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You’ve probably seen it happen many times before. Wherever there is discussion about goth, especially in regards to music, inevitably someone will make the comparison between punk and metal and their related subcultures. Sometimes it even goes as far as for people to talk about them as if they are interchangeable, essentially the same subculture outside the music being listened too. On a surface glance this makes a lot of sense, they are all subcultures based on a style of music. But such comparisons are oftentimes only true on the more superficial level, upon more careful examination one can see that goth differs quite a bit from the other two scenes.
The most immediate distinction is that music taxonomy-wise, Goth rock is a narrower genre than either punk or metal. When one looks at genre categories on music streaming or purchasing sites, Metal almost always has its own category, punk oftentimes does as well. Goth however, is usually placed as a sub-category under the indie or alternative category. This categorization however, seems to be mostly made by those outside the subculture, oftentimes the actual scene is sharing spaces and events with industrial music. These trends tend to be mostly indicative of the level of popularity, though sound-wise goth is also a bit more specific of a category as well.
Due to the lesser popularity and more specific sound, it is probably better to compare goth to more specific subgenres of punk or metal rather than those either as a whole. Two good comparative styles I will use from both would be Hardcore and Black Metal respectively, as both of those sort of function as subcultures within subcultures with very dedicated participants and like goth have seen quite a variety branch out from them. While goth does have its own substyles as well, they are generally quite niche, the categories aren’t that firmly established or acknowledged by the majority of goth music fans and the only one that has really managed to gain any sort of distinct audience is deathrock. When people think subgenres of goth, typically their first thought has to do with fashion and aesthetics rather musical subgenres.
It’s worth noting though that goth is also a bit more musically distinct from the genres it most commonly lumped with than black metal or hardcore, which at least share some obvious traits with their parent genres. Goth doesn’t really sound much like a lot of other alternative rock past the early 80s, nor does there really seem to be a particularly strong overlap in audience past a few synthpop and post-punk bands enjoyed by both. It’s not really unusually common to see goths being super into The Replacements or Pavement.
The genres that seem to actually have the most overlap with goth are instead darkwave and industrial and their relatives. Darkwave has some similar roots to goth, but industrial is a totally different genre that kind of has its own subculture. This is quite a bit different than punk and metal in that goths seem to be a bit more likely to spread outward and listen to other styles rather than creating narrower subgenres. The subculture doesn’t seem to emphasize so much of a monolithic interest in it’s chosen style of music like some music based subcultures might. To some degree the scene almost has a sort of codependent relationship with industrial considering how often the two share venues.
Another big difference is that goth is much more focused on it’s past than punk or metal. Oftentimes someone may make the analogy of Bauhaus being the equivalent to Black Sabbath or The Ramones, but truth be told, neither of those bands has anywhere near the level of stranglehold that Bauhaus does on goth. While The Ramones or Black Sabbath may be considered the firsts in their respective genres, those genres have also moved far beyond the templates set by those bands, and neither is really indicative of the modern sounds of the genres, nor even what a lot of people consider to be their golden ages. A lot of contemporaries of those bands, like Television or Led Zeppelin who were considered punk and metal at the time, might not even really fit in under modern standards of the genre.
With goth things are a bit different however. The first wave of bands are held in very high esteem, while subsequent waves of goth rock aren’t as universally accepted. Oftentimes related bands in post-punk and new wave are even given more attention than newer bands. This likely wasn’t always the case, but nowadays at least, goth seems very focused on the 80s. Take a look at your typical goth meme page on Facebook or whatever and you will even notice a large amount of focus being placed on a small canon of older bands. Punk and metal meme pages by comparison, will post more about newer bands and aren’t afraid to say uncharitable things about older ones.
Perhaps the most notable difference is that goth is much more centered around clubs than the other two, which are almost exclusively driven by live concerts. And this could have an effect on the way goths are more likely to engage with music. A more live music based scene can really bring the music more front and center and provide a slightly stronger connection with the music. It can also be really inspiring for attendees to want to go out and form their own band. Many fans of punk and metal will pick up an instrument and start trying to make their own music. Goths will do this too, but it doesn’t seem quite as common.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing however, clubs can bring quite a bit to the subculture. Most notably, clubs add a much more social aspect to the music. While one can go make friends at a concert as well, it doesn’t serve the exact same role as a nightclub. At a club people are more likely to strike up a conversation at any given point, while at a concert they are going to be focused solely on the music for long stretches of time. Clubs can also allow more people to share some common ground, it’s not just fans of a particular band or four that are playing, it’s everyone who likes the music all in a room listening to the same thing.
The club focus even kind of goes back into shaping how the music is viewed in some ways. The club oriented nature of the scene tends to favor specific popular songs, rather than bands and albums. And the need to play a lot of different music in a given night likely contributes to the slightly more varied tastes in the subculture compared to other music scenes. It keeps older bands going strong in the typical participants consciousness because if if they are playing live, you’re still hearing them at clubs. And it keeps more of a musical common ground within the subculture, punk and metal fans could very well be listening to entirely different sets of bands and go to different shows, while goths may be more familiar with the same bands due to hearing them at clubs.
It isn’t just music that makes a subculture either, but also the culture surrounding the music, and this again is something that sets goth apart. In this case however, it set’s goth apart a lot more from metal than it does punk. Goth and punk do share some traits such as a few shared fashions and a preference for DIY. The culture surrounding metal music by comparison, is a it more focused solely on music. Metalheads may share some similar clothing and hairstyle choices, but there really isn’t metal fashion in the same way there is fashion for punk and goth. Detailing what exactly is goth beyond the music can be quite difficult to really quantify and seems to change over time and location. It’s not something that can simply be put in a bullet point list and compared to the culture of punk or metal. Thus I am going to leave this one a bit open ended and leave it to others to talk about in greater detail.
Even just focusing on the music however, there are many reasons why the goth scene is different from punk and metal. Though this also raises the question on whether this is a good or a bad thing. Should goth be more like punk and metal or are the things that set us apart what makes the scene great? Perhaps the answer isn’t clear cut. Personally I think both are true to some extent. I like that the scene cares more about it roots and has a club presence alongside other genres and think it gives it a greater sense of community. But I do feel like the scene could benefit a bit from giving live shows and newer bands more focus like punk and metal do as well. I am also curious to know what others think. Do you feel like goth’s difference from punk and metal are a good or bad thing? What sort of cultural difference have you noticed between fans of these different genres of music?