|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
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.