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Goth Music
Goth Music: from Sound to Subculture, by Isabella van Elferen & Jeffrey Weinstock, Routledge 2017

Rather than start from the history of Goth (which would be the obvious tack to take), the authors instead open this book from two contemporary Goth events, Dracula’s Ball in Philadelphia and Gottertanz in Leipzig (part of the bigger festival Wave-Gotik-Treffen), and think about what the Goth experience consists of. ‘Each event is defined by the music presented, the music is extraordinarily different in each venue, and yet both events are ‘goth’’ (43) so the unity cannot come from any technical or stylistic elements of the music itself. Neither, despite the centrality of social ritual to the subculture (‘horror film samples … corsets … and the scent of patchouli are as much part of goth musical reality as [the music] … Goth music is intricately linked to listening practices and social situations’ (51)) can it derive from any other such element as these, too, are colossally diverse. Despite its apparent inconsistency, Van Elferen and Weinstock are still convinced that ‘music is the glue that holds the goth scene together’, not just ‘one equivalent subcultural practice among many’ (11).

They find their way forward by borrowing the notion of the chronotope from 20th-century Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin. A chronotope is an artwork’s setting in time and space, the range of spatial and temporal associations it evokes. Gothic in general – although van Elferen and Weinstock don’t discuss this explicitly – deals with the intrusion of the monstrous into improper places and times, and human responses to it. Goth music, a more concentrated artform than novels or film, also creates windows into other realities and jars them against the familiar, or takes a familiar world and introduces the monstrous into it: it explores our relationship with these other times and places, or monsters, which can be characterised by desire or revulsion or both. It dislodges time and dislocates space, and its chronotopes are thus in critical dialogue with the everyday present. The authors identify five typical chronotopes that can be used to analyse Goth music (86-7). I’m not convinced that their distinction between the ‘intimate’ and the ‘expansive’ versions of the past or the future are very helpful categories, but the larger point is well made: like Mueller, they are trying to direct attention not to the surface details of Goth music but to its effects and intentions.

Further, they argue, particular chronotopical fantasies are reflected in corresponding substyles of Goth and, therefore, in the subcultural practices (such as fashion choices) that gather around them: ‘the temporal and spatial dislocations of goth musical chronotopes … find imaginative instantiation through associative clustering, which then prompts particular social actions and practices that further develop the world of the chronotope’ (120). Phew. To put it in a more concrete way, if you like listening to, say, neo-medieval or dark folk substyles of Goth music, you’re more likely to dress in a way that evokes a fantasy version of the Middle Ages or the pagan past, to be a pagan, and to go to crossover events with medieval re-enacters and LARPers, stay in a tent (probably not made of real animal skin as you are likely to be a vegan), and drink mead out of horns. You are very unlikely to be a stompy Cybergoth in towering boots and multi-coloured plastic hair extensions, as that fits in with an entirely different, future-directed fantasy and a different sort of music (not that you might not dip into both on separate occasions). Yet there is still a family relationship between all these versions of what Goth is: ‘the consistent distinctiveness of goth subculture inheres in the shared fantasy narratives clustering around the defeat of time and mortality’ (123). I’d argue that ‘defeat’ is a misleading word, but otherwise this is surely right and explains why Goths can always acknowledge each other as fellow-travellers while appearing completely different and listening to such wildly divergent stuff. Well, almost always.

This is very, very good, as it picks beneath the argument I sometimes hear from some older Goths that ‘Goth is about music, not fashion’ and complaints that 'people have become clothes-horses'. Setting up music and dress (or any other subcultural practice) as antagonistic elements within Goth misses the point that both are expressing and performing an underlying discontent with things-as-they-are, and an underlying awareness that not everything we desire is uncomplicatedly positive. That’s where the unity, and the point, is to be found.

Goth Music tries for the first time to prise beneath the sonic characteristics of the stuff Goths listen to get at a deeper truth, and I think succeeds. Like Dr van Elferen's earlier book, it's not the easiest of reads, but rewards the effort.

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