It is every parent’s nightmare: the moment their teenagers adopt black hair dye and white make-up. But a report suggests these children usually have a bright future. Ciar Byrne reports
Mancunians call them crows. Parents tend to adopt stronger language. But behind the black hair dye and white make-up Goths, it is claimed, are simply art lovers, who aspire to middle-class values and will end up in respectable professions.
Dr Dunja Brill, a 32-year-old German with her own Gothic tendencies, studied the subculture in Brighton, Edinburgh, Berlin and Cologne for her doctorate in media and cultural studies at Sussex University.
She believes Goths were misinterpreted following the 1999 Columbine High School massacre, when Marilyn Manson lyrics were blamed for contributing to the killing of 12 students and a teacher by teenagers Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris who wore long black overcoats.
But Dr Brill insists Manson is not regarded as part of the movement and that far from being a sinister group of social misfits, Goths place a high value on university education and highbrow culture.
Parents agonising over their offspring’s sudden passion for black clothes and eyeliner should be reassured they are more likely to end up a doctor, architect, social worker or in the creative industries than dropping out.
Her interviewees included medical doctors, a man who had pursued a lucrative career in the law before becoming a musician, a bank clerk and an architecture student. The bank clerk was free to dress in black because her job did not involve coming into contact with customers, although like many professional Goths she reserved more extreme hair and make-up for club nights out.
“The Goth lifestyle allows you to lead a perfectly sane, stable lifestyle with a proper job, your own flat and even a family, then at the weekends or in your leisure time follow your Gothic activities,” said Dr Brill.
Many Goths choose jobs in the creative industries, academia or social work, where they are allowed more freedom to pursue their identity, but most are willing to make compromises.
“There is this idea in the subculture of being a proper full-time Goth, but that’s incompatible with holding down certain kinds of jobs. Most Goths who stay Goths and get proper jobs tend to make compromises but keep as much of the classic black and white clothing as possible. A white shirt and black suit corresponds to the Goth personality. It’s easier than being a Punk. Most Goths are very neat. They’re quite vain. Especially for the women, long black dyed hair is perfectly okay. It’s more difficult for a man.”
While many subcultures buck against the system in every way they can, Goths embrace classical education.
“Going to do a university degree is encouraged. It doesn’t encourage people to drop out of school. Whereas in the Punk scene you turn down the normal educational values, in Goth you gain status if you’re perceived as being educated. You get people who are in it for the shock value, but they are usually the ones who grow out of it,” said Dr Brill.
“The scene has quite middle-class values – education, highbrow culture, theatre, museums, romantic literature, poetry, philosophy, Gothic architecture. Many Goths like classical music. It’s a status symbol to have a good collection of classical pieces – mostly requiems and darker pieces,” she added.
The short stories of Edgar Allan Poe, the poetry of Emily Dickinson and the lyrics of The Cure are all Gothic favourites.
Goths are by no means all teenagers. They range in age from 15 to 50 and for many it is not a phase they pass through, but a way of life they incorporate into their adult identities.
“Goth is not a typical youth subculture. I’m 32 now and I would still class myself as a sort of Goth,” said Dr Brill.
She feels it is easier to balance being a Goth with a normal lifestyle than other subcultures.
“Goth is a very individual thing. There are festivals and gigs and clubs where Goths gather and celebrate their collective identity. But you can be respected as a Goth without ever setting foot in a Goth club. There are some people living in small villages who just exist as Goths through personal ads in magazines or on the internet and and spread their poetry out through those channels.”
The Goth scene was born in Britain in the early 1980s in the aftermath of Punk. Siouxsie Sioux with her dyed black hair and extreme make-up became a Gothic pin-up along with her band The Banshees, although they were not actively involved in the movement.
Bauhaus, the first fully Goth band to emerge, from the unlikely environs of Northampton, released their first single “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” in 1979. In 1982, the group crossed over into the mainstream when their track “Ziggy Stardust” reached number 15 in the charts.
1982 was also the year when a club called the Batcave opened in London and became a mecca for the burgeoning Goth scene.
The early 1980s saw a wave of Goth bands, led by The Sisters of Mercy, and including UK Decay, Sex Gang Children, The Birthday Party and The Cure.
Robert Smith, the lead singer of The Cure, became a model for many young Goth men who pored over his melancholy lyrics, although his band were not directly part of the movement. Enjoying chart success, The Cure also became a bridge between Goth and mainstream culture. In 1983, the New Musical Express gave the scene the more upbeat moniker “Positive Punk”.
An interest in the darker side of life has remained part of the Goth culture, which today is divided into more traditional adherents, who favour crushed velvet, lace and long-flowing garments in predominantly black and white, and “cyber-Goths”, who inject fluorescent colours into their hair and outfits.
An interest in fetish fashion and clubs is part of modern Goth culture, although Dr Brill believes that many in the scene are actually quite coy about sexuality.
“There are different kinds of Goths. Some of them are into the fetish scene. A big prejudice about Goths is that they’re easy, but many of the girls believe in love and romance.”
Non-violence is another important element. Fights are practically unheard of.
“A large proportion of those who stick with it tend to be the more sensitive, poetic souls, melancholy and arty types. Many writers have said that the rebelliousness in Goth subculture consists of withdrawal,” said Dr Brill.
Despite this emphasis on individual reflection, Goths can still have a good time, when they get together at clubs, gigs or festivals like the bi-annual Whitby Goth Weekend.
The most thriving Goth scene today is in Germany – where there are around 90,000 Goths, about four times as many as the UK, although British Goths tend to stick with the subculture longer.
Such is the appeal of the movement that there are two glossy magazines aimed at Goths on German news stands – Sonic Seducer and Orkus. The editor of Sonic Seducer even took a business degree so he could turn his fanzine into a professional product.
Goth culture still arouses suspicions. On its website, the Parents’ American Religious Organizations [sic] Defending Youth, Parody for short, blames Goths for everything from the Columbine massacre to Buffy the Vampire Slayer and South Park.
The website asks: “What are the worst dangers that threaten our children today? Satanism? Drugs? Homosexuality? A culture of violence? Heat exhaustion? What if there was a danger that included all of these? That danger is here and its name is GOTH.”
But Dr Brill is dismissive of those who suggest Goth culture has links to Satanism.
“Goth is the most non-violent culture around. Not many Goths are into any proper religion, not even the Church of Satan. Most Goths don’t like formalities. Individualism and tolerance are the big values on the Goth scene.”
‘There were never any fights or violence’: Andrew Collins, writer and broadcaster
I turned 18 in Northampton in 1983. I was in the sixth form and there was a big style move towards longer hair and looking a bit moody. My look just evolved. The first hair colour I dabbled in was henna and then black. I wore a black coat, black scarf and Dickensian fingerless black gloves. I went to art foundation school and started to become more Gothic. I never dared to wear make-up. I don’t think anyone did in Northampton. I went round to my friend Kevin’s on a Saturday night and we would listen to the Cure and Sisters of Mercy and sculpt our hair in identical fashions. Robert Smith of the Cure was our model. We used to go to wine bars. They would always change as the management realised we were spoiling the view. Bauhaus were Northampton’s most famous export and they used to drink in a wine bar in Bridge Street, although we were too cool to look like we recognised them. There were never any fights or violence in the places where we were. We drank blackcurrant and lemonade because it looked good. The flip side was what we called “rugby players”, wearing a suit and a smart haircut and white socks and yet they would be rowdy and have fights. Then I went to art school in London and suddenly I was surrounded by people who looked even more ridiculous than me.
The driving force behind post-punk band The Cure, Robert Smith first borrowed his trademark red lipstick from Siouxsie Sioux while high on opium. Described by some as “the godfather of Goths”, his image has fuelled classification of The Cure as a Goth band, a label rejected by Smith, who is known for his poetic lyrics as much as his spider-like hair. In a recent interview, Smith said of his image: “I just try to keep it pure, far from cynicism. But it is hard.”
Formed in 1976 to fill a space in Malcolm McLaren’s international punk rock festival bill at London’s 100 Club, Siouxsie Sioux and her band, the Banshees – including Sid Vicious of Sex Pistols fame – courted controversy over their 20-year career. Seen sporting bondage and fetish wear, criticism peaked when Siouxsie performed wearing swastika armbands. Probably best known for “Kiss Them For Me” and “This Wheel’s on Fire”, Siouxsie spanned the Goth, punk and new wave looks and sounds.
Marilyn Manson, originally Brian Warner, was born to middle-class parents Hugh and Barbara Warner on 5 January 1969. He became “Marilyn Manson” in the early 1990s, and rose to national fame through his provocative lyrics and actions as a self-professed “Superstar Antichrist”. Renowned for his distinctive look – long black hair, make-up and leather – Manson’s lyrics were blamed for inspiring the Columbine High School massacre. But many Goths reject Manson as too mainstream.
Widely credited as the founding fathers of Goth, Bauhaus are famed for their experimental work, often involving genres ranging from dub reggae to new-wave. The band, who come from Northampton, took their name from the German Bauhaus art movement (initially Bauhaus 1919), creating an eclectic mix of glam-rock, prog rock and punk. They have released four studio albums since 1978, appeared on John Peel’s live sessions and performed with David Bowie as The Thin White Duke.
Sisters of Mercy/ The Mission
Described as the “quintessential Eighties Goth band”, the Sisters of Mercy, led by Andrew Eldritch, left, played Las Vegas last month to mark their 25th anniversary. The band have sought to avoid classification and describe themselves as “intellectual love gods in our spare time”. Guitarist Wayne Hussey and bassist Craig Adams formed The Mission in 1986; they played their first gig as The Sisterhood at London’s Alice in Wonderland club.
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