As summer approaches in New York City, rush hour turns into something of a war zone. At seven PM I’m probably stuffed inside the sweaty armpit of a bewildered tourist, jammed into an over packed uptown train. People shout competitively over the din, babies start to fall apart, and I don’t care. Goth is sheltering me from the storm.
“Bela Lugosi’s Dead” warbles through my ear buds. I roll my eyes with Peter Murphy. My tight black velvet dress curls up my tights, but all I hear is “Undead! Undead!” A stroller steamrolls the toes of my Docs. “Undead!”
Bauhaus has been one of my survival bands for years. When I was eleven, I found a book by Nancy Kilpatrick at Borders called The Goth Bible. She declared Bauhaus essential listening for any real Goth, so I found an MP4 file of this eight-minute song. I admit it had to grow on me. But already I felt as if hearing Bauhaus indoctrinated me into a secret society of outcasts and weirdos, one in which I truly belonged.
I imagined exchanging knowing looks with other pouty teenagers in dark clothes, reading passages to each other from Baudelaire over Absinthe and cigarettes, lining my lips with black lip pencil. Being left out in middle school was confusing and painful. Knowing I belonged to an entirely different tribe was reassuring.
Goth is sometimes relegated to being a “phase.” I would be a piss-poor example of that. At fifteen, I named my cat after Bela Lugosi—sneering at anyone who thought it was for Bella Swan. My clothes grew blacker, my moods grew darker, the bass lines blaring from my iPod turned heavy and obscure. My getting dressed up song is still this Ministry jam. My friends have strangely dyed hair and bum me clove cigarettes. Goth isn’t a phase. That’s just a dismissive way of treating any subculture or adolescent whim, no matter the brevity.
But it is dead. It had been laid to rest before I was even born. By the time Marilyn Manson had the Spooky Kids it was doing somersaults in its well-kept grave. When Gerard Way smeared his face with kohl and pasty foundation, Goth was splitting beers with the Beats and the Gibson Girls in subculture heaven.
The fact is that with every year our shared inventory becomes more complex and nuanced. The Internet has expedited this process, as it has everything else. But the signifiers for Goth culture have been so shuffled and diluted that, as much as I hate to call it, Seapunk and Pastelgoth are much more legitimate contemporary identifiers. We live in a niche society that will only grow more vast and self-referential in the years ahead. We live without radio stations or records stores keeping the keys to the kingdom of popular music, without Vogue being the only legitimate recognition of what gets worn, without TV shows or cinema that “everyone” has seen. We all get a good laugh about normcore here in our corner of the Internet, but try bringing it up over the proverbial water cooler. It is not that we are divorced from the “real world”; that place has just bubbled into thousands of micro-realities. Goth used to be a narrow, specific descriptor. How can we even begin to use it this way anymore?
That won’t stop people from being overly defensive of its legitimacy. Why wouldn’t we be protective of the thing that shielded us during the loneliest bits of pre-pubesence, before the internet was there to single us out and save us. I remember that Vanity Fair published a little bit on how to steal Lorde’s “Goth” look, only because many of my bitter friends had posted it to Facebook with angry captions. “THIS IS NOT GOTH!!!” they ranted. “FUCK VANITY FAIR!!!! RUINING EVERYTHING!!1!!!”
Teen Vogue or Lorde or Vanity Fair haven’t ruined anything, because Goth was never ours to ruin. Each of us is coming up with something else entirely. We are not top twenty radio; we are strange mix-tapes and inside jokes passed between friends.
Now excuse me while I pump up the volume on Clan of Xymox. It’s the only way I’m going to get through this statistics homework.
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