What happened to the goths? (and other questions of musical ideology)

Please forgive my descent into crudity towards the end of this post, during the first draft I’d made a start on my duty-free Stolychnaya (only 10 euros for a litre of the good stuff – quite a bargain) and the results are there for all to see. Nobody’s paying me for this crap so my standards are purely my own (and – as always – I grossly overuse closed brackets).  I hope you enjoy the read – there’s even some pictures and embedded YouTube videos and everything.  

Sweeping generalisations about goth kids

Disclaimer: everything that follows in this section is unfair, generalising and is likely to be entirely wrong.  Of course goths still exist, I saw three of them sat smoking in a park in Southampton just a couple of weeks ago but they were clearly all adults and therefore exempt from the next paragraph. Basically I’m not one to let a little contrary evidence get in the way of a rant. With that in mind let’s proceed… 

Living close to a 6th form college* and a train station, I have to negotiate a path through a horde of fresh-faced (and/or unjustifiably moody) teenage blighters on an almost daily basis as I’m making my way to/from work. Being the premature curmudgeon that I am, I noticed that something’s changed about this age group since the heady days when I was counted amongst their ranks but it took me quite a while to figure out what it was – there’s no more goths or punks. Okay, okay, that sounds like a pretty stupid and inconsequential observation to make but bear with me here; maybe this isn’t the case where you are or amongst people of your own age group, and it’s not like there were ever many goths to begin with**, but I’m talking about the kind of deeply middle-class area which is typically a fertile breeding ground for the angst-and-alienation driven, somewhat elitist goth subcultural union of fashion and musical taste.

Fashions, tastes, pop-cultural movements are ceaselessly changing, driven by an unconscious desire for the new (and the culture industry’s commercial imperative to provide it to that 16-24 demographic with their almost-entirely disposable incomes) but the goths have been hanging around with very little change in style since the 1980s, growing out of a stylistic fusion of the glam, punk, nu-wave and (early) metal aesthetics (as well as some other influence I’ve doubtlessly missed). Much like the heavy metal genres of music most closely associated with being goth^, once these influences coalesced into a codified form they effectively became their own self-referential closed circuit; metal bands influenced exclusively by predecessor metal bands and goth fashion taking its cues from goth fashion. It suggests that the secret of metal and goth’s longevity seems to be rooted in its deliberate separation, an aesthetic/genre island amidst the swirling currents of the pop-cultural sea which has implicitly positioned itself outside of and against the fluid mainstream. And this was a baton that’s been passed continuously down a line of teenagers that’s 30 years long. So how could a youth subculture so remarkably enduring shrink so quickly?

In a word: internet. Actually I suspect its a lot more (or maybe a lot less) complicated than that but in the borderless world of the internet, where subcultures and identity can spring up, mutate and die off within a matter of months and popular culture influences can spread virally at the speed of a ‘like’ or ‘share button’ click, the kind of insular stasis typical of the goth seems awfully luddite. Which isn’t to say that the flames of metal and/or punk music are extinguished (they keep burning away in their corner somewhere over there) or even that the various elements of goth’s cultivated image have disappeared from popular culture; those tastes and the fashion signifiers of the goth are now incorporated as part of an infinitely broad continuum of style and artistic consumption instead. Sprawling tattoos, interestingly located piercings, spacers,  black make-up, black dyed hair, neon hair, desired paleness, distorted riffs, double-pedal bass drums, unsustainable screamy vocals, a tendency toward fantasy or monster (vampire, wearwolf, witches, whatever) genre fiction, black lace, fishnets, and [insert any other attributes you care to name here] have all been absorbed to some degree by the people who make up our contemporary Western monoculture, each of us uniform in our cultivated individuality, and walking down the streets of any British town you’ll see these formerly-goth signifiers scattered liberally throughout the crowds of non-goths around you.

If I had to point to a single moment in music ‘history’ that sums up the two-way cross pollination of ‘alternative’ subculture with the mainstream then I’d point to the drum and bass group Pendulum’s breakthrough album Hold Your Colour^*

In the summer of 2005 Colour exploded amongst fans of rock/metal music, broadening their horizons by showing first-hand that the raw, frenetic energy of mosh-able music could be captured – nay, surpassed – by electronic dance and physically bringing the in-vogue D&B music into rock festivals and ‘alternative’ venues. It certainly helped that D&B could get us dancing in a limb-bungling style that was easy for us ‘too cool to dance’ alt-kids to adopt beyond the voluntary ugliness of the pit. Pendulum’s most interesting quality was their love of rock/metal, including their manner of dress (lots of black, ear-spacers, other piercings, tats, etc), and their second major album In Silico (2008) went even further by explicitly fusing structural and  elements of these styles with D&B, going on to be an even greater success with sections of the rock crowd. Metal kids going to raves, mingling with the ravers, inviting the ‘alternative’ to come in from the cold; the genie’s out of the bottle, the cultural sea level rises, the continuum continues.

* for non-UK readers that’s an optional post-high school education establishment for kids aged 16 to 18.

** which I suppose was the whole point of actually being a goth really… every one of us likes to think that we’re a special snowflake. Also I suppose I should make it clear that I’m specifically referring to goths in this spiel, not “people who like heavy metal and/or punk” because there’s plenty of them still around (but not so obviously demarcated by appearance as they were in the recent past).

^ You know what I mean: the heavy heavy metal and its subsequent evolutionary offshoots/branches (of which there are far too many to make it worth listing, many of those defined by characteristics which are very esoteric to outsiders).

^* The significance of the album format, with its individually structured tracks (including choruses) that stood on their own almost as ‘songs’, shouldn’t be understated. D&B fans and other ravers typically listened to mixes with the emphasis on the performed ebb and flow of the live set over individual tracks. The album form both suited Pendulum’s rock influences and commodified their music in a form that was immediately intelligible to the rock/punk/metal kids (like me) at the time. When I went to Pendulum “gigs” I expected to hear them play Tarantula and Voodoo People. Hell, many of their fans still refer to them as “a band”.

Punk’s emotional prison

Continuing with this post’s theme of stuff that was relevant to my specific and subjective experience of being a teenager in the early 2000’s, I’m going to talk about Green Day and The Offspring. “Oh fuck no, please don’t do that… I’m going to stop reading” I hear you say (and you’d probably be right to do so) but I promise you it (hopefully) won’t be as horrific a reading experience as you might expect.

Once again I should hasten to point out that everything that follows in this section is unfair and unbalanced. For the sake of weaving together a convenient oppositional story I omitted Blink 182’s Take Off Your Pants and Jacket and all of Greenday’s grungy 1990s material (i.e. that time when they were really very good). Feel free to skip to the next bit.

Amongst people who enjoyed these two bands, back at their commercial peak in the early 2000s, there was often a debate around which of the two bands was “best”*. While these debates were utterly futile since (being young and stupid) we lacked any sort of critical faculty beyond “I like this one the most”, there was one clear winner in terms of popularity and is was their work which went on to have the undeniably greater influence on the commercially ascendant emo/pop-punk/screamo scene music that was to come in the next few years. That winner was Greenday with their album American Idiot**. and of course the assertion implicit in the voices of those who sang along to the album’s eponymous single was “I am better than those others, I am a special child”  a notion that was continually reasserted throughout an album which made a nominal pretence of social conscience but mainly focused on the emotional turmoil of getting dumped. Their “Jesus of suburbia” concept spoke directly to the experience of their target audience, suburban white kids undergoing hormonal awkwardness, but did little to take them beyond that known space in the way that The Offspring sought to with Ixnay on the HombreSmash and roughly 60% of Americana.

Not that The Offspring are remotely guiltless when it comes to the growth of navel-gazing in punk. Their most contemporaneous albums to American Idiot were Splinter, which wasn’t any good and mainly focused on a narrow range of emotional states, and their Greatest Hits (which was doesn’t really count) but their slide towards the self-important emotional prison of 21st century punk was well under-way with Conspiracy of One^, the follow-up to Americana (and you could argue that all the warning signs were present in that album too, with the likes of No Brakes and the woeful Feelings). Its singles, Original Prankster (a best-forgotten sequel to Pretty Fly), Want You Bad (a humorous love song) and Million Miles Away (a standard-issue homesickness ditty with a cool guitar riff and somewhat catchy chorus, at least to a 15 year old’s mindset), neatly illustrate the start of the band’s downhill lyrical trajectory.

Once pop-punk and its audience mutated into emo, a genre that’s essentially all about you and your precious feelings, you’d have a real struggle to find anything by the MTV-approved bands with the social conscience of these tracks:

or self-effacing humour like this:

And so, after the Offspring’s peak, came American Idiot.

And after that came My Chemical Romance.

And that’s when the punk in me died.

* The correct answer is “The Offspring”.

** Remember those? They used to come on something call a “compact disc”. #oldman #getoffmylawn #youknownothingJohnSnow

^  Conspiracy was commercially stunted by The Offspring’s dispute with Columbia Records over Napster (the band wanted to use the first wave file-sharing phenomenon to give the album away for free – a move you’d never see from the likes of Greenday and it preceded Radiohead’s widely praised “innovation” with In Rainbows by the better part of a decade). As a consequence they never again got the kind of marketing push that Greenday or Blink 182 later enjoyed, though its probably for the best as they had evidently started to run out of chords in their later years. 

Mumford and class

Fucking hell… did any of you see the results of the Brit Awards? If this is the best that British guitar-music can achieve today (it isn’t) then the industry as it exists might as well give up*. Here’s a challenge for you: listen to the (award winning) Mumford & Sons track below and then think up at least three things that are distinctive or inspirational about it. I’ve probably heard loads of their music on the radio but I must have quickly forgotten about it because – honestly – I’m struggling to remember anything about this song, even the chorus, and I listened to it immediately before writing this paragraph.

Actually that last sentence was probably a little unfair of me. I remember the banjos and banjos are generally okay by me… but “okay” is the defining characteristic of that song. It’s all so safe; so patronisingly, stultifyingly safe**. The whole thing is crying out for a coked-up lunatic or born-angry young rapscallion^, possibly fresh from reading K-Punk’s Capitalist Realism, to stomp on stage with swagger and actual balls, kicking over something expensive on the way and screaming “SOMETHING INCOHERENT” before slamming out a killer riff and dying young.  

Matters of taste aside, it does look like there’s been a disappearance of the British working class from guitar music. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not going to go ranting about some elusive ephemeral bullshit like “authenticity” and claim that middle class kids (or really posh kids, in the case of Somethingorother & Sons) are incapable of producing “real” rock or anything stupid like that (especially since there’s a mountain of evidence to the contrary) but I do think it’s sad that there’s seemingly a diminished diversity of voices being represented by the (traditionally broad) rock-pop genre. Music can be many things, mostly fun things, but because it taps directly into our psyches, bypassing the rational software and reverberating the mammalian core of our mostly-simian brain hardware, it also has a unique potential to offer a subtle broadening of the social consciences of its audience. It disappoints me to think that there might be no new Libertines, no Arctic Monkeys, no young Manic Street Preachers, no Verve breaking into the head-space of young chart-listeners and rearranging the mental furniture… just the likes of Mffffnnn & Suhh doing their twee and unchallenging pseudo-charm for the kind of kids who shop in Jack Wills and are well-behaved enough to sit with their parents through entire episodes of Downton Abbey.

* Yes, I’m aware that award shows like the Brits serve little purpose beyond showing us what trends within the industry it thinks is most relevant to itself (and the all-important self-congratulation of its moguls). 

** Listening to Mediocre & Sons again while proof-reading this post and adding the footnotes actually made me feel as though all British culture is turning to shades of Tory and Ukip. Pah. Fuck ’em and their prematurely middle-aged fans. They can all go read the Daily Heil and watch Top Gear like their dads; collectively pretending that Jeremy Clarkson’s patriarchal provocations are somehow “rebellious” rather than merely being another example of the ancient traditions of triumphant selfishness, xenophobia and parochialism that represents so much of the worst of my country’s culture and history.

In all seriousness I’m not saying you’re a total shit for liking Mumble & Slog but – because I believe most people are fundamentally decent at heart – I know you’re capable of doing so much better. Please don’t let me down again.

^ Either that or Prince with his screaming hyper-phallus of musical electro-joy

whywerehere

Yes, let’s remember why we’re here. It’s time to talk about something good…

musicismagicmusicismagicmusicismagicmusicismagic

There’s this graphic novel* called Phonogram: The Singles Club (by writer Kieron Gillen, artist Jamie McKelvie), it’s all about music and it’s bloody brilliant. Imagine a world where music is literally magical (not so different from our own then) and in that world there’s a night club in Bristol, a special/ordinary night of special/ordinary music where various young/less-young folks go for various known/unknown reasons. That’s surely the vaguest and least effective summary of a story I’ve ever written but forget about that because The Singles Club is not so much about events as it is about people’s perception. The art is beautiful in its precision and confidence, with McKelvie producing a masterfully subtle range of expression in his characters, and Gillen’s ideas and themes should resonate with anyone who enjoys music (meaning you, obviously). It seeks to explore the way music works to construct our identities yet also enables us to transcend or escape from our sense of self, utilising the refracted lens of seven diverse characters who are all occupying the same small space and short time to bring different ideas, emotional states and interpretations of music into focus. I guarantee you’ll find yourself identifying with at least one of the kids in the story or you’ll know people just like them. Click play on the embedded song below and take a look through the images that follow**. The rest should speak for itself.

longblondes

* Well it’s a comic really (they’re all comics, even that one you think it’s socially acceptable to admit to liking) but if I start by saying that it’s a comic you’ll think “what like Spider-Man? lol stfu” and you wont read it, regardless of its brilliance.

** You’ve probably noticed that all the images from elsewhere in this post are from the same comic. This is totally deliberate^.

^ It was not deliberate. Not at first anyway.

Of course the inherent irony of the kind of ‘music writing’ in this article is that most of it is wrong (except for the bit about Phonogram, I really do know what I’m talking about when it comes to comics). There could be millions of goth kids hanging around the bike sheds of this world, sneaking cigarettes and feeling their emotions; it’s true that The Offspring’s guitar riffs were often infuriatingly same-y while many of their songs were just plain bad; Mumford & Sons probably mean something significant to somebody out there, maybe even you; and most of you won’t bother to read Phonogram or even listen to the tracks I so very thoughtfully embedded here.

The point, if really there is a point to be found, is that music matters beyond the immediate pleasures of its sounds; it is not trite or banal to say that music forms the soundtrack to our lives, informing the patchily recollected lived stories which become the basis of our shared experiences, individual identities and sense of self. Stories matter and the music which underscores our stories is more important to us than any of us can ever really know, exerting a subtle yet significant influence on our momentary existence and how we reconstruct that daily life into something far greater than its accreted facts.  And that’s (possibly) why I wrote all that stuff you just read.

“PHEW! SO IT’S ALL OVER THEN? CAN I GET BACK TO MY LIFE NOW?”

Not quite. Finally, here’s a little bonus for any masochists who made it this far through my torrent of garbage and bile; it’s Chvrches with their live cover of Prince’s I Would Die for U (hey that’s two Prince links in one webpage!) and if YouTube takes this video down for copyright infringement again I’ll be… I’ll be a little bit miffed:

(There’s actually some much better audio quality recordings of this on youtube that I’d recommend you check out but I wanted to use one with live footage because golly-gee crikey their singer is really rather lovely.)

Peace out yo.

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