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The Evolution of Goth Culture
The Evolution of Goth Culture: the Origins and Deeds of the New Goths, by Karl & Beverley Spracklen (Emerald, 2018)

I was excited to hear about this book on Radio 4’s Thinking Allowed, and having waited until a copy came up for sale whose price didn’t make me wince I was more excited when it arrived through the post. There are things wrong with it, and I will dispose of those first; I am also not convinced about aspects of the authors’ core argument, but that’s not necessarily a problem with the book as such, so I’ll relegate discussion of the actual case until later.

The Evolution of Goth Culture is dreadfully proof-read. Everywhere there are missing or superfluous letters, stray apostrophes, signs of sentences having been rewritten halfway through but not made consistent, and on a couple of occasions a missing negative which actually reverses the sense of a statement. Although most of the time the authors refer to themselves in the first person plural in a refreshingly conversational manner, on p.126 they revert to standard academic-speak and Karl Spracklen appears merely under his surname as though he was someone else. Given that the authors are proud sticklers in matters temporal and grammatical (pp.69 n2, 76), I’m sure they’re even more upset about being so badly served than I am on their behalf.

Karl Spracklen is a lecturer in leisure and tourism studies at Leeds Beckett University and his wife Beverley used to work as a bellydance teacher and performer. They’ve written a lot of stuff together and with others, and can’t quite resist inserting wodges of that research into the book. The section on the development of heavy metal substyles in the 1990s (93-97) is dizzying and basically irrelevant, and neither explains what heavy metal is, nor how it differs from or resembles Goth. There is some point to this section as the cross-fertilisation of Goth and metal is important, but the rehearsal of the history of the Internet (122-126) is of no use whatever. Equally, we all have our favourite bands and much as I loathe The Sisters of Mercy I can concede their crucial role in the formation of Goth recte in the early 1980s, but the chapter about the band (71-87) seems to be mainly an exercise in Eldritch-baiting, an amusing and popular sport in the Goth world but of strictly limited interest. It would have been more informative to pick a less well-known group and look at what it was that got them started, and how they developed. The book has an odd habit of quoting sources at length, then rephrasing what they have said. All this adds up to a lot of essentially superfluous wordage.

My last quibble is about how to understand Romanticism. I disagree with the Spracklens over the extent to which Goth can be interpreted as an aspect of Gothic more widely, but that’s a debatable matter. They are keen (nay anxious) to paint Goth as a movement of political radicalism and anti-capitalism; I think they are not quite on the mark there, but that’s by-the-by, too. The problem is that wanting to downplay the role of Gothic in Goth and Goth in Gothic because Gothic isn’t anti-capitalist enough leads you astray. For the Spracklens Romanticism, of which Gothic is part, is nothing but ‘insipid’, passive and unpolitical, a matter of swooning women in long dresses and soppy poetry. They blame Gavin Baddeley’s 2002 book Goth Chic for introducing the connection into Goth’s self-awareness (20-21) – unaware, apparently, of Richard Davenport-Hines’s Gothic (1998) which boldly described anyone ever involved in producing or consuming Gothic culture from the 17th century onwards as a ‘Goth’, or Jenny Grey’s Gothic Society (founded in 1990) which made the same link. I’ve had my arguments with Gavin Baddeley, but he rightly points out in Goth Chic that Romanticism was revolutionary – the insistence that individual experience and sensibility, and not objective authority, was the basis of moral order and artistic value – and you don’t get more Goth than that.

But I come to praise Caesar, basically, an apposite phrase considering the splendidly pompous title of the book, alluding as it does to a history of the original Goths in the ruinous centuries surrounding the collapse of the western Roman Empire. The Spracklens show an aptitude for pinching amusing allusions from other disciplines, referring to the ‘Whig interpretation’ of the history of Goth and the ‘Received Standard Version’ of what happened to Goth in the 1990s.

Now, for some time I have been suggesting that there are features in the development of Goth which someone should write about, and here, at last, someone is doing so! The Spracklens take the narrative from the first stirrings of something dark in the welter of post-punk music and activity that came to be tagged ‘Gothic’, through the formulation of the ‘goth’ template in Leeds around the Sisters of Mercy (I’m not completely convinced that’s the whole story, but we let that pass), what was different about ‘goth rock’ compared to early Goth, and what happened afterwards. Once the mainstream music world had got goth rock out of its system, they suggest, the scene went underground, its radical ‘communicative alternativity’ being maintained by fanzines, clubs, and websites – ‘goth fans found community and identity in the goth spaces that were available to them, especially independent record and clothing shops’ (186). This was the phase Goth was still in when Paul Hodkinson wrote his groundbreaking sociological study of the scene for Berg in 2002. However, at the same time the growth of the Internet allowed a global dispersal of Goth motifs and their increasing commodification; Goth became redefined not in terms of music but a broader ‘dark aesthetic’ which could, eventually, be bought off the shelf by anyone: ‘anyone [can] play at being a goth for one video, or one album, or just for one weekend … Dressing like a Goth is now very easy, unless you live in a place ruled by conservative reactionaries or crazy autocrats’ (170). It is – as already memorably described in one of Karl Spracklen’s earlier articles – ‘the entropic heat death of the goth aesthetic’. When all can be Goth, none truly are.

In the course of this analysis, we are given some real gems. The authors’ exemplar for the commodification of Goth is what has happened to Whitby Goth Weekend over the twenty-odd years of its existence, and they make their case very convincingly (137-153). They are absolutely right to cast doubts (37-38) on the well-known ‘origin myth’ that the word ‘Goth’ came from a joke told by Ian Astbury and others against Andi Sex Gang of the band Sex Gang Children, a yarn which I have doubted for a long while (and which I first read in 2003, long before the 2009 date they quote). There is a fine little section on Goth in Uzbekistan (116-118) and, as well as making it clear that modern Goth differs significantly from what it was in the 1980s, the Spracklens make a stab at explaining why, arguing that the Internet allowed the diversification of Goth substyles and subgenres (129-130). The most interesting claim is that Cybergoth style actually developed out of the experience of using the Internet and associated technology. A lot more work is needed on these statements which at the moment remain just insightful assertions, but at least they are asserted. The methodological approach – a bit of global analysis, a couple of case studies, moving back and forth over the field of study – is entirely appropriate to such a disparate and elusive thing as Goth.

But make no mistake: this book is a polemic. Karl and Beverley Spracklen are very, very annoyed about what they believe has happened to the subculture they love. Their rage at the betrayal of what they want to paint as an anti-capitalist crusade reaches its feather-spitting climax in the chapter ‘Goth as Fashion Choice’ (155-171), especially their attack on a hapless Goth model who calls herself Wednesday Mourning (‘becoming a goth is becoming seen to be just one other way of becoming rich and famous … one way people without power are fooled into accepting the inequality of the world’ (165)), and on Steampunk (‘Steampunks … desire to be elite Victorians fighting for the Empire’ (169)). There’s a deep paradox, they argue, within which Goth is caught at the present time – the desire to signal alternativity versus the need to be acceptable. ‘Goth is not dead, but it has changed so much that it is in danger of losing its meaning and purpose’ (183).

So, The Evolution of Goth Culture is a good book. It tells a coherent story, and examines critically themes which have been becoming apparent for some time, but which nobody has tackled before. Much applause for Karl and Beverley Spracklen is in order. But are they right?

Three sentences from across the book summarise the argument. ‘Goth in the early 1980s embraced the punk fear of selling out, doing things underground and DIY’; then in the 1990s ‘goth culture started to replicate the instrumentality of the mainstream by constructing its own logic of production and consumption’; and after twenty years of this ‘goth will only survive if it becomes a radical, transgressive and counter-cultural space again … returning fully to its communicative alternativity’ (69, 103, 188). On the one hand, this is a correct account of what happened; on the other, it’s a misreading of that past. I could have called this review Nostalgia for an Age that Never Existed, but thought it would be a bit rude.

It is absolutely correct that first-wave Goths made, adapted, cadged, and probably occasionally stole their clothes and bodged together their music like punks. But they did this more because they had no other option than out of a sense of principle, though they may have made a principle out of necessity. Young people in the late 1970s and early 1980s didn’t have much disposable cash, and so there was no market to supply what they wanted. The Spracklens’ account of how this changed to what we have now is, I believe, spot on, although it still needs fleshing-out with actual data. But although they continually describe first-wave Goth as an anti-capitalist phenomenon, their key evidential text is an article by a music journalist in 1989 analysing Goth, not anything that comes from Goths themselves (67). Turning to my own pet band, Siouxsie and the Banshees were defiant elitists (Steve Severin once dismissed the democratic ethic of punk with a terse ‘No, everybody can’t do this’) who were certainly interested in artistic integrity but also out to make a successful career for themselves, and did. There is very, very little material to demonstrate that first-wave Goth was anti-capitalist as such, except by accident. What it was was anti-conformist and anti-authoritarian, and it’s a mistake to confuse these with economic radicalism. They can be linked, but they aren’t the same.

The Spracklens themselves quote the German band Pink Turns Blue, formed in 1985: ‘we wanted depth, doubts, darkness, eeriness. We wanted to sulk’ (61). So much for the music: as for the clothes, just a couple of days ago I visited Brighton Museum, whose costume gallery contained a Goth outfit worn by Paula Huntbach in the mid-1980s. It consists of a customised black leather jacket, a long black dress with flounces at the calf – not far from ‘Victorian’, although it’s closer to Morticia Addams – spiky jewellery and winkle-picker boots which Ms Huntbach decorated with Klimt-inspired swirls. In a caption, she describes how she would attach bits of old scarves to her outfit: ‘This was the whole important thing to me for Goth … that your clothes looked slightly shredded and old, as though you’d been maybe hanging round in a castle or somewhere gloomy for a while’. Notice, she doesn’t say ‘my clothes were a statement that I wanted to smash the prevailing economic system’: she says they were an expression of a personal fantasy, framed by Gothic imagery. Goth’s was, is, an individualistic rebellion – a Romantic one, dare I say. Pink Turns Blue also expressed a dislike of ‘consumerism’, but experience has demonstrated that this doesn’t mean Goths reject consuming anything, only what the majority consumes. Capitalism can sell you anti-conformity as it can anything else; and, because Goth never had a critique of capitalism in the same way it did of conformism, when forced to choose it makes its peace with the market. Goth individualism might sometimes be sentimental and unrealistic (I think it often is), but it’s at the core of the whole thing.

It is true that Goths are now socially acceptable in a way they weren’t when I first encountered the subculture about twenty years ago and certainly when the Spracklens got involved a bit earlier. I’ve already said elsewhere that it’s a shame it took a young woman having her head stamped on until she died to achieve that (I believe the murder of Sophie Lancaster in 2007 is the single biggest galvanising event in Goth since it began – strangely the Spracklens’ book only has two passing references to it, and nothing in the index). For most individual Goths, the choice to be acceptable comes in the form of getting a job and discovering that having some money to spend on what makes you happy is preferable to the insecurities of other forms of living. Sorry about that.

But if a critique of capitalism has never really been part of Goth, perhaps the Spracklens are right in this – to preserve what Goths really do value, they might have to discover one. The history of Whitby Goth Weekend suggests that without doing so, space to be themselves will be eroded. ‘To feel human, we need to resist the inequalities and injustices of modernity, even if in resisting all we can do is find a space where we can be alternative among others like us’ (188), and that does mean a neverending tension between genuine community and the marketing of identifiers of community. This story, I suspect, isn’t over yet.

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