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