Maybe you’ve made a conscious effort to bypass goth music your entire life. Maybe you’ve listened to some bands and didn’t even know they were goth. Surprise! They probably are. But don’t worry, I’ve been there too. I realized goth rock was a genre that I had never spent a lot of time thinking about. Images of goths (mostly from media... to be fair, I don’t think I’ve encountered many goths in person) I had seen throughout my life made me curious about what kind of music they would listen to. Upon first glance, I had the assumption goths must be fans of heavy rock music with lyrics that were poetic yet saturated with imagery of things goth people liked (vampires, the color black, Edgar Allen Poe references, etc.), though simultaneously incomprehensible through screams into the microphone. While my assumptions seemed pretty sound, this was the perfect opportunity for me to dive headfirst into the iconic subculture. In the beginning, I was intimidated, but quite early on I realized there was no need to be worried. Goths are just like you and me, and the music they listen to is quite beautiful. If you’ve found yourself in this situation before, fret not. I have come to the rescue with a beginner’s guide to help guide you understand what IS goth music?
Below, I have attempted to answer some frequently asked questions about the goth genre. Music very often transcends genre boundaries (and those are already inherently flimsy to begin with), so draw your own conclusions. I’m just here to get you to possibly expand your music repertoire!
- What makes goth music goth?
Defining any genre is difficult and once you start thinking about it too much, what you end up with is more questions than when you began. The minute details, like a band within the circle of “goth music” using a synthesizer might also be grouped in with new wave, despite clashing aesthetics. I’ve found the line between goth and new wave, punk, and shoegaze is very thin and ultimately, the lesson we should take away is that genres shouldn’t be defining features of whether a song is good or not.
With that being said though, goth music is very often (but not exclusively) categorized by the following attributes:
- Monotone vocals
- Themes referring to “taboo” subjects such as sex or death
- Sometimes the songs have a more minimalist approach when it comes to instrumentation taking a long time to build up to the “whole” (see: Bela Lugosi’s Dead); some songs will sound echoey, almost industrial and kind of distant (Pornography); others may sound similar to any other rock music you might hear from the 80s (Get Out of Control). None of these aforementioned characteristics are absolutely necessary though, so it’s important to recognize that while a song might not sound goth, the band who wrote the song will likely answer whether it is or isn't goth.
I’m also not the final word on what makes a song fit into one genre and not another. These are just some characteristics I’ve found are pretty similar throughout many goth bands’ discographies. Just because I consider Misfits to be goth, that doesn’t mean other people can’t consider them to be punk. But honestly, have you ever seen a goth without a Misfits shirt? Exactly.
- Who “invented” goth music?
Traditionally, Bauhaus is held in high regard as the “founding fathers” (or gothfathers, as I’d like to suggest as a more festive alternative) of goth rock, and for good reason. Their music incorporates many of the quintessential “goth elements”, such as gloomy guitar riffs played echoing into the abyss and the adoption of occasional synthesizers to mix things up a bit stylistically. A little nudge into new wave territory never killed anybody. A good depiction of the difference between “mainstream” music and goth music can be heard when comparing David Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust” and Bauhaus’ cover of the same song.
Alternatively, Siouxsie and the Banshees formed in 1976 (compared to Bauhaus’ 1978 conception) so an argument could be made that Siouxsie and the Banshees pioneered the goth sound. Siouxsie and the Banshees originated in the punk area but settled naturally into the goth scene upon its creation in the late 70s/early 80s. Likewise, Joy Division emerged around the same time as Siouxsie and the Banshees and Bauhaus, among others. Joy Division is also often cited as a huge influence for many goth bands that followed in their footsteps.
As a whole, goth music didn’t just come out of nowhere; there is a long line of influences, both sonically and aesthetically, that lead up to the emergence of a true goth scene. Regardless of whoever was “first”, we must remember that title minimizes influences that preceded the genre. Familiarizing yourself with the genres that spurred the development of new movements (like goth) is incredibly helpful, not only as an introduction to new songs you might enjoy but also because it can help you appreciate the music more in a way. Perhaps goth music wouldn’t look so intimidating (from an outside perspective) knowing a lot of their visual characteristics developed from glam rock stage productions’ dramatic theatrics.
- Who should I listen to as an introduction to goth music?
This is all about personal preference. If you like the classics, you can’t go wrong with Bauhaus, The Cure, Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Damned, Skinny Puppy, and Depeche Mode. If you want a more international goth palate try: Clan of Xymox (aka Xymox), Pink Turns Blue, and Xmal Deutschland. If all of this is confusing and you just want me to provide a link for something you can click play without too much thought, great news! This playlist is just what you’re looking for.
With the recent resurgence of goth aesthetics making an appearance in the mainstream, it would be remiss of me to not give it the recognition it deserves. Since its emergence in the 80s, goth music (and style!) has been extremely influential in fashion and the development of later genres such as grunge and emo rock. Find songs that speak most to you—there’s no wrong way to listen and enjoy the sweet sounds of goth music.