Goth Subculture vs. Goth Culture

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After my last article was published on The Belfry Network, it was posted in a goth group on Facebook. Not by me in this case which would be a surprise to many. I share them around enough, you all know I love tooting my own horn.

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A critique that was made of it in regards to still using the word "subculture" for goth by Mr Swamp Goth himself - Nephilim Incorruptus. If you have never watched his videos on youtube, do yourself a favour and check them out. This bloke knows his stuff. I'll leave a link at the end of the article to one.

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http://www.thebelfry.rip/blog/2016/6/22/the-new-wave-to-end-all-new-waves

Not getting what he meant, I asked him why. What followed was a series of questions, statements and debate that went back and forth exploring the issue of whether goth was still a subculture or whether it is now at a point where it is a culture in its own right. I found the discussion very interesting so here we are.

"But wait, I am an avid Cemetery Confessions listener! Didn't The Count just cover this in early July?"

Yep - The Count did. I think we were both inspired by the same conversation and while I was writing this article I had no idea he was covering it on the podcast too. So you lucky people get a double dose of it from two different angles.

If you haven't listened to the podcast go and do so

Now we have all the introductory crap out the way, let's start by defining what a culture and a subculture is. To keep it simple I will go by Google dictionary's definitions.

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We can ignore the verb part as we aren't growing bacteria, though some might argue that this explains the existence of Crust Punks and nerdy conventions spreading the dreaded "Con Plague".

So that leaves us with collective arts and intellectual achievement as well as ideas, customs and social behaviour in a people or society. For goth, if this applies, there is certainly an element of artistic and intellectual endeavour plus we have our own ideas, rules and similar social behaviours.

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The definition for a subculture is pretty straightforward. A cultural group that is part of a larger group that often has differing beliefs and interests to that of the larger culture. Goth is a music subculture so in that respect the differning beliefs and interests lie in the music and related aesthetics and ideas. Different music subcultures have different music and the main culture is music culture. But what if goth is more than that now?

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No! No, no, no, NO! This is not what I mean at all, Elitist Joe!

I think it is fair to say that goth wasn't even a music subculture when it started. If anything it all fell under post-punk subculture before it forged its own subcultural identity. Many bands later considered goth even started as part of punk - a big reason why a lot of our customs are similar to punk, in particular the dressing weird, DIY ethic and heavy emphasis on music over shallow emulated style and the label poseur for someone who willingly only scratches the surface style.

Goth did grow intro it's own subculture over time as the dreaded G word caught on and it gave people a banner to rally under. It is a bit like how Emo emerged in the 2000s. At first people thought it was just a passing fad for kids  but it developed into its own music subculture in its own right.

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For the last time, Emo is not goth! How many times must I tell you?

Goth at one point was also a youth subculture. But lasting through the late 70s, 80s, 90s, 00s and 10s up to now it doesn't behave like one. Most people in youth subcultures dabble for a while then move on. They grow out of it. Sure, they may still like the associated music with that subculture but that is usually as far as they go. Goth on the other hand has people sticking around and being active for decades. Yes, this happens a little with other youth subcultures too, but it seems to happen a lot more with goth. Goth has grown beyond being a mere youth subculture - even if the mainstream world does not see it.

We know what goth was. So where is goth today? This is where I am going to reference the conversation we had. The relevant part includes discussion from myself, Nephilim Incorruptus and the Gothquisition's own Zakkarrii. The best way to explore this is to let the discussion speak for itself as we ask questions back and forth to explore the issue.

The Count doesn't like me posting long conversations mid-article so I will post it at the end.

You're damn right I broke the fourth wall there. I am the Deadpool of goth!

A big point discussed in the conversation is in regards to what goth is a subculture of. If it is not a subculture it must be a culture. I think the burden of proof can go either way depending on your perspective on this. If you look hard enough goth can be either by merely disproving it is not the other.

The status quo certainly lies with goth being a subculture so I took the stance of asking what changed and why is it a culture now. Nephilim and Zakkarrii both argued in favor of goth being a culture from different viewpoints. Nephilim took the "what is it a subculture of?" route and Zakkarrii took the "goth has grown into something more" route. Their arguments are pretty convincing.

I think there is a great case for saying it was a subculture in ther past but over time has evolved into being a culture in its own right. The music is the core but a lot has branched off that core and reached in many directions and in many forms. In a modern context, goth has inspired growth from within with evolving music, art, style and even literature. Not everything has to be a throwback to the past or relive the glory days. In many ways we have grown beyond that time.

We live in a time where being goth (or having gothic aesthetics) is a lot more accepted by mainstream society. That isn't to say the music is no longer important (it still is) but there is a lot more to goth than listening to some bands and dressing in black. The things that made goth a subculture are parts of a potentially greater whole.

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Elitist Joe needs not apply

After going away, thinking about it and coming back to it, I am on the fence overall. I can understand why someone would call goth a subculture and I can understand why someone would call it a culture. But it also reminds me of something in a similar position regarding the name for things. I am bisexual because that is what we originally called it 20 years ago when I discovered that aspect of myself. Nowadays if I were to discover it as I did back then, I would probably call myself pansexual. The term is more accurate and implies more than bisexual does. But I have become so used to bisexual it feels wrong to change it. This could be how the original wave of goths felt who didn't want to call themselves goth when the term gained momentum later.

A big sticking point for me is what exactly would goth culture contain. Do we consider it the way people used goth as an umbrella term, virtually exchangeable for dark alternative? If so this would mean including industrial, gothic metal and similar are part of goth culture. Goth as an edgy buzzword being co-opted by everything is huge but actual goth? Not so much. In most of the world goth in its purist form is very small where dark alternative is big, even if it is usually mislabelled as goth. Would it be better to say dark alternative is a culture and goth is better off staying a subculture of that to keep people from trying to make everything goth?  The confusion around the dreaded G word is real!

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Go away Elitist Joe! No one cares what you think!

To be fair, I also don't like terms like babybat, eldergoth, using batcave as a music genre name and more. These are all relatively new things that mostly emerged in the 2000s. Maybe I am a bit anachronistic and past my use by date? I have reverted to collecting records this year, though to be clear it's for DJing purposes. Somebody has to educate the kids even if his lingo is old fashioned.

In the end, culture or subculture is just a word. In the grand scheme of things is it really that important? Then again, many of us fight tooth and nail over the word "goth" and how it is applied. Maybe it is a case of picking your battles and focusing on the important stuff. But as Nephilim says in the conversation below, "I always support talking about it more". 

And so do I. By all means feel free to comment. Let's discuss this further.

As promised, I present the Swamp Goth video as I could not find the one where Nephilim addresses subculture vs culture.

 

 

The Conversation

Aytakk : So goth is now graduated from subculture to culture? I did not get the memo. What prompted the change?

Nephilim : Why do you believe we are a mere subculture? What are we a subsection of? Humanity? We don't bother calling those things sub-whatever. We just call them cultures.

Aytakk : Goth is a subculture from alternative culture

Nephilim : How is "alternative" a culture? And if you're talking about Alternative as some sort of grouping, goth precedes that by a fair number of years.

Zakkarrii :  I think goth more as a culture at this point, like right now today definitely big enough to be a culture. Subculture seemed to fit more to me when there were other subcultures to compare it to, but I think we’ve outgrown the status. But I tend to match whoever is speaking. We know what we’re talking about. Most of the time.

Aytakk : Ok counter-culture then. Mainstream culture vs counter-culture goth is a subculture of counter-culture. I have always seen alternative as being the opposite of mainstream (the hippies were pretty darn alternative) but if we must use correct names to be technically correct.

Nephilim : Changing "subculture" to "counter-culture" doesn't really change the argument. Because counter-culture doesn't define anything specifically cultural. What is counter-culture changes depending on what culture you're talking about. Yet goth is fairly universal regardless of where it is. It speaks to a similar harmony whether you're in Norway, England, the US, Australia, Japan, etc. There are differences, but those things are much less definitive than the aspects that make us similar. In that respect goth is a thing, it is not a counter-thing. We are not defined by any particular social norm that we don't adhere to. It's more universal than that.

Aytakk : So what you are saying is it has grown beyond subculture by being universal. Are any other music subcultures the same?

Zakkarrii : Counter culture also seems to suggest we actively go against what mainstream is...and we don’t.

Nephilim :  Perhaps there are other music-based groups who transcend being a subculture. But frankly, I'm not a part of them, so I have no inclination to argue in favor of that perception.

Nephilim : Zakkarrii I agree. Although definitions of "counter-culture" usually also include a caveat of being "at variance" with popular social norms. So, one could say the way Aytakk is using that term falls more under that explanation.

Aytakk : Would metal be a music culture with the vast genres as subcultures perhaps? Unlike goth there are big differences in metal genres in music and dress.  If goth is used as an umbrella culture do we include industrial and similar in it too? This is the problem I see with culture it becomes an umbrella.

Nephilim : Maybe. But I don't care.

Zakkarrii :  I think it’s possible other music genres could move the way goth has sure. But that’s the thing, it’s navigating this current umbrella form with different and some incorrect ideas of goth. I mean we barely have a vague idea of what goth culture is, but that’s kind of the point of these groups and scenes in cities is so we all get to have a share in defining it. It’s only been 40 something years, at least we’re this far. Just because it’s got age doesn’t mean it’s permanent, locked to this singular idea. And I beginning to think we can only get close never truly able to lock it down. So we gonna have to talk about it some more...

Nephilim :  I always support talking about it more. :)

Zakkarrii : It just seems strange that the harder we fight to keep some walls up the more stuff gets in. So people want to be here in some way (in some case whatever way). I think you’re going to start seeing the online “spokesperson” things become way more significant to the culture than maybe some of us would like. But that’s dominant media of the time...maybe it’s time to fight on that level...which some of us have been doing.

Aytakk : I am close to being convinced as thinking about it if we go place to place goth isn't a subculture of the place like it used to be. But here is the thing. Say I start using goth culture instead of goth subculture. Someone will notice the change and ask "Hey! Before you were saying goth is a subculture, now it is a culture? What gives?" and I need to explain it somehow.

Nephilim :  I'd like to think that can be done in a way that's not simply decrying every spokesperson who comes along. Not because I think any of them deserve to be a spokesperson, lol, but just because I think that would grow tiresome. Have you seen any exemplary methods besides that?

Nephilim : Aytakk Just ask them why they think we're a mere subculture. :)

Aytakk : Could say over time goth has become a worldwide culture as it tends to be the same across the world now?  We used to use goth as an umbrella term but since that time many parts of it have evolved away. Case in point : industrial/EBM 80s/90s vs industrial/EBM today, It could possibly be argued some outside things have evolved in as well.

Zakkarrii : What makes a culture is really the large question...and here it’s like trying to define goth. But we definitely have some sort of etiquette for how we interact with other members of the culture (generally people are pretty chill), we have literature, some sort of language (I.e. baby bats), music obviously, and artistic style though loosely interpreted...but then we points where it’s when do certain activities become “goth” and lend credibility to the person performing it, how valid is that use of the label in the eyes of the community...etc.

Nephilim : Yeah, I think that's a decent short explanation. I prefer my approach because I like long discussions about this sort of thing, and if most of my replies are questions I think (could be totally fucking wrong) it feels more like they're arriving at the same answer and you're just guiding them, rather than trying to lay down the law like an elitist prick.

Aytakk : That's the thing. Music subculture is very easy to define to genres and fans of those genres who gather together with further defining aspects of its members (fashion, aesthetics etc).

Nephilim : That right there could even be an argument for goth being a culture. We are so much more than just that.

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All the pics from googling "triple threat" sucked, so a pic from Trio's Da Da Da video will do

There is more in the conversation but this is pretty much everything related to the topic at hand. If you want to read it in its entirety (or participate in other such conversations), it happened in the facebook group "The Goth Scene Undead and Unpretentious" on Facebook  (about 4 weeks ago) here - https://www.facebook.com/groups/1944485035861788/

1 Comment

Aytakk

Aytakk has been active in the goth scene since the mid 90s both online and in real life. He firmly believes in the old line "if you don't get the joke, you are the joke". As well as this he produces music for a couple of music projects: Corpulence On The Catwalk (goth/darkwave/coldwave) and Hypnophile (aggrotech/power noise). He is also a club DJ and nemesis of DJ Jelly.