31 January, 2019

Black Celebration: A Personal History of Goth

Can someone join a subculture without knowing it exists? Is it possible for a single person to comprise a sub-subculture — a clique of one? These are questions I contemplated a lot, based on how I spent my teens and young adulthood.

The riotous colors of 1993 hurt my eyes. Worse yet, its hot dance-poppy tracks (think: Haddaway, Tag Team, Ace of Base) burned in the open cut of my deepening depression. I rejected all of it. The alternative was literal: alternative — as in, alternative music, as in, more specifically, grunge, which to most minds meant Nirvana, a band I could barely stand. Mainstream culture left me feeling conspicuously out of place. Aimless and alone, I stumbled down the gloomy, unlit path of goth.

Before all-black clothes and eyeliner became my daily wear, I'd never heard the word goth. It's likely that I encountered the iconic look — the pitch dark hair, the deathly complexion, the silver-buckled, -spiked, and -chained accessories — in a movie, on TV, in a book, or on the streets of a foreign city before adopting goth's dark splendor for myself. But contrary to what you'd expect, I never set out to dress that way. My transition was organic, a product of several factors.

I came by the pale skin honestly, thanks to genetics and insomnia. Being an overweight tween had inclined me to wear black, which seemed to slim away a bit of my huskiness. The mysterious, the Romantic, the (I'll just go ahead and say it) Byronic had always compelled me. Temperamentally speaking, autism spectrum disorder and major depression made me standoffish. Through my father's broad musical tastes and penchant for nightlife I was exposed to pulsing, subversive-feeling stuff that struck nerves I hadn't known I possessed. Shut in my candlelit room, writing tormented poems while darkwave beats, borrowed from my dad's music library, trembled from the stereo, I was like a caterpillar in its cocoon. All the stuff swirling around in there was bound to solidify into some new form of life eventually.

I emerged as a beautiful black butterfly shortly before turning fourteen. As my personal mythology has it, the trigger was seeing a daytime talk show on which a "troubled" teen spoke about why he wore that ghastly makeup and black velvet, lace, and leather. The dramatic monologue he delivered, about coping with darkness by embracing darkness, was my own angst given voice. Before that epiphanic Oprah episode (or whatever it was) I'd believed myself alone in feeling this way. In the egocentrism of youth, what teen doesn't think he's the first, the only — even when that exclusivity is to his detriment? Regardless, from that day forward, every time someone asked why I dressed all in black, I answered in one of two ways: either "Color is nothing more than trumpery and lies," or "Because the price of tomatoes has fluctuated again." I was a blast at parties. (No one invited me to parties.)

Better than any other lesson, school taught me that I did not fit. The adjective peerless implies good — unequaled, unrivaled. But I dropped out of my academically prestigious high school in large part because I had neither equals nor rivals. To be an outcast, that is, to be cast out, you have to first be in. I'd joined no clubs, hitched myself to no teams, took part in no extracurriculars. I'd walked to classes unaccompanied, literally on the fringe. Except in the eyes of one accidental girlfriend who mistook my awkwardness for cool, I was a non-entity.

I was eventually old enough for the clubs that, if only one night a week, played the darkwave and industrial (i.e., goth) music that lured palefaced youth out of seclusion. In preparation, I'd powder my nose, smear my eyes with kohl, take one last appraising look at myself in the mirror. My studded collar and high Doc Martens looked suitably fetishistic. My silver rings glinted. My lacquered fingernails reflected darkly. I'd head for the car, slipping a Djarum Black from its box. I'd light the clove cigarette and inhale. I'd turn the ignition key. I'd crank up the music and drive.

The parking lot would be scattered with vehicles and little groups of black-clad twenty-somethings, all rendered paler than normal in the sulfurous light. Most showed up every week, drawn by the camaraderie of other gothic oddities. The DJ was basically irrelevant; no one ever really danced. Like me, they huddled at the periphery of the dance floor and watched the poseurs do their thing. The poseurs were the worst. The poseurs were whoever they suspected of wearing color during the week, and anyone deemed insufficiently cool. Which was everyone.

Inside, the club's red lights would smooth and unblemish every face. "This Corrosion," a Sisters of Mercy song so stereotypical as to be almost a joke, would crash along while everyone feigned indifference. I'd stand, drinking my nonalcoholic drink, not talking to any of the people milling around, ignoring me. Many hugged each other, displaying affection more freely than you might expect from people wearing spikes and claw rings.

Although I looked the part, my club experiences were from a certain standpoint no different from school. Perhaps recognized by sight, I remained unacknowledged, unknown. I returned, week after week, in the hope of making a friend, yet lacked the wherewithal to break the ice. After a few hours, I'd go home feeling more alone than when I arrived.

Online newsgroups and IRCs (Internet chat groups) opened the world of goth to me, in the form of band recommendations, links to clothing boutiques, recipes for cocktails, lots of biting social criticism, and tips for coloring everything, from clothes to flowers, black. Goth's online contingent was even more fiercely cliquish and territorial than the clubgoers, but as long as I didn't try joining in, I could slink along the virtual periphery, reading their tips, quips, and laments, and silently judge those self-appointed arbiters of gothic taste and macabre fashion.

I couldn't stand those elitists' mentality, the way they gazed down with gother-than-thou scorn from their obsidian tower. I soon disassociated myself from the lot of them, the online contingent and their real-life counterparts. I continued to dress the part, and certainly didn't give up the music I loved so much, but I wouldn't permit anyone to mistake appearance for substance. For instance, my father was on the phone in the next room one afternoon, talking to a friend about me. I heard him say, "He's too goth to go see Mrs. Doubtfire with us." Without getting up from my computer desk, I shouted, "I'm not goth!" And I meant it. However, this irony was not lost on me: in my browser window was a man in black lipstick, modeling a very tall pair of boots beside a crying angel statue. That picture made me really want to buy those boots. Deep down, I was goth as fuck. No impassioned arguments would change that.

A thousand essays and academic papers have been written with the title "What Is Goth?" Debates over what (or who) does and doesn't qualify as goth continue to rage on the Internet. Goth is what was once freely called a lifestyle — heavy on the style. It's precisely this quality of insubstantiality that I believe has made it so difficult to define. It's shallow, and you can't base an ethos, and certainly not a philosophy, on black clothing and minor-key music. So, what happens when the kids who dress in impractical, pseudo-archaic outfits and head for the club, as I once did, realize the vacuousness of this aesthetic ideal they've built their lives around?

I chose to dance to the beat of my own drum machine. I toned down the eyeliner. I put away the spiked leather collar. I embraced my ungothly geekiness full-on, with Frisbee in the park, They Might Be Giants on my stereo, and posters of the periodic table of elements in my kitchen. I grew up and all but forgot about the subculture that had seemed so tantalizingly close to my heart.

It sounds like a riddle: I clothe myself in shadow but will not be overshadowed. My sound is dark as night itself. I am forty and still love The Nightmare Before Christmas. What am I?


  1. I love this entry about how you unwittingly (if I may) found yourself to be aligned with Goth culture, yet still felt on the outside of it looking in. Fascinating, really.

  2. I found myself at my happiest when I didn't try to fit any labels that society demands to put on things they don't understand. I am me. Whether you like it or not. And if you don't? Don't let the door hit you on the way out. ^.^


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