A Study of Gothic Subculture

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Updated 3-12-2009
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Description of Relevant Music

Note: There are many more divisions of music that could be listed. This is a brief list of those most relevant to Gothic. It is in no way official or definitive, but it is a general and helpful guide.

Alternative: This is the umbrella term for all music that is not part of the mainstream, includes such divisions as Punk, Modern, Gothic, Industrial, Techno, Ska, etc. Originally intended to mean music that is different, underground, avant-garde, not part of the mainstream, not popular. The term has become an oxymoron because much "alternative" music is now mainstream Top 40. Corporate music marketers love to use this term to sell bands that are not doing much of anything new or different. Since what it refers to now is so far from what it originally intended to mean, it has become a joke to the underground community. See alternateen.

Punk: The relevant classification of old school punk music died in the 70's. Punk as a subculture survived on. The music was characterized by bands like the Dead Kennedys, Sex Pistols and Circle Jerks with irreverent, anarchic, and antiestablishment themes. The dominant turn toward disco and the growing popularity of punk -- the antiestablishment became the establishment when punk bands signed to major record labels -- killed the punk music movement in the seventies. From punk, two children emerged: first Industrial music in 1976, then Gothic music in 1979. Not as closely related to punk musically came New Wave (Modern music) in the 1980s. Punk is most influential to the gothic rock division of gothic music, with bands such as The Cure (1978) and Siouxsie and the Banshees (1976) first lumped musically into a post-punk category.

Modern/New Wave: Think of the Pet Shop Boys, Duran Duran, Adam Ant and New Order. New Wave became popular in the early eighties and is also called modern music. New Wave as a term originally was used to describe just that, a new wave of bands that were creating music different from everything being made at the time. It was an all-encompassing term for all types of different and freaky music and its listeners, including the New Romantics (like Adam Ant), death rock, post-punk, modern etc. Right now what we think of as New Wave is much more specific to a certain underground look and feel of the 80's. It is the first pop music form to use synthesizers and keyboards on a regular basis. There is also a certain glamour and camp to the band members. If you don't know what New Wave is watch a "brat pack" movie (The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, anything with Molly Ringwald, etc.), pick up an 80's compilation disc or go to a "flashback", "deja vu", or "80's" night at a club. Many older Goths love 80's music because that's what they grew up on. Modern music is also used to describe (often British) bands such as Depeche Mode, The Smiths, and The Cure. They have a good amount of popularity and longevity, yet are still a little "odd" musically. People who are into this type of music are called mods or wavers. Wavers is a somewhat antiquated term although mods is still used. In the eighties mods were the most visible form of alternative music and culture -- they were strange, but not quite bizarre yet. What we now call gothic was a fairly small group of people. Goth was not yet used as a term and they were generally lumped together with all other underground groups as wavers or freaks. In the late eighties and early nineties Gothic gained a lot of visibility with the emergence of the second generation. Mods became somewhat retro in their love of eighties music, fashion, and British pop music. There is a significant crossover between modern and gothic music, although these are separate music classifications.

Industrial: To go over the basics, a record label called Industrial Records coined the term in 1976. Bands like Throbbing Gristle were the Industrial pioneers. As a subculture however, industrial is much younger, probably only becoming identifiable in the 1990's. Its adherents are called rivetheads. Industrial music has its own subdivisions. There is the more guitar oriented industrial rock music, of KMFDM and Ministry for example, the more electronic dance music called EBM (Electronic Body Music) of bands such as Front 242 and Front Line Assembly, and the more experimental electronic soundscape type of music from bands like Coil and Download. I view Industrial and Gothic to be two sides to the same coin -- the yin and yang, the male and female. Gothic expresses the emotional, beautiful, supernatural, feminine, poetic, theatrical side and Industrial embodies the masculine, angry, aggressive, noisy, scientific, technological, political side. Industrial music often uses electronics, synthesizers, samples from movies or political speeches, loops, and distorted vocals. It tends to be male dominated in those who make the music and those who enjoy it. Industrial culture adherents are usually not quite as bizarre-looking as Goths in general. The relative newness of the subculture also helps make Rivetheads less noticeable than Goths. There is hugely significant amount of crossover between Gothic and Industrial music and these bands are often called Gothic Industrial or Industrial Gothic depending on who says it. I like to call these bands, such as Attrition and Die Form, electro-goth. But that's just me.

Goth rock/death punk/death rock: This is what gothic music started as, a darker form of punk rock music with a tendency toward misanthropy, the macabre, mystery and desolation. It grew into a distinct entity from the punk movement in the late 70's. Jodi mentioned to me that back then there were spooky punks and they just kept getting spookier and spookier. Originally what we now call Gothic music was called death rock and its listeners death rockers, especially in the UK. It wasn't until the mid to late eighties that it was called Gothic. Gothic rock is characterized by the music of Christian Death (who were the first notable US death rock outfit), The Sisters of Mercy and Bauhaus, for example. It usually contains the hard guitars typical of rock music, but with a more apocalyptic flair and a certain theatricality of the band. Gothic rock is very different from heavy metal and death metal although you will find some confusion regarding that point. Gothic music in its narrowest definition only consists of this music type.

Folk/occult gothic: This subset goes by different names, also medieval folk music, it often focuses on European, religious or occult history. The music sounds much like folk or tribal music (obscure instruments, acoustic guitar, violin, flute etc.). The most representative bands are Current 93, Sol Invictus, and Death in June. Whether or not these bands count as gothic depends on whom you ask. However, a great deal of people who listen to these bands are Goths. This category is not clearly defined, but it is one of the classifications that Gothic in its broadest terms encompasses.

Darkwave: A fairly new term that refers to a branch of gothic music that is more introspective, moody, emotional, and artistic -- less rock and roll oriented. (There is some uncertainty as to whether Darkwave music is a subdivision of Gothic or a separate sister category in itself like Industrial.) Darkwave originally was used to designate a more dark electronic sound, however it wasn't until the distribution service called darkwave was born that the term had a widely noticeable usage. Darkwave encompasses ethereal and darkambient music, and the term is usually used to refer to bands featured in the darkwave catalog. Here is the history of darkwave:

PROJEKT HISTORY: [This is a part of the foreword in the darkwave catalog.]

    I [Sam Rosenthal] began Projekt in 1983, as a cassette label to release my solo electronic music. It was a growth phase, musically, thus those early releases have been deleted... In 1986, I moved to California and through depression and loneliness, I began making warmer, introspective personal music... black tape for a blue girl [Sam's band] was born. Projekt served as my way to release my art, without having to worry about the whims of a record label. In 1989, I released my first CD (ashes in the brittle air), and soon started to release music from other artists whose work impressed me as coming from the same passionate internal realm (Attrition and then LYCIA). Things grew, with Projekt taking more and more of my time, and the music began to reach fans in Europe too. In this new region, I discovered other labels with a strong vision and direction: Germany's HYPERIUM RECORDS, (who serve as Projekt's European distributor) and also COLD MEAT INDUSTRIES. Frustrated that such quality music is impossible to find in America, I started a distribution service in the fall of '93 to get this music to the fans -- darkwave began. There's a lot of music out there, really, and I decided to be picky about what darkwave carries, because I believe this catalog must have integrity, rather than merely provide a massive quantity of music. I want you to feel secure that you are getting something good, rather than just something 'gothic' or something 'ethereal' or 'ambient'. Therefore, I only add new labels and releases that impress me... Thus darkwave is here to serve you well. By presenting interesting music that might be otherwise unavailable or unheard of; music from artists creating powerful and adventurous work... darkwave is a distributor of music I feel merits your attention; while Projekt releases the music I love and feel passionately towards... To throw a wrench into clarification, I have a 'subdivision' of Projekt (called RELIC) to reissue out-of-print albums I enjoy, even if the music doesn't neatly fit within the pure Projekt vision. These releases provide a backdrop, within which the realm of Darkwave music began... --Sam Rosenthal

Ethereal: The dictionary defines ethereal as: highly refined, exquisite, of the celestial spheres, heavenly, unearthly, spiritual. Ethereal music is most characterized by soprano female vocals combined with almost classical or folk type instrumentation (acoustic guitar, piano, cello, flute, violin along with or instead of the usual bass, lead guitar, and drums) which creates a surreal, angelic or otherworldly effect e.g. Love Spirals Downwards, Cocteau Twins. Ethereal music often contains opera-like vocals and uses the female voice as an instrument. Sometimes, a male vocalist will also be in the group along with the female vocalist. Even more rarely will there be only a male vocalist, but it is still considered ethereal if the mood created is otherworldly and surreal. The background music can also be electronic or soundscape oriented. It is currently a small division of music, and people who like this music are often called Goths. Ethereal is a subdivision in itself, however it is grouped toward the Darkwave end rather than the Gothic Rock end.

Darkambient: Ambient music is usually used to refer to a techno-trance type of repetitive creation. Darkambient by contrast is a subset of Darkwave music and focuses on emotional, moody soundscapes (layer upon layer of sound), with droning or mysterious sounds and minimal, if any, vocals. It is all geared toward creating a sort of hypnotizing introspective effect. Sometimes tribal or electronic oriented, it creates a darker atmosphere than the techno counterpart of ambient music. Darkambient is often just referred to as ambient for short, but if you look in the "ambient" section of a record store, you will usually find the more techno-like music. If the store has a "gothic" section, that is where you'd most likely find darkambient music. I'd say that the music of Steve Roach, Vidna Obmana and Soul Whirling Somewhere are good examples of this music.

This is my best attempt to describe the divisions of gothic music. If anyone knows of an official or semiofficial listing of gothic music classification (by a music label, reviewers or marketers) .