Peter Murphy, photo by Jason Thomas Pitzl

Rockism, Popism, and Goth

Jason Thomas Pitzl
Jan 11, 2015 · 6 min read

By Jason Pitzl-Waters

The last couple of decades have seen a slow critical reappraisal of several artists and musical genres that were once deemed frivolous, emotionally/politically shallow, or lacking in artistic depth. This movement, dubbed “popism” in recent years, rebels against the “rockism” of the previous generation, which, in the words of Kelefa Sanneh at the New York Times:

…means idolizing the authentic old legend (or underground hero) while mocking the latest pop star; lionizing punk while barely tolerating disco; loving the live show and hating the music video; extolling the growling performer while hating the lip-syncher.”

Perhaps the first true beneficiaries of this sea change in criticism were the disco genre, and the club/dance-oriented subgenres in its wake. Writers like Bill Brewster, Frank Broughton, and Alice Echols exposed the undercurrents of homophobia and racism within anti-Disco sentiments, reforming the once-despised (by some) genre to a point where discussion of its artistic merit and influence could be done without knee-jerk assumptions or a protective satirical veneer. After disco, everything from heavy metal to teen-pop started receiving critical revision, correcting some of the excesses and biases inherent in the handed-down critical wisdom that formulated the 1960s-70s (“classic”) rock canon.

But while un-ironic critical love can now by found for any number of chart-topping pop acts, this rising tide hasn’t lifted all the musical boats. The goth genre (and its related offshoots) remains an easy target of scorn for some, and ignored by others. Despite its ongoing influence on modern music, its ability to thrive and survive in ever-changing times, and an ever-growing library of establishing albums, this black-clad musical milieu awaits a serious reappraisal.

Why hasn’t goth gotten its due? I think there are two reasons. First, many of the seminal first-wave goth bands have been “de-gothed” to varying degrees, and safely distanced from the easily-caricatured adoring fan base that religiously bought their albums and attended their concerts through thick and thin. Bands like Bauhaus, Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Birthday Party, and Killing Joke, among others, were now safely categorized as “postpunk.” Postpunk was arty and adventurous, hipster-friendly and marketable. It meant a headlining spot at Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, instead of obscurity within a niche musical subculture.

This re-branding was relatively painless, since many first-wave and proto-goth groups hated the “Goth” tag anyway, and it allowed up-and-coming bands (and their critics) throughout the past decade to talk about their “postpunk” inspirations without fear of invoking the commercially inviable “G word.” Can you imagine Karen O and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs climbing their current commercial heights, if they’d been labeled as merely another Siouxie-emulating goth band? But Siouxsie herself has been de-gothed; rock critic and author Simon Reynolds contends, “the Banshees had outgrown the Goth audience” by as early as 1983.

While such re-branding efforts helped some goth bands (re)gain critical respect and capture new fans, and allowed several new bands to emulate formative goth sounds without fear of being pigeonholed, it did little for the many second-and-third-wave goth and darkwave bands who were comfortable with/in the goth subculture. Instead of being recognized as continuing the unfinished business of a previous musical era, as neopostpunk bands were (with stylistic nods to Joy Division or Bauhaus), they were routinely ignored by critics — or seen as derivative, when they weren’t ignored. While some goth innovators were rehabilitated into a new form of hip respectability, the term “goth” was still a pejorative to the tastemakers.

The second reason goth, as a musical genre, isn’t getting its due, is that it’s been stuck in a critical limbo between the rockist and popist camps. Is goth a glam-influenced arty and experimental pop-music, spun out of late-1970s postpunk, or a somewhat silly Alice-Cooper-channeling-Jim-Morrison-with-drum-machines classic-rock homage? Since the real answer to this question has often been “both — sometimes at the same time,” it’s been hard for either camp to fully claim it. Dave Thompson, in his book “The Dark Reign of Gothic Rock,” tries to absorb goth into Team Rockism, creating a canon of “dark rock” (Sisters of Mercy! The Mission! Bauhaus! The Cure! The Cult!), declaring the musical genre a “sinking ship” by the 1990s, and all but ignoring any band formed after 1985. Meanwhile, Simon Reynolds, in “Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978–1984”, talks about goth’s “rapid degeneration” from postpunk anti-rock experimentalism into rockist “macho” psuedo-heavy-metal, starting with the advent of The Sisters of Mercy, and culminating with Cult lead singer Ian Astbury fronting the classic-rock nostalgia act, the New Doors.

So at best, within the critical context, goth is split between its experimental beginnings (recuperated as “postpunk”) and its “rockist” decline — and, at worst, is simply a lunkheaded irony-impaired form of classic rock that wears sunglasses after dark. Both Thompson’s and Reynold’s views are reductionist, and ignore the last twenty years of music created within the goth scene. They aren’t alone. As I’ve mentioned in previous essays on the topic, many think goth (as a thriving musical genre) simply ended somewhere around 1990, or that the torch, if it was passed to a new generation, was carried forward by Nine Inch Nails and that band’s various imitators.

What’s been missed is that in the 1990s, alongside second-wave “Gothic Rock” acts like Nosferatu and Rosetta Stone (who took direct inspiration from the more rock-oriented tendencies of The Sisters of Mercy and Fields of the Nephilim), were several bands that typified the sort of musical adventurousness characteristic of the first innovators so praised by critics today. Reynolds himself acknowledges this, positively referencing the “studio-savvy post-Goth” of the 4AD label, though it’s clear, by his use of the term “post-Goth”, that something distinctly not-Goth was happening, at least in his mind. But such a goth/postgoth split wasn’t experienced by scene participants, who experienced the various musical threads spinning out from the “fret-scraping guitar scree” of “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” as weaving the web of the greater goth musical family, whether they were called Darkwave, Deathrock, Neoclassical, Neomedieval, or plain old Gothic Rock.

This inclusive spirit is certainly in ongoing evidence at Germany’s Wave Gotik Treffen, a yearly goth festival in Leipzig that draws over 20,000 fans to a mix of first-wave goth reunion acts alongside neofolk strummers, experimental weirdness, “dark” postpunk revivalists, haunted indie-rock, and darkwave veterans. Here, it becomes clear that the “rockist” proclivities of goth have always coexisted with experimental non-rock tendencies. One style may become more fashionable for a time, but the pendulum is always moving. This makes it hard to fit modern goth into a neat critical box, perhaps explaining the dearth of real narrative history of the goth musical scene post-postpunk.

Critic Jody Rosen, writing for Slate.com, argues that the ultimate promise of popism is an honest reappraisal of genres that have long earned music critic scorn. Rosen asserts that writers should “spend some time trying to understand other’s tastes rather than building ideological buttresses to bolster their own.” An honest look around the current musical underground would show how goth in its various forms has helped bring some edge to postpunk-influenced indie, some darkness to drone, and some menace to the ongoing waves of underground electronic dance music.

Goth, like heavy metal and disco before it, is long overdue for a thorough critical overhaul. There are dozens upon dozens of bands that have missed the attention they deserve, because the genre was thought too silly for the rockists and too serious for the popists. Goth was mistaken for a fashion instead of a force. Twenty years after they thought goth returned to the grave, it’s time for mainstream music critics to see if that coffin’s been empty all along.

Originally published at theskysgoneout.org.

    Jason Thomas Pitzl

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