There is a lot of confusion in the world about not just “what is goth?” but “which is goth?” (That’s because there are two distinctly unique communities that use Goth as a defining characteristic. More on that later.)
I came into the Goth community later in life, so I have the privilege of being an outsider’s outsider, as it were. With that in mind, I’ve been working to define not just Goth, but also other parts of cultures or counter cultures we are a part of.
As I went on this journey, using only my observations from both the outside (which I was most of my life) and the inside (which I’ve been a part of for far less time), I believe I have come to a theory about Goth that can make it much easier not only for outsiders to understand what the Goth community is, but also for members of the Gothic communities to understand one another, ask for help with our own needs, and showcases our strengths and uniquenesses more effectively. (As all theories are just ideas until they’re proven to be laws, I could be wrong on these notions. If you feel like I am, share your own thoughts and theories in the comments below!)
What is a Culture?
To begin with, I realized that we can’t look at a subset (or a counter-version) of a culture, until we define what a culture is. If we compare these concepts to water, then you could say all the people in a given country are the water table. Culture is simply the larger percentage of those people in that country, while the counter-culture is the remaining percentage of people. (We look at the idea of countries rather than the world, because there is no truly common culture that unites the majority of the world, so it’s made simpler to discuss in reflection of individual countries.)
If all the people in a country are like the water table, then the culture of a country–which could be shown to contain 51%-70% of the people, depending on the age of history–is like an ocean. You could say that the culture is defined by a broad inclusion of certain beliefs. (ie we as the majority of people agree that these sorts of goals and aspirations should be sought.)
What is a Counter-Culture?
The counter-culture diverges in some core way from the culture (containing the remaining 30% to 49% of the people) and could be represented by a body of water the size of a sea. You could say the counter-culture is defined by a broad exclusion of certain beliefs. (ie we as the minority believe that different goals should be embraced than the majority believes.)
The first two concepts were separate from one another, but, now, we delve into the sections within the counterculture.
What is a Subculture?
The subsections of counter culture are called subcultures and you could represent them by a body of water the size of a sea. Subcultures are where we see communities things that they want their community to explore, rather than distinguishing themselves by what they are not. (ie We of this subculture agree that our subculture is defined by people who enjoy three moderately narrow things.) Subcultures are usually fairly unifying and communal for people who agree to these general statutes, because they don’t try to get too minute with how their members are defined and there’s enough space for people to get along.
What is a Scene?
Finally, we delve into the sections within subcultures which are called Scenes. Scenes could be compared to a body of water the size of a tidepool. Scenes distinguish themselves by a single unifying feature with minute requirements within that feature. (ie We of this scene define this scene by music, specifically the works of these bands.) Because a scene is so hyper-focused and so constrained, if its members are no very careful, it can quickly become a brutal Lord of the Flies scenario, where people vie for power through “special” knowledge or power, pull others down to exalt their standings in this community, and threatening any who don’t have “enough” of some awareness or understanding with expulsion from the group. Like abused children becoming abusers themselves, the more hurt and angry the members of a scene felt prior to entering that scene, the more catty and hurtful that entire scene may become.
Fortunately, just as an abused person can get counseling and mentorship, so that they don’t become abusers, scenes themselves can avoid becoming little versions of the hurtful cultures that abused them by realizing their scene identity is just a part of their identity, with their relationship within a larger subculture being just as important. (In nomadic and tribal cultures, this would be akin to you family unit being important, but your place within the tribe being just as important.)
So we’ve spent a lot of time looking at cultural concepts. Now let’s dive into the actual nuts and bolts of figuring out Goth in all of this.
To begin with, I am from America, so the culture I will explore is the American culture. While some have said this culture has impacted (or infected) a number of other cultures, I will assume that everyone’s national culture will be slightly (or greatly) different. Plug in the things that you find most logical with your own culture v. counter culture info, as I’d love to see representative breakdowns for every country on the planet.
American Culture Defined
I define the American culture to be defined by three elements most strongly.
The first is Epicureanism, which is a form of Hedonism that seems “nicer” by just trying to avoid pain at all cost, and then maximizing pleasure whenever possible. (It’s just as destructive as actual Hedonism, but Americans don’t feel guilty about it.)
The second is simply appearance over reality. So long as others believe us to be polished, well-to-do, and successful, the reality doesn’t matter (which is why our nation is addicted to credit cards and debt). We showcase our debt-purchased clothes and cars for all the world to see, but we go to bankruptcy courts quietly and in the shadows.
The third defining factor is what I will call Nuclear Family Exclusive. What that means is that, regardless of where you live, the only “really” important people to you are those who reside in your home with you, most notably your spouse, children, and/or pets. (Americans try to avoid having adult parents live with them at all costs, so that this small unit is never unduly “encumbered.”)
By focusing on avoiding pain, seeking pleasure, appearances being reality, and only caring about one’s localized family, Americans seem fancy free, but, in reality, are constantly on the move, chasing ever bigger paydays to pay off the debts they already have, careful never to be free from distractions lest they see how systemically destructive their system has become.
Alternative CounterCulture Defined
The Alternative CounterCulture, on the other hand, disagrees with these notions. While American Culture believes we should all have similar goals and strive for similar things, the Alternative CounterCulture believes that each person is uniquely individual and should explore their existence with freedom and choice, recognizing that our individual discoveries are not ours alone, but are needed for something greater.
While American Culture seeks to avoid pain and to live in distraction, the Alternative CounterCulture believes in an almost primitive notion that you must be willing to explore and even embrace pain to find truth, and that, as you realize things in the midst of this pain, you must share it with others, through words, music, art, ink, or piercings. (Fight Club might be one of the most perfect movies and books for the Alternative CounterCulture in this regard, as it looks to find meaning through pain, suffering, and loss.)
Finally, while the American Culture emphasizes the Nuclear, mobile family, the Alternative CounterCulture realizes that there is a greater family that they must seek—a tribal family. This tribal family will not be related to one another by blood, but by similar mentality and heart. As L.M. Montgomery might’ve said, “The tribal family is made of kindred spirits, separated at birth, but unified in life.”
Now we move into the Subcultures within the Alternative CounterCulture. Goth is one of the Subcultures within this CounterCulture, as is Metal, and a number of other subcultures.
Gothic Subculture Defined
The Gothic subculture is defined most strongly by three things that refine it from the Alternative CounterCulture it is a part of.
While the Alternative CounterCulture is willing to embrace pain and darkness to find truth, the Gothic subculture is darkly romantic, finding actual beauty and nobility within these things, as well as in stark contrasts in color and styles.
While the Alternative CounterCulture seeks personal truth, the Gothic subculture believes that metaphysical truth can AND must be sought, as well, believing the physical world to be expanded, impacted, and interacted upon by a spiritual, supernatural realm. (From these two elements, you wouldn’t be wrong to say that the modern Goth Subculture is very much the inheritor of the Gothic literary worldview of the 18th and 19th centuries.)
Finally, although the Alternative CounterCulture is embracing of existentialism and all of its members quirks, the alternative Subculture has embraced the most nerdy element of that existence, seeing a special preciousness in 8-bit games, choose-your-own-adventure books, RPGs, trading card games, fantasy novels, comic books, and Doctor Who.
(Although the color black is often used within the Gothic Subculture, it is also used dominantly in the Metal subculture, and others. As such, black cannot be said to be a defining characteristic of this subculture.)
From here, we move on to the many scenes within the Gothic subculture. (Just because scenes are a subset within the Gothic subculture, it must be noted that there are many people within the Gothic Subculture who don’t associate themselves with a Scene per se.)
While there are many non-confusing scenes within the subculture, such as Fairy Goths (who use fantasy themes in their wardrobe), Angel Goths (who use white over black as their dominant primary palette), CyberGoths (who tend to wear neon cyberlox, corsets, and pleather), and SteamPunks (who have a fascination with brass, Victorian gun battles, and Final-Fantasy-looking tech), the scene that is most confusing to members of the outside culture is the Gothic Music Scene.
Gothic Music Scene Defined
The Gothic Music Scene is one of the loudest scenes in the Gothic subculture and is a community unified by the love of post-punk bands like Bauhaus, Siouxsie & the Banshees, Christian Death, and 45 Grave. Sometimes referred to as “the Goth Scene” or even just “Goth,” there are a number of press agencies that believe that Goth is a music subculture because of this fact. (It’s not helped by the fact that members of the Gothic music scene tend to refer to other members of their scene as the “only true Goths”.)
Gothic music scene likes to define which bands are “really” gothic, spending hours defining the proper nuance of this scene, and because of this, the Gothic Music Scene can also be one of the more catty and argumentative scenes.
In my opinion, to answer our initial question, “Which is Goth?” Goth is THE subculture that’s a part of the Alternative CounterCulture. The Gothic Music Scene is one small piece of the larger Goth subculture, and, as such, its focus on music is not the lens that the Goth subculture should be defined by.
With that said, members of the Gothic subculture should be welcomed into interaction with one another, regardless of what Scenes they may originate from. We must all be careful to not belittle one another or try to make people feel inferior for our differences and specialties. We have all had that behavior done to us in the outside world and we must be careful that we do not repeat these sins against others. When we embrace the elements which make us each unique, allowing our differences to make us stronger, while still enjoying our similarities, then we are able to flourish as a community.
Offer your thoughts on this discussion below!