Goth in Brief

A primer on the history of the Goth lifestyle


| November/December 1999


After the Columbine killings, the Goth lifestyle was thrust into the national spotlight--a most uncomfortable place for a group of young people who gravitate toward darkness. The main point that emerged from the scrutiny was this: 'Goth' is a hopelessly fuzzy signifier encompassing a broad range of individuals.

The modern Goth movement coalesced in the late '70s and early '80s as a music-oriented subculture revolving around a group of bands: Sisters of Mercy, Bauhaus, Christian Death, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and others. The scene was essentially an outgrowth of punk rock and heavy metal, but some of its roots stretched further back, to the gothic-novel genre whose name it appropriated and the horror films of the '30s and '40s. (A favorite Goth anthem is 'Bela Lugosi's Dead' by Bauhaus.)

The Goth look was perhaps the scene's most striking aspect, at least to outsiders: Adherents began using skin lighteners, pale makeup, and black lipstick to create a style in keeping with their pose of wan disaffection. Youth cults with similar fascinations have been a part of Western popular culture for a long time. One of the first, perhaps, was the mass following that sprung up in Germany after 1774, in response to the melancholy hero in Goethe's first novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther.

Much to Goths' dismay, many of their favorite bands eventually broke up, changed direction, or rejected the Goth label altogether. By the late '80s the scene had shrunk to just a loyal core. But Goth re-emerged in the mid-'90s with a harder, industrial edge tied to the music of groups like Nine Inch Nails and two bands the Columbine shooters were fond of, KMFDM and Rammstein.

Many old-school Goths dismiss the newer bands, which do have a far more aggressive, techno sound than the older Goth groups. As for the just-crawled-out-of-a-casket look that once became a Goth fashion statement, it seems to have lost its ability to shock. Despite the recent hype, most young people tend to accept and understand Goth as just one of the many possible identities--jock, hip-hopper, punk, geek, metal head--adopted by today's high schoolers.

Though some would say that as a truly alternative lifestyle Goth is dead, others would disagree--and still others would consider that quite a compliment.