(This was a commissioned review from January 2019 I ultimately didn’t submit as I considered my first published work shouldn’t be me denigrating other academics. Nevertheless, I think this blog is a safe enough platform)
Karl and Beverley Spracklen’s The Evolution of Goth Culture is an ambitious project in tracing a paradoxical subcultural phenomenon, simultaneously defined by its aesthetic morbidity and startlingly consistent longevity, from its origins in the late 1970s to the present day. Acknowledging the undoubted breadth of their endeavour, the Spracklens are generous enough to the reader to approach the matter from an angle of profoundly welcoming legibility, and with a well-clarified a priori frame of analysis in their third opening chapter, “Constructing a New Theory of Alternativity.” Modelled upon a constructed hypothetical discursive relation between Adorno, Habermas, Butler and Lefebvre, the Spracklens approach the question of an often self-identified “alternative” subculture on a pre-agreed set of principles that may best be précised to three realisations:
- The culture industry is an apparatus of the state, and accordingly any aesthetic of rebellion or life à rebours can (if not will) ultimately be co-opted into state-approved hegemonic reproduction.
- Nevertheless there remains, even within the space of capital, a capacity for discursive practice that maintains the continuation of “the life-world of the public sphere,” contrary to capital’s order of enclosure.
- Accordingly, we should distinguish the “instrumental” from the “communicative.” Whilst the former may well become repackaged and commoditized, the latter will maintain both an ontological and relational alternativity that may achieve a consistent effect of resistance, despite potential fluxes of signification.
Thus, it is with this predominantly neo-Marxian understanding that the Spracklens approach the evolution of Goth. It should perhaps come as little surprise, then, to see their account of gothic rock’s origin as the resultant synthesis of a dialectical materialist journey between questions of aestheticism and political sincerity and, with the Northern setting of so many first-generation bands e.g Salford’s Joy Division and the plethora of West Yorkshire bands including Skeletal Family, The Sisters of Mercy and The ((Southern) Death) Cult, between the eerie pastoral and heartlessness of industrialisation that characterizes so much of the background to the gothic tradition. However, as much as one may situate the gothic rock movement within Leeds, the Spracklens’ willingness to overlook the many aspects of the scene’s provenance located in the Midlands, the South and, indeed, parts of the world other than England does not only their investigation a great disservice, but the scene itself.
The Spracklens’ narrative voice shifting as regularly as it does from the academic to the journalistic to the anecdotal serves the approachability of the text well, but the lucidity and consistency of vision poorly in several regards, even with the aforementioned established framework. In “The Origin of the Goths,” the authors accept at a remarkable degree of face value Bauhaus singer Peter Murphy’s disavowal of a goth label – “If taking on this Nosferatu role on the stage were not real to us…how could it have been to the audience?” – commenting “they never wrote anything as cartoonishly grotesque as ‘Bela Lugosi’s Dead’ again,” an assertion with which anyone familiar with “Stigmata Martyr” would contend hotly. And yet, The Sisters of Mercy’s frontman Andrew Eldritch’s similar protestations are duly noted, then discarded as “disingenuous,” while later still the Spracklens reach the conclusion that, since the mainstream believes Marilyn Manson to be goth, both Marilyn Manson and goths accept this to be so, despite both knowing it not to be true. Within all this, what is perhaps most notable of all in its absence from the discussion is the fact that such a large number of black-clad, pale-faced, kohl-smeared Fields of the Nephilim fans deny the label “goth” for themselves, goth denialism is in fact one of the most prevalent stereotypes and in-jokes of the scene.
Nevertheless, the Spracklens’ choice of The Sisters of Mercy as their only main case study for goth music – even if they are the band most defined by this aforementioned ”goth denialism” – is a sadly unoriginal and unhelpful one which betrays a regrettably myopic conception of Goth’s locus within the sub/cultural realm. The study’s conclusion, that The Sisters “were the most important band in the genesis and evolution of Goth, [perfecting] the sound and the look” suggests that the goth sound is best characterized by a repetitive verse-chorus-verse rock and roll structure employing a drum machine, bass-baritone male vocals and a black leather jacket dress style largely indistinguishable from that of Motörhead or the Ramones. The pattern that emerges is one that ultimately suggests the Spracklens’ knowledge of goth music being restricted almost entirely to the Leeds scene of the 1980s, and a general unwillingness to research further before writing The Evolution of Goth Culture. Absent is any meditation on the goth/shoegaze crossover known as ethereal wave that defined labels both sides of the Atlantic including 4AD and Projekt. Club genre EBM (“Electronic Body Music,” erroneously called “Electronic Beat Music” in Evolution) is given passing reference, with no artists mentioned, but instead mainstream metal bands such as Cradle of Filth are alleged to fill goth dancefloors, despite my never having experienced this in well over a decade of goth club attendance.
My criticism here is not to partake in a music trivia competition with the authors. Rather, it is to indicate the lines of inquiry not followed that would better address the breadth of investigation implied by the title. By representing Goth as a phenomenon that revolves almost solely around the most belt-and-braces examples of the ‘80s, who mostly dissolved into hard rock by the end of the decade, the Spracklens suggest that what and who constitutes “Goth” is today at the whim of the mainstream populace. Such a statement would bolster the authors’ rallying cry for Goth to return to its radical leftist roots, but the reality is both simpler and more complex than this. With regard to the former, the reality is that Goth never has been as rooted in radical politics of any wing as the authors suggest throughout Evolution. Indeed, the only evidence they seem to provide is that it came from post-punk, which is often typified by leftist principles and band names (Gang of Four, The Durutti Column). Regarding the latter, it is Goth’s paradoxical emphasis on the external, as well as questions of inner anguish that has allowed it to penetrate wider culture through aesthetic diffusion, from the long list of post-punk revival bands with Ian Curtis and Siouxsie impressionists on vocals (Editors, Savages), to techno producers sampling Birthday Party guitar licks (Regis, Surgeon), to the influence of goth fashion on designers including Alexander McQueen and Tom Ford.
Certainly, one of Evolution‘s best avenues of investigation is that of the goth chat forums, providing a detailed analysis of the rise and fall of goth.net and others. However, goth online presence is not simply discourse between consumers, but has been the space in which new creative forms have emerged: consider the “witch house” movement of c.2010, which not only combined goth, industrial, shoegaze and techno with hip-hop and trap, but also through so many artists’ use of special characters (e.g †‡† pronounced “Ritualz”), maintained, through practical un-searchability, a communicative alternativity between intimidatingly young bedroom producers across the globe. In these areas has the self-consciously parodic aspect to Goth developed away from the Sisters-style mean-spirited barbs at fans and former colleagues, and toward playful reappropriation of small-town moral panics against goths and metalheads in the 80s and 90s. Subsequent internet-based alternative genres, including “#seapunk” and vaporwave, have continued this parodic line into a more overt analysis of 80s conspicuous consumption, whilst also influencing popular culture at the level of Rihanna, and the widespread social media memeification of the idealised “goth gf” by those in no way connected with the scene as it exists today.
Goth Culture has evolved considerably further, and in many more directions than it seems the Spracklens have themselves realised, and may be argued to have finally developed the radical leftism they erroneously apply to its origin. Whilst The Evolution of Goth Culture is an astute collection of case studies, the extent to which its scope is limited to what I imagine are the authors’ personal interests (I notice they are Leeds based), at the expense of a detailed survey of the developments of Goth culture mean I cannot agree the book lives up to its title.