Before Bauhaus: How Goth Became Goth

“You look so goth today” one might say to a friend wear­ing too much eye­lin­er or black nail pol­ish or leather pants. But goth is so much more than just a look, the mak­er of the above video claims, walk­ing view­ers through a brief his­to­ry of the blues, rock, punk, post-punk, and new roman­tic waves made to the sound and style of what came to be called goth rock (though none of these artists described them­selves that way). The video essay claims goth has been hijacked by ersatz pre­tenders like Mar­i­lyn Man­son and My Chem­i­cal Romance, who might look the part but bear lit­tle resem­blance son­i­cal­ly or cul­tur­al­ly to fore­bears like The Doors, The Cure, The Birth­day Par­ty, or (this video’s stop­ping point) goth rock dar­lings Bauhaus.

Maybe the dis­tinc­tions seem like triv­ial sub­cul­tur­al squab­bling, but the essay rais­es an inter­est­ing ques­tion about the ori­gin of the word “goth” as a sub­cul­tur­al­ly descrip­tive term. It’s easy to see how some­one might mis­take oughties emo rock­ers for 80s goths; it’s per­haps more of a stretch to see how 70s and 80s goth rock car­ried forth the cre­ative spir­it of a medieval archi­tec­tur­al style or a 19th-cen­tu­ry lit­er­ary genre. Super­fi­cial­ly, we might say the oper­a­tive link is “dark and scary,” but if that’s all it takes to be “goth,” then we’re back to goth as cos­tume rather than a set of artis­tic tenets. Exam­in­ing the Goth­ic a bit more close­ly may give us clues to the dis­tinc­tive­ness of Goth.

Author Nick Groom iden­ti­fies a his­tor­i­cal ten­sion with­in the Goth­ic. First used in the 16th cen­tu­ry to describe the ornate pan-Euro­pean style that arose back in the 12th cen­tu­ry, the term was pejo­ra­tive, imply­ing that the glo­ries of Rome had been replaced by the bar­barism of the Ger­man Goths (despite the fact that Goth­ic style orig­i­nat­ed in France). The Goth­ic was revived in the 18th and 19th cen­turies — at first almost sin­gle-hand­ed­ly by Horace Wal­pole, who wrote the first Goth­ic nov­el and turned his home, Straw­ber­ry Hill, into a Goth­ic theme park of sorts. By this point, says Groom above, the Goth­ic had tak­en on dual con­no­ta­tions in Eng­lish usage — pos­i­tive­ly, the Goth­ic was a rebel­lious spir­it: The Magna Car­ta was Goth. Mar­tin Luther was Goth.

On the oth­er hand, the Goth­ic referred to the occult, to Medieval Catholic rites and super­sti­tions, to ancient ruins, mon­sters, and gar­goyles. This is the Goth­ic with which we’re famil­iar, but it comes to us — via Wal­pole, Bram Stok­er, Edgar Allan Poe, etc. — as kitsch. “Goth­ic fic­tion began as a sophis­ti­cat­ed joke,” John Mul­lan observes of Walpole’s weird nov­el, The Cas­tle of Otran­to. For all its invest­ment in the dark­er regions of human expe­ri­ence, the Goth­ic, and there­by the Goth, has always had a cer­tain sense of humor about itself, cre­at­ing cav­ernous sounds that evoke cathe­dral acoustics, per­formed with an iron­ic the­atri­cal­i­ty that dra­ma­tizes lit­er­ary, Roman­tic excess­es — qual­i­ties, it must be said, few bands before or since embod­ied quite so suc­cinct­ly as goth rock dar­lings Bauhaus.

Relat­ed Con­tent:  

An Ani­mat­ed His­to­ry of Goth

“A Brief His­to­ry of Goths”: From the Goths, to Goth­ic Lit­er­a­ture, to Goth Music

Three-Hour Mix­tape Offers a Son­ic Intro­duc­tion to Under­ground Goth Music

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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