What Is Goth?

ATTENTION: This was not written by me, Dina James. This was written in 1998 by Azhrarn, who details what “Goth” is a lot better than I ever could. It’s just as applicable today as it was then. If you’re curious about what Goth really is, have a read below. Be warned. This is long. It also rocks beyond words.

This article was originally on http://blood-dance.net, but the site is “Returning Soon” and has been for quite some time. I have a copy of this article on my hard drive and permission below to redistribute this with credit, so here it is. Originally it was called “Goth With A Sledgehammer.”

I just surfed again…I almost wish I didn’t. After reading a particularly horrid article on Goth in Spank! I almost wanted to call the poor girl in Canada who wrote it, just to explain some solid fundamentals. Or smack her for furthering the media stereotype in such an extreme and ridiculous fashion!

Why can’t anyone get it right anymore? Am I the only one left that is willing and able to speak up for this most heinously misrepresented and misunderstood culture? It is truly depressing when I regularly get the urge to stand up and bellow NO! NO!! NO!!! Shut up if you can’t get the picture! So here we go again. It is time for Azhrarn to jump up onto her monolithic soap box and batter you all with her view of life. Since my last few efforts may have been too flowery or even maybe too cerebral, I will use the abridged vocabulary and a very large hammer…Ready? Here we go.

1. What is Goth?
Ignoring historical references to European barbarian tribes and, architectural, literal and art styles, Goth is a subculture. It started in the late 1970’s both in Europe AND the United States OUTSIDE of the club/music scene. The culture was comprised of INDIVIDUALS with very little in common but their artistic drive, insatiable curiosity, extreme intellectualism, and the socially unacceptable need to be and express themselves. In a nutshell, Goth is very much like 70s Punk with a brain and good manners. (In other words, it shares the underlying feeling of disgust and seperation from normal everyday culture that the 70s Punks espoused, but expresses its alienation and disenchantment with modern society and its values in a more intelligent and less destructive manner.) The label Goth itself is very much a descriptive reference to the literary genre and architectural style both of which characterize and evoke the mood and to a certain degree, mindset that is generally idealized by modern Goth as a cultural group.

2. How do I become Goth?
I hate to break it to you, but Goth is not something you can just learn. Gothic people grew up that way. Most people do not have the genuine sense of wonder, creativity, talent, open-mindedness, and appreciation of the duality of existence, nor of themselves and their abilities that makes a person genuinely Goth. While some of these things can be learned over the course of years, most of it can only be emulated. To emulate something strongly implies that the action is neither original nor genuine. That is just not Goth.

3. How do I know if I’m Goth?
This is a VASTLY more reasonable question. It’s sort of odd and sad at the same time that a lot of actual Goths don’t know that they are. This is unfortunately the work of massive media stereotyping and misinformation from ignorant but rather noisy wannabes. It seems that the bulk of available information on Goth comes from those two sources. Never mind that.

If most (10 or more) of the following statements are true, it is VERY likely that you are Goth. If the first statement is false, you aren’t Goth. No, not even if all 16 of the rest are true. Of course, you would be readily accepted and most welcome amongst Goths for your strength of individuality and ability to appreciate the culture in general and themselves in particular.

  • You feel the need to spend a lot of time creating things (music, art, poetry, philosophies, stories and the like)
  • Your creative efforts are often described as dark, shocking, scary, morbid or strange
  • You like museums and cultural centers
  • You understand and even enjoy Shakespeare, Shelley, Browning or some other similar work without having to read the Cliffe Notes
  • You know the difference between nihilism and existentialism, even if you don’t really live by either
  • You really, truly enjoy music of many kinds
  • You are a very sensual person (aware of color, texture, sound, taste and scent)
  • You don’t understand why the people around you spend so much time watching TV
  • You don’t feel comfortable looking just like everyone else you know
  • You do feel comfortable just being yourself, even if no one else around is anything like you
  • You wonder “why” a lot, and come up with some interesting answers
  • You wonder “how” a lot, and often figure it out on your own
  • You don’t just reject something because you don’t understand it
  • You base your opinions of people on who they are and what they do rather than what they look like
  • You are not afraid of the unknown
  • You are not afraid of the dark
  • You are afraid of mediocrity

4. Laura Lemay says that to be Goth I have to be angsty and wear a lot of black. Is this true?
NO. Black and angst are not necessary to be Goth. True Goth defies stereotyping and does not adhere to dress codes. Too much angst or other negative emotion stifles a person’s ability to learn, think, and create. Most actual Goths are psychologically pretty well-adjusted people. They just have a different set of cultural and social blueprints than your average person. Ms. Lemay knows a lot more about web authoring than she does about Goth, even if she refuses to practice good web design on her own personal site. But she DID get one thing right when she said, “Try not to take yourselves so seriously.” Granted, that’s a little out of context, but it’s good advice just the same.

So, this brings up a whole new can of worms…the most common tidbits of juicy misinformation about Goth. In almost two decades of watching people’s perceptions of Goth, I have found that never has there been so much inaccurate information as there is now. It’s time to break out the hammer and start banging. Let’s take a look at the most commonly distributed misinformation about Goth, shall we?

Ten Gothic Stereotypes We All Love To Repeat

  • All Goths must wear black. Color is not Goth.
  • Goth is a subculture based on a musical style.
  • All Goths listen to the same music.
  • All Goths are fixated on death.
  • All Goths drink a lot/do drugs.
  • Goth came from the hippie movement.
  • Goths don’t laugh except to mock others.
  • Goths all have tattoos and piercings.
  • Goths always wear a lot of makeup.
  • Goth and Freak are interchangeable terms for the same culture.

I know that a lot of so-called “Goth” people accept these things to be facts. I see it on the Web and I see it on what passes for a scene. I also know that this list of statements and quite a few others like them are just so much bullshit. So what is the truth? Here, let’s go back through that list and correct things, eh? You might be surprised, or you might be another Olde Schooler, in which case, you’ll be greatly amused.

All Goths must wear black. Color is not Goth.

I can see where this one might have some heavy support, since the scene is filled with cookie-cutter, black clad people who generally avoid the few daring individuals who might wear white, or gods forbid *gasp!* include color in their wardrobe. This lack of individualism strongly suggests to someone who doesn’t really understand Goth that we have a uniform look or worse, that we are conformists. What people fail to grasp is that most people on the Goth scene are either skin-Goths (poseurs), demi-Goths (people who might make fine Goths if they could just get over what other people thought of them) or second and third generation Goths who just honestly never had any contact with other Goths who knew what the movement is all about. This is one of the things that created the paradox of a culture that was based on individualism and creativity but just the same had a rigid conformist dress code. Truth is, Goth is rabidly individualistic and we wear whatever we damn well please. Color is not an exception. You just don’t recognize us when you see us outside of the stereotype.

Goth is a subculture based on a musical style.

I can also see how a lot of people might get this impression. A lot of otherwise decent sources of information on Goth and its more recent history offer this myth up to us as fact. It may even very well be part of the truth for some Gothic origins in some parts of the world, but it is predated by the emergence of Goth as culture rather than Goth as musical genre in America (at the very least). The media (read record labels and associated musical rags) started this, and I find it disgusting that so many people feel the need to perpetuate this myth that the musical genre started Goth as opposed to Goth starting the genre. Many sources including the Usenet’s alt.gothic group even go so far as to say that the actual cultural origins of Goth were a later fable added after the supposedly music-based trend happened. This is absolutely false. Before there was a so-called Goth sound, we had dropped the title of New Romantics and firmly settled on calling ourselves Gothic. The culture pre-dates the musical genre by a good two years. I should know. I was there. Honest.

All Goths listen to the same music.

Yah. Sure we do. Actually that’s not highly likely. Even the skin-Goths have a semi-diverse musical taste. This is one of those ridiculous stereotypes that is glued onto every single culture that exists. It is true of none of them, and is just as untrue for Goths. I won’t waste any more breath on this one.

All Goths are fixated on death.

Okay people. Repeat after me: Goth is not about death. Good. Now go to your local institution of higher learning and enroll in art history and English lit classes. Learn about symbolism and metaphor. Maybe take a few philosophy classes. This stereotype is usually caused by being uneducated or ignorant. Goths are by and large more fixated on the concept of beauty as an abstract, creative endeavors (both their own and those of historical origins) and simply trying to get ahead in a society that doesn’t share their individual aesthetics, values and principals. If you have a decent fine arts education, an ounce of perceptiveness and know the difference between a real Goth and a skin-Goth, you know that Goth, while often dark and eerie, is NOT obsessed with death. Regular American culture is.

All Goths drink a lot/do drugs.

I realize that this is a pretty deeply ingrained idea about Gothic culture, but it’s wrong. Goths are not all completely clean-cut, squeaky-clean sober types, but we aren’t all into drugs. Granted, most young people go through an experimental stage with sex and drugs, and the bulk of Goth is made up of young people, but let’s face it, Goths don’t do any more drugs than your average person. Drugs aren’t a requirement in being Goth, even if there are a lot of irresponsible people out on the scene who are hell-bent on telling you otherwise. We have a word for those types. Maybe you’ve heard it…Junkie. Just remember Goth does not equal Junkie.

Goth came from the hippie movement.

This is more media stereotyping. It is also completely false. Goth has nothing to do with the hippie movement. There are no similarities either. Alt.culture has a really interesting but completely inaccurate write-up on Goth that mentions this, and people are entirely too fond of repeating this rancid little tidbit of misinformation. I’d like to say STOP IT right now. Just cut it out. Goth came from neither Hippie nor Punk. If it came from anything at all, it was a new outlook on Beat.

Goths don’t laugh except to mock others.

This is just too pretentious. I’ve been a Goth for two decades and I spend a lot of time laughing at a lot of things that have nothing to do with the misfortunes or lack of taste of others. I am not the exception. Most Goths have a well-developed sense of humor that is really quite healthy. Certainly we don’t all laugh at the same things or make the same kinds of jokes, but that is a given, isn’t it? It seems that a huge number of people that claim to be Goth also claim that we don’t share in the common human arena of emotion, but common sense alone should tell you that this is, like so many other things, a posturing load of unmitigated bull. Yes, I know that there are flocks of people who claim to be Goth that will demonstrate personally and in the most uncomfortable fashion that we are nasty, sociopathic bastards who live to laugh at your misfortunes and will excuse their unacceptable behavior by claiming that it’s the Goth way of acting. I’m sure you’ve seen them in IRC and Usenet and that they seem to be the unpleasant majority, but if you take a few minutes to think, it may become apparent that at least online there are entirely too many people claiming to be something other than they are and that people in general (online and off) are frightfully nasty towards one another if they feel that they can get away with it. Sure, we Goths have a different view of things socially, but then again, so do the Japanese, and no one accuses them of not ever laughing non-maliciously. Do they?

Goths all have tattoos and piercings.

More stereotyping. Tattoos and piercings have become very trendy these days. Stereotypical Goth has also become very trendy. So you are going to see a lot of skin-Goths running around with a lot of very obvious tattoos and piercings. You will also see a lot of Ravers, Rednecks, Indie Kids and other people who have nothing to do with Goth running around with tattoos and piercings a-go-go. You don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to deduce that one. Just remember, Goths are individuals. We will do what we think looks right on us, and if having no ink or metal imbedded in our skin feels right, we will do with or without and still be indisputably Goth.

Goths always wear a lot of weird or scary makeup.

No, not at all. This, again, goes back to the central idea that Goths are individuals and all exercise their own judgment on how they feel like looking. Sure, makeup is pretty cool, and its application can be a fun pre-outing ritual, but again, it is far from necessary.

Goth and Freak are interchangeable terms for the same culture.

This is ridiculous. It is almost as silly as saying that grunge kids and rednecks are the same cultural group. Sure, there may be some similarities in the stereotypical outward appearance to the grossly unobservant or the painfully ignorant, but it is still radically untrue. Anyone who would ever mistake one for the other after observing for a few minutes is either blind, high, or completely unaware of the actual social and ideological dynamics of both groups. I am thinking that if we are going to continue to live in a society that needs to categorize, stereotype and label, that perhaps we should more carefully analyze the people and things we are labeling before we slap a name on them. Don’t just call someone something because they look a certain way. Visual stereotyping is a terribly inaccurate method for classifying people in real practice these days. Most often you will be wrong, and vastly poorer for it.

*Hefts the sledgehammer and grins*

So, hopefully some of this has made some sort of impact on some of you. Maybe you might even be a little more interested in Goth as a culture and individual Goths as people with something more meaningful and valuable to contribute to both society in general and yourself in particular than bad attitude, poor taste and drugs. Who knows, you might even realize that *you* are Goth. Or that the black-wearing scary kids who have been giving you a hard time because you can’t recite every album produced by Christian Death before Valor took over aren’t anything but trendies, bullies or jocks.

Or maybe not. Maybe you ARE one of those T B or Js, trying to impress your loser friends by pretending to be something exotic that you don’t understand. In that case, you are probably gearing up to flame my uppity self. Go right ahead, but be warned: I am not easily embarrassed, frightened, or hurt. And I give as good as I get. So take your best shot and pray that I decide to ignore you.

Either way, I’ve said what I needed to say. It’s time to hop off of the soapbox and pray I land feet-first again. This rant is over. Stay beautiful, stay graceful, and stay you.


Azhrarn, 1998 (c) Feel free to distribute, mirror, or otherwise reproduce this either in part or in its entirety. I ask nothing but credit for its making. That I will insist on. Strenuously.