by Paul Hodkinson
(RRP £14.99 paperback (ISBN 1 85973 605 X ) + £42.99 hardback (ISBN 1 85973 600 9)
~review by Mick Mercer
In the much-vaunted Global Village, Goth has increasingly been pushed to one side and remained largely unconcerned about its Village Idiot status, but if a book with intellectual reasoning could ever prove to people there is something here worthy of respect it must surely be this one. There is so much about Goth that people don’t appreciate, and a high proportion of that is explained here in a way doubters will find hard to refute.
Initial signs may seem fairly daunting, with the cover blurb announcing it to be a ‘full-scale ethnographic study,’ but we are slipping quietly through the waters of academia here, so it goes with the territory. (Other titles in Berg’s auspicious ‘Dress, Body, Culture’ series go from ‘The Culture Of Sewing’, to ‘Veil: Modesty, Privacy and Resistance’, and ‘New Rainments Of Self: African American clothing in the Antebellum South’. How did he get away with his title?) Qausi-thesis/dissertation combined, this represents Paul Hodkinson’s attempt to disprove post-modern claims that media and commerce break down substantive cultural groupings. It also aims to account for the level of substance of UK Goth from the mid to late 90’s, an interesting time whereby a smaller scene than the early 80’s heyday was stabilising, standing on its own feet and learning to exist in a controlled environment.
Concentrating on the Birmingham, Plymouth and Leeds area, his plan is to highlight the norms, meanings and motivations of those involved. 72 interviews have been conducted, with over a hundred people completing a Whitby questionnaire, so it’s been impeccably researched.
Deceptively, the intro starts light enough, with an account of the ritual of dress and its importance allied to a specific event, Whitby, and briefly deals with his own introduction to the scene, but pretty soon you hit the first wall, and the academic need for qualitative references - Sara Cohen (Cohen 1993), Song and Parker (1995: 243) anybody? – although to a general reader their relevance is lost. This isn’t a handicap because it is the authority of his opinion that we need to believe, but I feel it only right to explain that chapter 2 is a total bastard, where he delves deepest with ‘Reworking Subculture’, and I felt a great sense of relief when it ended.
He genuinely writes like an old professor here. While making it clear he is an insider, he stresses his ability to stand back, detached where necessary, and shows an overview of opinion on subculture itself, which doesn’t seem terribly impressive. Apparently general theories to date suggest that the saturation of media/commerce breaks down collective boundaries, while he proposes a redefinition of subculture, because he says theories may be dismissing the cultural features of scenes.
Theories existing suggest substance only exists in the absence of media and commerce, which sounds positively Luddite. You would think logic itself decrees that everything changes, making old studies infallible, almost pointless. What are Goths supposed to do, balance on branches and sing from tree to tree? It’s a modern world, people always adapt. Only the witless would have failed to realise it was the removal of media/commerce support that saw Goth withdraw once more into the shadows, where nothing has stopped Goth existing creatively.
It reads smoothly enough, once you develop sensible bracket blindness, taking the academic references as read, and completely ignoring them, becoming easier as he begins to move on to the nature of identity as seen, and shared, by Goths. In fact he gets wonderfully carried away with shared identity and there are, we learn, 4 chosen elements to Subcultures; Identity, Commitment, Consistent distinctiveness, Autonomy which he outlines smartly, before moving on to the emergence and development of Style. Early Goth history is largely glossed over and although the contributory evidence from interviewees with largely anonymous ‘quotes’ are cold and somewhat displaced (‘Respondent G4’) this has a clever thing going for it. By referring to virtually everyone by letters and numbers also gives him a great get-out clause. This approach doesn’t emphasise or annoy anyone!
It is nice to see the argument constructed, as they flit through the elements - Clothes (brief), Make up (briefer), Colour and Cultural Items, and it is interesting that you have partial admissions of conformity, also an acknowledgment that image is accepted as being scene-related but not as any great statement of self.
General image signs aren’t enough, as they’re inherited and maybe lazy, so he goes deeper again with his Insiders & Outsiders section, but his cogent points aren’t helped by somewhat lacklustre answers, although glimpses of humour help. He establishes the sense of belonging, as well as the contradiction of open-mindedness where there are no clashes between class/ethnicity/age/gender or sexuality, but there is also feelings of superiority, the occasional pig-ignorant remark, and people being resistant to the mainstream. One of the simplest quotes, ‘there’s no peer pressure within Goth’ makes you sit up, but then with a scene that has virtually nothing going on that people don’t expect, why should there be?
Given the importance Goths ascribe to socialising and nightclubs, which typically rate higher than seeing bands, it was odd to see the description of how Goth lost its ‘alternative’ status not tied in with that attitude, but we can read easily about how Goth clubs or nights blend tentatively, almost blandly, with Rock nights, or the stranger matter of friendships dominated by Goth - ‘romantic and sexual relationships with people outside the subculture were even more unusual, once individuals had become involved’ he writes and yet why, even if married or with kids, would these people then drop out of the scene in such consistently high numbers? What is it in the psychological makeup of those currently involved that will see them eventually slip away once they hit their thirties? There are certain matters that might undermine the substantive claims that aren’t always explored fully, but maybe that has to be accepted. There are limits to the content, where matters that lurk at the periphery aren’t essential to the literary thrust. The bitchiness - maybe best illustrated by the Nightbreed/Whitby contretemps, would have been a perfect example of what devalues substance, but although alluded to, isn’t allowed to intrude. He doesn’t ask whether, in a substantive subculture, Whitby is seen as retreat, and catalytic hindrance, but concentrates on the more obvious affirmative action. Other negative possibilities are exposed, but simply left in place as general characteristics.
He doesn’t hide the surprising and depressing denseness exhibited by people with regard to the music itself, despite there being no real sense of adventure or desire for discovery among people so young, relying more on blind chance or the recommendations of others to find artists. Ignoring such a worrying lack of curiosity, he instead picks up on the glorious matter of vanity and how, once achieving status in their own area, people will travel to gigs to create a new impression.
He doesn’t touch upon the music either, which is understandable, because that’s Art, not the lifestyle of the protagonists - the species itself - even though the sheer variety of musical styles evident within such a small scene could easily have boosted the substantive rallying cry.
Away from individual desire and expression, the matter of Commerce then raises its head . The upshot of chapters 6 – 8 is that not all mainstream commerce is bad/harmful, that Goths enjoy participating, have increasingly developed their own infrastructure and support system, showing ingenuity and dedication in the process, and ends with the internet greatly enhancing the whole scene. Now this isn’t rocket science, and he doesn’t show it off as such, but it’s methodical, and extremely detailed.
Contributing/Producing/Selling Goth, an altogether gentler read, deals with people being involved, and the reasons for that; doing something, for even slight status, displaying devotion, accurately showing the self-reliance
Buying Goth is stating the obvious, and Communicating: Traditional Media is an amusing chapter, where although the fear and accusations of ‘selling out’ aren’t raised, you still have people seen to be decrying success, yet liking signs of signs of it (Placebo, Garbage, Manson etc) even though the scene never benefits, despite many admitting they originally got into this through mainstream media! Such is Goth! He’s surprisingly wrong about early 80’s fanzines, which often spread the word at gigs quicker than the press, but there is good coverage of flyers
Online Media is circumspect and honest, chronicling the fading of net.goth celebrity with the all-consuming growth of internet activities. Hodkinson covers it all, resolutely sticking to what’s happened, and personal enthusiasm can’t be part of the process for him. Always analytical, and never aloof, which is rare skill, he must get quite frustrated writing in this way, but the measured tone, and eye for relevant developments is rewarding.
As he covers the newsgroups and lists, I didn’t think the examples people gave of what they got out of it, or how they became increasingly involved, really did justice to how the net is, by its obvious impact and popularity, traditional media now (as it was from maybe ’97 onwards), and the importance of the work of the main people in helping Goth survive with their introduction of the early forms of Goth communities would have added to his substantive requirements, so it was strange to see this not dominating, but that again must be the nature of an unbiased approach.
This book requires you make an effort, but it will also do what he wants. It will make sense to other people. (My girlfriend knows nothing about Goth, but realises that with her background she’ll be able to read and understand this far better than my own work.)
It’s a real pleasure to see such a difficult task delivered in such a coolly adroit, unexcitable manner, but having gone from fear (Chapter 2 will give you nightmares!) to beautifully explained insights, the final chapter is something of a flat disappointment, because you have to accept that the book, while accessible, can never be called a wonderful read. It is imparting facts and specific opinion, to reach a conclusion, but his summation lacks the triumphal declarations I’d anticipated. If anything, it reads like a company report to shareholders; allowable because he must still adhere to a professional style, but it isn’t hard hitting enough when he is reaching what I assume is his cri de couer.
Academic texts don’t normally engender excitement outside a closed community, it being the nature of the beast, but I don’t see anything wrong in recommending this to anyone but the happily self-proclaimed dim. It’s not the easiest of reads, true, but it is never academic masturbation either. It’s a wonderfully absorbing account of a set time period and will reward further re-readings, because it’s dense, unfamiliar ground rules aren’t immediately graceful enough for you to digest everything. (On a design point, it’s a shame that Sarah Wainright’s pictures which, while not exceptional, are nice intimate portraits, haven’t translated properly from colour to black and white, which certainly isn’t her fault)
It’s quite odd to note how many Goth books are currently being published, or planned. It seems obvious to us that the genre itself has enough involved to make different types of books possible, but it’s pleasing to see publishers taking it seriously, which is another tick in the substantive column? This book is one you can argue with, on what is, or isn’t, there, but in covering the overriding approach and ambition, it’s clear he’s largely ignored the who, what and when, in favour of the more relevant why and how. Most of you will come away thinking, but I knew all this, I get the main points, why did it have to be so prosaic and long-winded? It really isn’t, because what may be subconsciously known still needs visual exposure, and laying it all out like this does everyone connected with Goth a great service.
This is a certificate of authenticity.
‘Goth’ by Paul Hodkinson can be obtained via the publishers, Berg for the special price of £11.99 PB / £34.39 HB when you order online (RRP £14.99/£42.99) http://www.bergpublishers.com/uk/home.htm
If you prefer to buy from Amazon.co.uk – (Amazon.com only have the hefty hardback version, which contains no extra photos, but is nearly three times the price) the price is £14.99 – at: http://www.amazon.co.uk/exec/obidos/ASIN/185973605X/ref=pd_sim_b_dp/202-2669977-9859830
(Why not do Paul a favour by going via Berg to buy it, because it will impress upon them, quite quickly, how successful his work is compared to some of their other authors.)