Books

Why goth captures the spirit of our age

We're living in a dystopia, writes John Robb. Bauhaus, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Nick Cave and The Cure are the perfect goth soundtrack.

Goth legend Siouxsie Sioux.

Dark star: Siouxsie and the Banshees singer Siouxsie Sioux. Photo: ITV/Shutterstock

In these most dystopian of times of 2023, even the darkest imaginations of centuries of gothic writers and musicians could never have concocted a story or song to mimic the world’s current gloomy malaise. Birthed in another dystopian time, goth – with its embrace of the dark side – is perhaps the perfect soundtrack and culture that captures the spirit of this age. 

Musician and journalist John Robb
Musician and journalist John Robb. Photo: supplied

In its post-punk birth, it was a culture that unintentionally embraced the gloomy decay of the late Seventies and early Eighties when the dysfunctional UK was in disarray. Not directly political, it somehow captured the claustrophobic groove of the helter-skelter of post-industrial post-punk when things felt febrile, tribal and broken. This was a time when the remnants of empire were boarded up, and the nuclear winter seemed even greyer than the British one. Not that goth was moping – the music and clothes were often black, but it found a beauty in the darkness with a music that came to life on the dance floor. Forty years later, goth still seeks the beauty in that darkness and the hope in the despair and the dark disco in the dystopia.

In 2023 we are trapped in a post-pandemic world, a terror of modern life run by inept leaders and a runaway planet choking on its own fumes. The dark visions of mystics and shamanic creatives would be tested to their outer limits in an attempt to soundtrack contemporary society. Many may ask where the righteous anger of punk has gone, yet melancholia is, equally and ironically, a perfect retreat from the madness of the modern world and its carnage visor news.

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The dark stuff is still oddly attractive and lends its thousand shades of black to all kinds of art and culture, making it even more magnetic in its Cimmerian, cinematic, Sensurround space. Goth in the 21st century is a dark cultural shade, available for anyone who wants to add a veneer of caliginous content to their schtick. In these times, goth is everywhere. It’s in the fashion collections, Batman films, cinema blockbusters, pop culture and even in the endless 24-hour rolling news with its ‘end of times’ headlines, filled with apocalyptic neo-gothic imagery and the nightmarish visions of a JG Ballard novels come to life. 

The dark energy is all-pervading, and it enthrals us. What was once a cult is now mainstream. The current manifestation is Wednesday, the American coming-of-age streaming TV series based around the character of Wednesday Addams and full of goth touch points.  The supernatural dark comedy, mystery and horror TV series comes with a great soundtrack and trad goth clothes; it has put the mainstream focus back on the culture yet again in a wildly popular box-set series. The lingering dark shadows flicker through music with a raft of new bands playing with goth textures or styles, another fashion collection waters down the black as it steals from the imaginations of the youth, books shiver with a gothic backdrop, cinema is full of spectral themes, soundtracks are brooding and mainstream TV series are full of post-punk gothic music that was once the underground but has somehow become mainstream.

It is hard to shake the nagging feeling that Jaz Coleman from Killing Joke was right all along. His old interviews were often littered with dark visions of the future. Many at the time thought he may be deluded, but now they read like news bulletins from the future and our increasingly out-of-control world.

The art of darkness, though, has been with us for centuries. One of the strands of my book is that every generation has to deal with its blues. Whether it was the romantic poets, gothic artists, medieval architecture, philosophers, alchemists, dark European folk tales or the modern Instagram influencers – the embrace of the melancholy and the soaring imagination has always played out with the current technology at hand. The book details all this but is built mainly around the post-punk musical period when the likes of Bauhaus, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Nick Cave and The Cure and many others were creating a darker and more artful take on the energy of punk and going in their own thrilling directions. That was how that generation dealt with its blues. Those artists were once outsiders and are now icons as the rest of culture has caught up with their exquisite art-rock adventures. 

Modern life is couched in this cinematic backdrop of darkness. Today, the stark images of goth offer a series of easily identifiable tropes, ripe for the mainstream to employ without ever needing to acknowledge its roots. The seeds sown in that post-punk period have sprouted so much creative DNA that it’s almost impossible to gauge who or what fits into the genre now. Even before the pandemic hit, 21st century goth’s dark tendrils had entangled themselves throughout popular culture. The creeping, post-punk, apocalyptic darkness that birthed so much of goth music and culture has become genuinely omnipresent.

The Art of Darkness: The History of Goth by John Robb

Goth always embraced that dark side and is fearless of the big themes of sex and death. It’s now a 2023 dystopia that you can dance to it as it makes great art and music from the shadows. It is too sensitive for a world gone bad, and while Bela Lugosi is still dead, we can still dance, dance, dance to the radio!

The Art of Darkness: The History of Goth by John Robb is out now (Manchester University Press, £25)

@johnrobb77

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