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What is Gothic?

By Adrya Stinbridge


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Gothic. The word triggers different and sometimes passionate responses from many people, including those within the community and those who look on from the outside. What exactly does gothic mean? Who are Goths, and what do they believe? How long has Goth been around, and what is its future?

The word “gothic” was first used to identify a group of European tribes from ancient history. Goths are commonly believed to have originated from the Island of Gottland off the Denmark coast. Over time the tribes grew numerous and powerful enough to sack sacked the great Roman Empire in 410, and they ruled Europe for 250 years before slowly fading into ancient history.

It is important to know where the word “gothic” comes from, however there is a notable difference between ancient Gothic culture and the modern gothic phenomenon.

Goths of ancient history were a nomadic people who had a reputation for ruthless violence. Ancient Goths were also a religious people; their beliefs were based around worship of pagan deities.

Today, “gothic” is used to describe a subculture based largely on a certain style of art, literature, and music. Some forms of gothic art and literature date back to the 12th –15th centuries, however gothic music as we know it today is a relatively new development and is responsible for having the greatest impact on the development of gothic subculture.

Modern goths differ from ancient Goths in that they are not part of a dominant culture; they are a part of a subculture. Where ancient Goths had a set religious system, modern gothic subculture is not linked to any particular religion. There are some pagan goths, however many more goths are Christian, Jewish, Catholic, or Aethiest. Modern goths tend to be varied on their social and political views as well. The glue which holds the gothic community together is an affinity for the macabre, a longing for romance, and an appreciation of darker aesthetics.

Historians of modern gothic subculture generally agree that its beginnings were in the late nineteen-seventies, developing as an offshoot of the punk rock movement in the UK and USA. Before we look at gothic subculture it is noteworthy to briefly examine what punk is and how it came about.

Essentially punk grew out of dissatisfaction with popular music of the 1970’s although many saw it as a viable means of political and/or social rebellion.

Mainstream culture of the 70’s was consumed with over-produced, under-motivated rock-n-roll and cheap, uninspired dance music. A war still quietly raged in the steamy (and charred) forests of Vietnam and both America and Britain were in the midst of economic depression. It was from this social and political climate that punk rock grew into angry fruition.

While punk wasn’t exactly a new concept (MC5 in the late 60’s are generally recognized as an important and highly regarded “pre-punk” band), it didn’t catch on until the late 70’s. First-wave bands like the Ramones, Stooges and the Sex Pistols spawned new bands formed by awestruck concertgoers who knew something big was happening.

Mainstream society took notice of punk’s anti-social and rebellious deeds and became somewhat nervous considering the social upheaval it underwent a decade before. Radio stations wouldn’t play punk, clubs won’t have punk shows, and police targeted punk fans whenever the opportunity presented itself.

Punk was raw and full of feeling. People who lived near a scene heard about it through word of mouth or fanzine. Many others never knew about punk until years after the first wave had long passed. Punk gained momentum without the help of the Internet, music videos or mainstream radio exposure. It was underground and punks demanded it stay that way.

By the late seventies the second wave of punk began. By then most in the younger generation had at least heard about if not experienced punk first hand. New fans were coming into the scene and new bands were being formed at a rapid rate. With new bands came new sounds and styles, some of which branched off of or built on commonplace 3-chord song structures.

Industrial music saw its beginnings in the late seventies with the likes of Throbbing Gristle. Kraftwerk and pre-Dare The Human League paved the way for later a genre, which was broadly referred to as new-wave.

A new four piece punk band from Manchester, England called Warsaw appeared in 1977. Like many of their counterparts they didn’t play very well, however there was energy behind the group’s sound, which was powerful and unique. The band’s style subdued over the months and the members soon renamed themselves Joy Division. The name was controversial due to the reference to Nazi Germany forced brothels, however the band members themselves denied any association with national-socialist beliefs, nor did they espouse racism in their lyrics.

What were evoked in Ian Curtis’ lyrics were feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, and despair. The group’s music shifted from angry 3-chord punk to subdued 3-chord punk, and then to something altogether new and even more somber.

It was this new sound which caused Joy Division’s manager at the time, Anthony H. Wilson, to refer to them as gothic.

Another band which began as a straightforward punk outfit then gradually changed it’s sound into a darker version of punk was Siouxsie and the Banshees. They, along with Andi Sex of the Sex Gang Children were also referred to as being gothic. UK Decay and Bauhaus were in their development stages and both had a remarkably dark, brooding punk-ish sound.

While some early bands were tagged gothic by their peers, bands and fans didn’t universally adhere to this label. In fact early ‘gothic’ music was commonly referred to as deathrock. Deathrock had a decidedly punk-influenced sound as opposed to what became known as gothic many years later.

In America, particularly the west coast, deathrock grew independently from the British scene. Early US pioneers were the Misfits, 45 Grave and Christian Death (years after the band broke up the founding member Rozz Williams revealed that this was a play on the popular western culture icon Christian Dior – it wasn’t necessarily a religious statement).

In Britain the deathrock scene centered and flourished around a small club called the Batcave. It was here that bands like Bauhaus, Alien Sex Fiend, the Sisters of Mercy, and many more got their start. The Batcave scene is still highly regarded as an integral piece of the modern gothic puzzle.

By the mid to late 80’s deathrock had stepped a little further away from its punk roots. While death rockers continued to oppose to mainstream western culture and commercialism, deathrock music and style began to change slightly. Heavier use of keyboards and drum machines ushered in an entire new group of fans. Gradually the scene goers began referring to themselves and the music they enjoyed as gothic.

Gothic music, like deathrock, was typically somber and somewhat dark. Songwriters used a wide range of instruments although the most common were guitar, bass, drums (or drum machine), and keyboard. Songs were often written and played in slower tempos, and musically dark modes such as Dorian, Phrygian, and Lydian were commonplace. As opposed to heavy metal and more common forms of rock-n-roll, gothic musicians rarely used extended solos, wah pedals, flangers, or double-kick drums.

Lyrically, gothic music has its roots in gothic literature. Themes of death, solitude, and romance were common. Gothic lyricists tended to stay away from overt political messages although many did so subtly. Punk lyrics were characteristically singsong with widespread profanity and heavy social or political themes; lyrics found in gothic music placed much consideration on art and style; profanity and slang were not often used.

Styles of gothic music ranged from the light and dreamy to dark and nightmarish. While some bands had limited commercial success (The Cure, Siouxsie and the Banshees) most remained hidden from the eye of mainstream culture. For the most part however gothic/deathrock music was not easily accessible to the general public – both in terms of the style and sound of the music and the availability of the music.

Gothic fans were ever careful to keep pop culture out of their scene; in fact most would answer “no” if asked whether they were indeed gothic by outsiders. Like punk, gothic subculture retained its distrust and contempt of the mainstream. Goths wished to be left alone, however the unique and interesting qualities of the subculture would soon prove to be too much for the mainstream to ignore.

In the early 90’s neo-industrial bands like Ministry and Nine Inch Nails began enjoying popular success on commercial radio and MTV. While many Goths listened to these bands, few considered them gothic. Fewer saw what was beginning to happen: the subculture that they enjoyed so greatly was slowly becoming ridden with in influx of fans raised on neo-industrial and dark metal.

As NIN and similar bands had more commercial success, the media began (incorrectly) calling their music and fans “gothic”. Around the same time corporate music labels began a heavy push of what they labeled “alternative” music. NIN fit nicely with this scheme because their music was commercially viable; people who had never heard industrial music could buy Closer and immediately identify as a “gothic industrial” – despite the fact that NIN were hardly a serious industrial band.

Younger people were fascinated by goth’s dark look and dark sounds, however few understood the difference between what Goths considered gothic and what music corporations & MTV were calling gothic. NIN was just the beginning of a commercial siege on the subculture.

About the same time NIN were striking gold in the charts, a little known and quite plain appearing music editor by the name of Brian Warner saw the shift in pop music and felt the time was right to pursue a career in the industry as a performer. He assembled a few musicians from the Florida area (the Spooky Kids) and adopted a stage name of Marilyn Manson. It would be his best decision ever.

Warner’s music was never well received in the gothic community simply because it was not. The Spooky Kids worked in a style that is best-described hard rock or metal, and Warner’s lyrics were sometimes crass, and often based in hatred. His band covered and released a song originally written by Charles Manson, a murderer and man who claimed to be Jesus Christ.

Goths did often write about the macabre, however it was somberly done in the vein of Romanticism. Brian Warner’s lyrics were profane and thrived on anger, alienation, conflict and hatred. The driving force behind Marilyn Manson sought to incite and shock, whereas Goths sought to create art and desired to be left alone. Manson’s art was hate; the art behind gothic subculture was beauty and romance. The importance of distinguishing the difference between Warner’s project and a typical gothic band is great. By the mid-nineties Manson fired the Spooky Kids and signed a major label record deal. His name soon appeared in newspapers and on various television and radio talk shows across America. To the dismay of many in the gothic community, he was often incorrectly labeled by his fans and the media as "goth". The irony here is that Goths did not like Manson, and most of the fans that followed Manson were unaware of what gothic music really was.

As Manson became ever more popular due to MTV exposure and his obnoxious comments offered in interviews, his fan base grew substantially. Other groups began appearing that imitated Marilyn Manson. An entire new subculture was developing based around Brian Warner, yet the media could not see the difference between it and gothic subculture. It was the same to them either way – despite gothic fans becoming increasingly opposed to Manson’s music and following.

Attendance at gothic clubs around the world steadily declined in the mid to late 90’s. Since the popularity of Nine Inch Nails and later false-gothic groups the people who weren’t really into goth jumped on the Industrial or Shock Rock bandwagon. Other active scene goers eventually found jobs and families and were no longer able to remain active in the scene.

Those who did stay in the scene noticed a further shift in the direction of gothic music. DJ’s who worked at gothic clubs began incorporating more EBM, neo-industrial, and dark techno into their playlists. While this was desirable to those who continued to go to the clubs to dance, many in the scene quietly stopped going as a result.

Fetishism became increasingly linked to the gothic subculture due to “documentaries” written by MTV and other outsiders. After Columbine, many wrongly associated the gothic community with violence. The two teens that committed the atrocities, the “Trenchcoat Mafia” as they were called, were in fact not into gothic music – they enjoyed metal and some industrial bands but neither were part of their local gothic scene.

Out of all of the negativity and apathy some very good bands emerged in the mid to late 90’s. Bands such as the Changelings, Faith and the Muse, and the Cruxshadows continued to provide new and quality gothic music for the fans who remained.

A new band began to attract the attention of some disinterested music fans in the late 90’s, however this group went out of their way to disassociate themselves from the gothic scene. Cinema Strange saw the writing on the wall for gothic subculture early on and avoided trying to gain acceptance altogether ( ).

CS headed a new movement that has been called “newgrave” but is most commonly known as deathrock to fans who know. Their music harkens back to the Batcave days where ripped fishnets and punk-influenced dark-rock ruled the day. What makes Cinema Strange so unique is that they are bringing new life to a forgotten genre. And fans all across the world are responding.

Deathrock scenes have sprouted in California, New York, and Germany. More are sure to emerge in the coming years. The new breed of deathrockers is returning to their roots; no more shiny boots of leather, no whips and chains, no computerized karaoke-industrial, no more scene pretension.

From the Ghoul School’s website (a club in West Hollywood):

We are sick of going to goth clubs and only being able to hear Trance, Techno, Synthpop, and Repetitive beats. This is not a latex titty fetish club - finally a real refuge for goths and death punks.

What is old is new again, and it’s looking even better the second time around.


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