problems? Or is it a form of cultural co-option, of, to use Gothic terminology, “embracing the darkness” for entertainment purposes?

Jackson’s problem, of course, is similar to the one confronted by Sean K. Kelly in last week’s essay on the rise of metal and its relationship to the protest movements of the sixties. How does one prove that, at least in its origins with artists like Ian Curtis, Peter Murphy, and Robert Smith were expressing frustrations with social/cultural problems just as Bob Dylan, Country Joe McDonald, and Neil Young were?

It’s a sticky problem – and Jackson acknowledges that Goth, like metal, became not just a musical movement but a lifestyle cult. Its embracing of what Jackson describes as the attempt to “aestheticize tragedy” leads, of course, to the image of the “Goth kid”: dressed in black (including accessorizing with heavy eye shadow, black lipstick, and black nail polish), dour expression, bizarre (by conventional rock standards) hair style. Winona Ryder’s character in Beetlejuice is a prime Hollywood example of this view of Goth as cultural more than musical.

This image of Goth is sometimes disputed, Jackson notes, by critics who see Goth’s lyrical focuses on death and darkness as affirmative, as offering listeners an understanding of death as merely another part of the life cycle. This interpretation of Goth sees Goth music as a “space” (not unlike that discussed by Kelly in his essay on metal) where fans and musicians can explore views that differ from those of the wider culture. In this way Goth, like metal, becomes a subculture among other subcultures, its predilections and interests merely part of the larger culture, its potential to serve as a commentary upon or provocation to that culture’s security – or ultimate hegemony – greatly diminished.

But that’s not really what Goth was originally about, as Jackson admits. And it’s worth looking at some of its originators to find where Goth’s possibilities as protest lie. That means discussing the following figures: Peter Murphy of Bauhaus and, especially, Ian Curtis of Joy Division.

Peter Murphy, for instance, in the early days of Bauhaus was twice arrested for grievous bodily harm (the British equivalent for assault with intent to do serious bodily injury) for attacking fans during Bauhaus shows. Murphy also screamed at and insulted audiences. Murphy’s explanation was that this “is what the world is like, so get used to it.”

Curtis, of course, was in some ways the ultimate Goth rock star. First, there was his bizarre dancing, based at least in part on his own struggle with epilepsy that served as a prototype for dancing to Goth music:

Curtis’s widow Deborah, in her biography of the singer, quotes one of Joy Division’s band members on his typical stage behavior:

One night, during a performance at Rafters, he ripped the whole stage apart, pulling off these twelve inch square tiles with nails in them and throwing them at the audience. Then he dropped a pint pot on the stage, it smashed, and he rolled around in the broken glass, cutting a ten-inch gash in his thigh.

Curtis, unable – or unwilling – to control both his penchant for and desire to critique the violence and deadness of his culture, eventually made an ultimate statement by committing suicide. Jackson interprets this – and the subsequent cult hero/undead status Curtis has attained with Goth fans as a resurrection – though more the resurrection of a vampire rather than of a savior.

Jackson interprets the violence, more real than theatrical, of Murphy, Curtis (and their fans, it should be noted – Goth shows got rowdy) as the antithesis of the bonding that might occur between audience and performer at a sixties’ rock show with, say, Country Joe and the Fish: there were no moments like the “Fish Cheer,” no bonding together against “the man”at a Bauhaus or Joy Division show. The alienation of musicians and audience was a reflection of the alienation all felt in the larger world.

The difficulty, then, lies here: Goth sought, as metal did, to make a statement about the bleakest elements of 20th century life – and explore the social problems of both the larger culture (diminishing resources, a dying planet, the failure of the nation state model) and of rock itself as a vehicle for social comment (unless you consider something like this thoughtful message from Kiss as social comment). However, as the movement evolved and its artistic energy waned, like metal, Goth became more a lifestyle subculture with a musical soundtrack – perhaps no more or less so than surf culture, punk rock culture, or hipster culture.

In a way then, Goth achieved a sort of undead cultural status. Maybe that in itself is a sort of protest.

23 replies »

  1. Once again, I’m not so sure about the thesis of protest. Goth seems to me to be more about existential crisis. But, I’m sure there is some form of protest, against cultural norms, against happy people, etc. But the protest seems to be more inward focused than outward.

    I have a strong love/hate relationship with Goth music. I have the Life Less Lived box set and some songs I could listen to over and over, and others I can’t wait till the second note to skip.

    • I agree with you in principle, Retro – it seems to me to be stretching the point pretty thin to see Goth as a protest. It seemed/seems more like – I don’t know – cry of despair? That fits your “existential crisis” definition, I think. And that makes more sense to me than that Goths were protesting.

      As for the music itself, I listen to lots of satellite radio – and hear Bauhaus, Joy Division, and occasionally even Sisters of Mercy on their “first wave” channel. It’s interesting, certainly. But I’m an old fart. I’m listening for EC, Joe Jackson, and Squeeze…

  2. As with the person above I don’t think Goth is about protest at all. I’ve been in the subculture in varying degrees for over 25 years and people are mostly apathetic in the ‘scene’ when it comes to anything political or anti-government. I can see it maybe as a protest against ‘normal’ culture but I don’t think that totally fits either. The outward trappings of Goth have been pretty mainstreamed for a while, but the music still hasn’t been fully accepted. The music that the mainstream press label as Goth usually isn’t. Case being Marilyn Manson, who may look strange and play heavy music but neither him or his music are Goth.

    • Thanks for mentioning Manson, gothmusings – Jackson notes that Manson is often mistakenly labeled as Goth – when he’s really more – shock rock, I guess? I’m an aging Boomer, so Manson seemed to me to be a latter day reboot of Alice Cooper (from the AC band days). Jackson (the article author) also mentions that Nine Inch Nails occasionally gets mislabeled as Goth – or as some Goth/Industrial cross. Again, it seems to me the debt to early Alice is worth noting – but what do I know…?

  3. Interesting essay. I STRONGLY disagree with the characterization of JD as the ultimate Goth band, though. That wold have to be Bauhaus or the Sisters, right? If I’m naming Goth bands I doubt they’re in the first ten that come to mind. But that has to do with the musical classification more than the cultural, I suppose. And it isn’t like there was no gray area between Goth and Post-Punk. Dark, dark gray.

    Did the writer address religion at all? If I were attempting to cast Goth as protest movement, that’s where I’d start. The genre embodies a pretty deep critique of Catholicism and in many places seeks to reclaim the divine connection for its outcasts. You could probably write volumes on this without even dipping into the vampire/damned trope.

    Which is to say, I’m intrigued by the writer’s decision to go the Nietzsche route. Not saying it isn’t valid – it just seems like there’s a stronger case to be made via the theological route.

    • No mention of religion at all. And she trod really lightly on the “outcasts” idea and that was mostly in briefly discussing the vampirism thing as part of the “lifestyle.” And there she used Curtis as the example – his being sort of “undead” as I mention above. As if the vampirism stuff kind of grew out of a cult worship of Curtis. As I mentioned in my comment to RetroHound, stretching the idea thinly.

      Her comments on Murphy and Bauhaus were mostly about PM’s violence as a part of the early shows, etc.- which I mention above. About Sisters she has only a couple of sentences where she mentions Eldritch’s “aloofness” which she likens to something like a disengagement meant to suggest an alienation from the audience.

      Remember, she was trying to fit this thing to a volume of essays on protest in pop music. So she’s ham stringing herself somewhat. I mean, think about The Cure, the one “Goth” band I know fairly well. As I mentioned in one of our email chats as I was writing this, RS’s work seems to me more like a progenitor of Emo than really Goth.

      You know, it’s funny. I was listening to a “classic alternative” channel on satellite radio last night as I was writing and “Love Will Tear Us Apart” played. It was preceded by “Two Hearts Beat as One” by U2 and followed by “Fools in Love” by Joe Jackson. And it fit perfectly between those two – sonically, especially.

      Something to that, methinks…

      • As far as Bauhaus and religious protest are concerned, here’s Stigmata Martyr. According to an interview I read way back when, this was trampling on tabu so hard for them that it actually creeped them out.

        In a crucifixion ecstasy
        Lying cross chequed in agony
        Stigmata bleed continuously
        Holes in head, hands, feet, and weep for me

        Stigmata oh you sordid sight
        Stigmata in your splintered plight
        Look into your crimson orifice
        In holy remembrance
        In scarlet bliss

        In nomine patri et filii et spiriti sanctum
        In nomine patri et filii et spiriti sanctum
        In nomine patri et filii et spiriti sanctum
        In nomine patri et filii et spiriti sanctum

        And of course, there’s this gem: Rosegarden Funeral of Sores, which casts Mary is a rather unflattering light, if in a tepid way:

        Virgin Mary was tired
        So tired
        Tired of listening to gossip
        Gossip and complaints

        They came from next door

        And a bewildered stream of chatter
        From all sorts of
        All sorts of
        Untidy whores

        Came from next door
        Came from next door

        But some men are chosen from the rest
        But their disappointment runs with their guests
        Never would be invited to the funeral rosegarden

        But their choice don’t seem to matter
        They got swollen breasts and lips that putter
        And their choice of matter and their scream of chatter
        Is just a little parasitic scream of whores
        Screaming whores
        In the rosegarden funeral of sores

        Virgin Mary was tired
        So tired of listening to gossip
        Gossip and complaints

        In the
        In the
        Rosegarden funeral of sores

        • I was telling Jim that you really get some of the religious … let’s call it “counterpoint” … in things like Dark Ambient. Which is VERY goth but not even a little bit Rock. My personal favorite is Raison d’Etre, which I play as I go to sleep every night. Abandoned medieval monasteries haunted by the ghosts of Gregorian choirs. Amazing stuff. Also, if you ever heard that Dark Noel series of Darkwave artists doing Christmas carols, you get a sense for how that particular battle is being waged, too.

  4. I’ll have to check those out. If I’m reading the “sound” correctly, you might enjoy This Morn Omina, btw.

  5. I’ve never cared if artists were complete jerks in their personal life for the same reason I don’t care about the character flaws of certain heroes: I take the art, or the act(s) of heroism to stand on their own. I for one haven’t been under the delusion that heroes are anything but human for a very long time. I will not, nor could I, enjoy the art of a person strongly affiliated with some particularly heinous group or philosophy. I don’t listen to Wagner or Nugent for instance. Al Jorgensen was always a real jerk wad, but I stopped listening to Ministry because I grew out of all that formulaic angsty crap. Bauhaus is just too good, and even if someone told me Murphy was a Nazi I’d maintain that the music told me personally it didn’t agree with him.

    I’ve always kinda chuckled at this sort of overanalyzing of goth, and balking at the application of terms like “movement” and especially “culture.” I never felt this lingering faddish penchant for a certain aesthetic warranted any such label. There’s no shared set of values beyond said aesthetic, and not only were (are?) goths from every slice of society, the TIREDEST conversation in history concerns what bands count as goth.

    Why did “goth” bands form, and why did people dress all spooky and listen to some of them? Well if you were a part of that scene then you know the answers are as varied as all the individuals who participated in it. To be sure there were political and cultural factors that influenced its inception and associated artists, but that’s not the same thing.

    I did find that libertarian political philosophy seemed to be disproportionately well represented among scenesters…but then this is totally consistent with the disproportionately inflated egos all too common in that scene.

    • We got the “what is goth” question quite frequently in IRC back in the day and the answers were as diverse as the people replying. My own cheeky take on it was that it all depends on whether someone you think is goth thinks you’re goth, and that it varied regionally. You could be considered GAF (Goth as Fuck) by GAF folk in Ottumwa, then get laughed out of NYC, and could be GAF by NYC standards, only to just be relegated to freak in Ottumwa.

      I always thought of goth as just a particular spin-off from punk, which was notoriously subversive in taking cultural norms and styles and turning them upside down and inside out. Goth was every bit as subversive in that sense, but in terms of “protest,” I saw it as just as rebellious as punk insofar as it rejected social norms/mores, but went a step further by generally rejecting the barbarism/hooliganism of punk in favor of its own brands of barbarism and hooliganism.

      • Maybe…it just seems like trying to press the individual histories of bands and their members, and individual clubs and their founders and patrons, all under some umbrella term. I mean I think early on the scene was just a magnet for the damaged and the different, and nothing terribly grandiose or profound. I’m a teenage social outcast, or I’m depressed and death obsessed, or I saw this Siouxsie Sioux and I want to look like that, or all of the above. And so many of these bands were just patrons of the same clubs, together watching the previous generation of bands…and so on. I don’t think it’s trivial that when we’re talking about the formative stages of these various bands, or likewise that of a budding scenester, we’re taking about teens and recent teens, and the inherent madness that implies.

        • Hardly trivial at all. Even central to it. After all, there’s only two types of teens/young adults, those who readily fit into a simple dualistic conformity/rebellion model, and those who don’t 😉 More seriously, I know from my own personal experience that I was drawn by both a mix of attraction and rebellion and was, in a sense, simultaneously pushed by rejection from the norm.

          I was an annoying twit (was??) in my youth. I had little say over my rejection. Given a choice between rebelling against the forces that made the world so loathsome to me (and me to the world) and either trying to fit like a square peg in a round hole or simply going my own way, I went with rebellion. But what to do, what to do? I looked around me, not having rebellion as part of my normal daily experience, and the menu was pretty bleak. Be a burnout like the paint-sniffing, hard-drug-addled repeat offenders in my neighborhood? Keep wrapping bandanas around my jeans above the sliced hole in the knee, sport a butt-cut and go the way of metal? Or, “heyyyyy, what the hell is that?” thought I upon seeing my first gaggle of goths. The attraction mode made up my rebellious mind. I’d heard some of the music by then, but hadn’t seen any concerts yet, and hadn’t seen any videos, so I had no idea what the norm-rejecting visual apparatus would be. It hit me in all my affinities, and so it was.

          I imagine a similar dynamic plays it in the forming of every youthful rebel. “Can’t stand this! Must not be this! What can I be? [flips through menu].” Sadly, it kind of points at replacing one conformity for another. Is it rebellion if we’re just finding a place in a different tribe than we were born into?

        • I relate strongly to all of that Frank, except that I was first drawn to the punk aesthetic rather than metal, and was primed for goth so to speak by being “artsy,” occultish, and into all things spooky early on. The first time I saw Burton’s “Vincent” I exclaimed, “That was me!” However, another huge component for me, and this was definitely an artifact of the time, was the dark hopelessness in assuming that I’d never reach maturity owing to the nuclear Armageddon that was shortly to come.