Goths at 40: the enduring appeal of bleakness and black lipstick (but not Kylie Jenner)

The subculture that’s always been a refuge for the sad kids who felt no one understood them keeps reinventing itself and is flirting with the mainstream, although it’s hard to sell something as downbeat as death

PUBLISHED : Friday, 15 July, 2016, 7:00pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 19 July, 2016, 5:35pm

The Cure have been drawing massive crowds during their North American tour, so it seems a good opportunity to talk to goths, whose love of all things bleak, and of unattractive lipstick shades, never cease to fascinate the rest of America.

Outside New York’s Madison Square Garden, it’s easy to find a friendly family of goths – one current, two formers and their mum. (She just likes to wear black.) Ask them what being a goth means today, and you get an answer much like black-clad kids have been giving for the past 40 years.

Goth is realism, says Martin Willis, 23, who is wearing a black leather jacket and black lipstick, and whose green eyes are rimmed for an undead look.

“I see how the world is, and I just want to cry to no end,” he says.

Goths on Twitter

The goth subculture is remarkably hardy, having established itself as a kind of permanent other, the dark yin to America’s relentlessly optimistic yang. After its emergence in the late 1970s, its ethos of despair and decay travelled around the world, colonising places as diverse as Germany, Mexico and Japan, and setting up permanent camp in the United States, where the question of “what is goth?” has lately become fraught. Or maybe it always was.

For example: is Kylie Jenner goth? Journalists have casually tagged the Kardashian sibling as such, now that she is hawking black lipsticks in shades called Dead of Knight and Kymajesty Metal Matte. This is the sort of thing that sends actual goths into fits of apocalyptic frenzy, since they consider their subculture so much more than a fleeting summer beauty look. Indeed, the idea of mainstream absorption is regarded as a kind of existential threat by many goths, who as a result tend to be extraordinarily precise about what they are and what they aren’t.

Reflections: Godmothers of goth

“I blame Hot Topic,” says Janice Mallardi, Willis’ sister, who at 25, married and with a kid, has aged out of calling herself goth but still seems to carry it in her heart.

“There’s a serious dilution of what had been traditional goth culture,” says her husband, Malcolm, 36. “Like the classic vampire film. The Twilight Saga films have kind of killed the classics for me.”

If you ask a goth academic – because of course there are goth academics – it’s this constant process of questioning and defining that keeps the subculture vibrant. On this, the third and final night of The Cure’s sold-out Madison Square Garden run, there are many people wearing their inner darkness for all to see. There’s a mother-and-daughter punk-goth pair (the daughter has epic black eye make-up and feels a strong emotional connection to bats), and there’s a guy in a Kylo Ren costume – the dark side of the Force, you know. There are also plenty of normals, because plenty of kinds of people enjoy The Cure’s music, which ranges from gloomy to eerily atmospheric to playful pop.

I think ‘normal’ is a fad that should go away, honestly
Martin Willis, 23

God willing, there will always be kids such as Willis, who considers himself an anarchist, and a bit of a nihilist, who finds wandering old graveyards comforting, and describes Marilyn Manson songs as “cheery” because they prove he’s not alone in his melancholy. There’s something about goth that feels like a necessary critique of Americanness, no less urgent for being in middle age.

“I think ‘normal’ is a fad that should go away, honestly,” Willis says.

After nearly four decades, goth lumbers on, zombie-like in its relentless opposition to whatever counts as mainstream at the moment. The gothic rock sound, as the press and music insiders termed it, emerged in late 1970s Britain, giving rise to the post-punk subculture that became known as goth. It drew on a “discordant bricolage of hyperromantic elements”, as the scholarly text Goth: Undead Subculture puts it: vampires, Mary Shelley, Nosferatu, druids, pagans, Bettie Page, absinthe-fuelled readings of Edward Gorey and so on.

It served as a door into cultural subversion and also as a refuge for intellectuals and depressives, outcasts and downcasts, the quiet and misunderstood. Kids alienated from football-and-cheerleader culture found solace in goth; kids who liked old poetry and old tombstones; kids who loved Siouxsie and the Banshees, Joy Division, and Bauhaus. As goths, they could band together and eschew their mundane given names for something like Drusilla or Hades.

The 1980s and 1990s were a good time for goth, until the Columbine school shootings. Some media reports claimed the two shooters were obsessed with the subculture, and goths were put on the defensive, forced to explain that their love of moody music and Doc Martens had nothing whatsoever to do with homicidal atrocities.

The public image has softened; a 2004 Edmonton Journal headline proclaimed the finding that “Goth subculture of outcasts surprisingly gentle, polite.” (“Bizarre dress,” the headline went on to explain, is merely a “welcoming signal to like-minded.”)

Other music-based subcultures have flashed and faded – grunge, mods, Teddy boys, hair metal – but goth persists, despite the fact that the bands most associated with it made their names decades ago. The scene has spawned a pile of subtypes, including trad goths, vamp goths, rivetheads, romantigoths, cyber goths, nu goths, gothic Lolitas (they started in Japan, naturally) and corp goths (for those who grew up and became paralegals). As Goth: Undead Subculture points out, the goth look can mean chunky boots or high-heeled ones, cravats or riding crops or top hats, piercings, whiteface, fangs . . . all for a look that “may evoke high chic, antique, retro-kitsch, punk, fetish, second-hand trash”, or something else altogether. Goth expert Liisa Ladouceur wrote an entire Encyclopedia Gothica in an attempt to answer the question of what goth is. (Short answer: it’s complicated.)

Lee Meadows, who is known as DJ Cruel Brittania, says the internet saved goth, just when it should have logically gone extinct. Dispersed online, it became a refuge for all the sad kids of the world who felt that no one in their small towns understood them. In 2009, Meadows co-founded World Goth Day, and now Mexico and Brazil – those sunny, happy places – are among the most avid participants; festivals in England and Germany draw thousands as well.

In the US, the scene appears to be steady, neither growing nor shrinking. Some goths age out; young er ones come along. Between 6,000 and 7,000 people this year attended Bats Day in the Fun Park, an annual goth convention that takes place in and around Disneyland. In Denver, Colorado there was recently a “goth prom” that drew 500 people, with a special appearance by enthusiasts of the Denver Hearse Association. In Washington, a dance party known as the Coven and designed for queer “witchy” women, attracts 300 people every month. Goth girls still seek goth guys on Craigslist.

Goth seems to stay in people’s souls, even when they grow up, get jobs, have kids and stop dressing as outrageously as they once did. It is an outlook, a refuge, a dark corner made friendly by the presence of others.

Hence: elder goths. “They told me it was too hot today to wear all black and I said, ‘Screw ‘em,’ ” says Judy Miller Silverman, a music publicist who turned goth as an ’80s teenager and once scandalised her Jewish mother by wearing a cross (goths love crosses), and recently tweeted out her joy at the introduction of the new black heart emoji.

The identity has such enduring appeal to those who see themselves as lifers that it has spawned not one, but two goth-themed cruises. One of them, called GothCruise, is celebrating its 13th year with a trip to the US state of Maine, and to New Brunswick and Nova Scotia in Canada. The theme: “Disasters and Apocalypses.”

It’s fascinating to me when pretty people start to wear our weird stuff
Liisa Ladouceur

And now, goth is enduring another crossover moment. The fashion magazine Nylon reports that “goth style is more mainstream than ever” – Katy Perry, the Olsen twins and all your favourite celebs are wearing it! “Gothic glamour” was on display at catwalk shows by Marc Jacobs and Rodarte, and in the collaboration between Rihanna and Puma. Kylie Jenner is pushing those black lipsticks, while older sister Kendall recently starred in a dystopian fashion shoot with Marilyn Manson, who is himself having a mini-moment. (He’s due to appear in the third season of Salem, as a bloodletting barber/surgeon, naturally.) According to celebrity chroniclers, Taylor Swift was for a time channelling her “inner goth” – a notion that is like matter meeting antimatter and the universe exploding.

“We’re certainly in a phase where people do wear black lipstick,” says Ladouceur, who recently released a delightful short video called Forty Years of Goth Style. “I’m not sure why. We wear it to be unpretty. . . . It’s fascinating to me when pretty people start to wear our weird stuff.”

Other things Ladouceur and her friends like to wear: corsets, fishnets, platform heels, fascinators, parasols and various items made of rubber.

“If you’re going to go out in August wearing a velvet cape you can’t be upset when people stare,” Ladouceur says. “The average person would never go out wearing the stuff that me and my friends wear. They would feel ridiculous. And I love that. It takes a commitment.”

Perhaps all this fashionable darkness is linked to a gloomy strain that’s been bubbling up in our culture. The science of death is big right now, as are mortality-themed gatherings such as Death Cafes. Last year, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art had an exhibit on the last century of mourning attire. The Cure’s North American tour has absolutely blown up. The poet Melissa Broder, who tweets her dark humour to 367,000 followers under @SoSadToday, has a new book of personal essays. (Sample: “I’m not emotionally dead I just want to be.” And: “bringing another person into this world isn’t very nice of you.”)

The average person would never go out wearing the stuff that me and my friends wear. They would feel ridiculous. And I love that. It takes a commitment
Liisa Ladouceur

Lynne Zacek Bassett, who curated the recent show Gothic to Goth: Romantic Era Fashion & Its Legacy at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Connecticut, says that both goth and retro-futuristic steampunk – which offers a mock Victorian vision of sci-fi, complete with bustles, brass goggles and world-touring dirigibles – trace their roots to the romantic era of the first half of the 19th century, which was itself an idealisation of a rural past that emerged during the Sturm und Drang of the Industrial Revolution. Bassett argues that this kind of looking back crops up during times of social and economic anxiety.

But what will hopefully save goth is that there’s a limit to how mainstream it can become. Its unprettiness is transgressive, as is the confusing way it mixes sexiness and decay. Goth’s androgyny, its embrace of eyelinered men in long skirts, isn’t easily appropriated by a masculinised culture, argues Michael Bibby, an English professor at Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania who co-edited Goth: Undead Subculture, and its music isn’t easily used in commercials – how do you sell something as downbeat as death? It functions as both a way of life and as an artful pose, a critique of “happy-happy culture”, as Bibby calls it. If it makes normals uncomfortable, that’s the point.

Perhaps we always needed goth. Perhaps we always had it. “Before people started calling themselves goth, there were goths,” says Bob Westphal, who runs the aforementioned GothCruise. “Where did the Addams Family come from? Where did the Munsters come from? Where did dark humour come from? Could that retroactively be called goth? Has goth always existed?”