Sunlight & Shadow: Understanding the Gothic Subculture
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The Gothic Subculture: New Fad or Long-Running Tradition?

Most American parents and general society seem to be shocked at this "new" phenomenon of kids dressing in black and calling themselves "Goth." The concerned public is convinced that Goths have only been around since the mid-nineties or so, and they're set in their ideas that the subculture revolves around Marilyn Manson and Devil-worship. The realities are these: the Gothic subculture has been around for almost thirty years (little Brian Warner, now known as Marilyn Manson, was still throwing spitballs on the playground at the time), and it began as more "literary" spin-off of 70's Punk. (How many of today's Goth naysayers were part of its parent subculture in their day?)

The late seventies and early eighties brought a greater prosperity for the nation's working adults, but some of the children in these newly prosperous families felt disconnected from this materialistic, purely capitalistic attitude. They were brought up to be happy, money-making suburbanites, but something went wrong--these young adults rebelled from their parents' clean-cut, sanitized visions of the future and receded into dark coffee houses to read poetry and talk with like-minded youth about the hopelessness and emptiness of materialistic life. They were the Beatniks of the Reagan era, and adopted the "tortured artist" black attire of the 50's Beat generation as well. When the movement gained momentum, they began calling themselves "New Romantics" in homage to the classic Romantic era of literature, a movement they felt held the magic of visionary imagination and freedom of revolutionary thought. Soon after, the name became "Gothic," pinning down the literary namesake to a more specific type, and a more fitting mindset. Poe, the Brontė sisters, and Blake would be honoured.

The early eighties saw a flourish in growth in the fledgling subculture as it further defined its intrinsic fashion, music, and attitudes. These people tended to be shy, quiet, intelligent, and were well-read in classic literature. They were often artists, writers, musicians, and poets, each finding an outlet for his or her creative drive in innovative--and often "disturbing"--ways, such as the macabre Victorian-esque artwork of Edward Gorey or the often gruesome lyrics of former Goth band Cinema Strange. The pervading attitude that united all of them seemed to be the belief in the beauty of all things: the beauty of stormy afternoons as well as that of sunny mornings; of homely faces as well as the classic Helen-of-Troy visage; of often-ignored death as much as that of celebrated life. Balance was the key, as was the challenge of traditionally held ideas, beliefs, and stereotypes. The freakish make-up and morbid attire of the Goths were testaments to their rebellion against these stereotypes, often explained to the young Goths as being "just the way things are, because that's how they've always been." The Goths said, "Not anymore."

By the late eighties, most of the "first generation" Goths had become adults and had shed their black fishnets and blue hair for more "acceptable" ties and slacks as they entered the working world. The subculture almost died there and then, but a few newly-discouraged teens of the late Reagan and early Bush years took up the torch, with the few remaining "first gens" going underground. The second-generation Goths were a bit more vocal than the originals, and often the two groups would come to heads, each calling the other "fakes" and "poseurs." The second-gens shifted away from the quiet tortured-artist stance of the first-gens--which, of course, antagonized the first-gens considerably--but eventually the animosity wore away and the two groups became one, becoming more or less like the first gens were. This happy peace lasted until the early mid-nineties, when the third generation came to the fold.

The third generation to call themselves Goth was a bit different. All along, there had been furrowed eyebrows at the "demented youth" of the day, and many parents and some of the media had attacked the black clothing and rock music of the first- and second-gens as being "Satanic" in some way. This media attention didn't amount to much, but the third-gens heard the media portrayals and immediately adopted the "evil" ways of being Gothic because they knew it would irritate their parents and give them the coveted "rebel" status. The problem was, of course, that the media portrayal of the Gothic subculture was false because it jumped to conclusions without attempting to discover any real truths. Naļve third-gens, who had never heard of the Gothic subculture until the media attention came about, assumed the portrayal was accurate and jumped on the number-one-way-to-annoy-your-parents bandwagon. They didn't know any better; the media did.

Today, we still have the media feeding the flames of the violent, Satanic, evil stereo type of the quintessential "Goth." Far too many teens today who call themselves Goth probably have no idea where the subculture came from, what it actually consisted of, or the fact that the rebellion they revel in is a media-distorted creation based rather loosely on a real subculture that is actually nothing like them at all. Columbine's infamous "Trenchcoat Mafia" and other nasty media portrayals of the Gothic subculture have, I have no reason to doubt, planted the seeds for an even further distorted caricature in an upcoming fourth-generation of Goths that are not Gothic at all. Nine-year-old worshippers of Britney Spears today may be the black-wearing, obscenity-spouting, bomb-tossing teens of the future.