I've been thinking a lot about Goth lately. I missed the advent of Goth almost entirely. In my youth I was a devotee of Punk and New Wave, a child of the second British invasion. Goth didn't really get going until just about the time I was entering the workforce and my own attentions were focused on coming to grips with adult life in a capitalist society. Thus, it wasn't until quite recently that I started paying attention to the Goth aesthetic and musical forms.
Right now some of you are nodding knowingly and some of you are looking puzzled. The puzzled ones are the folks who, like me, missed out on the Goth sub-culture and have no idea how closely Steampunk and Goth are related.
It's really a great shame that I so totally missed the advent of Goth, because I think I would have enjoyed being a part of the that community as I find that I really like a lot of the music as well as the dark aesthetic. Given the love I've always had for Hallowe'en, this should surprise no one.
Libby Bulloff, one of my fellow contributors here at The Steampunk Workshop, wrote a really nice piece titled Paint it Brass – The intersection of Goth and Steam which ran in SteamPunk Magazine #4. In Paint it Brass Libby catalogs some of the similarities of these sub-cultures, at one point she writes:
Goth borrowed the anti-establishment do-it-yourself attitude from 1970s punk and post-punk culture, married it to the lush and forbidden hedonism of glam rock, and swirled in a liberal dose of Romantic fashion stolen gracefully from the Victorians.
Sounds familiar, doesn't it? More recently, I read Jillian Venter's Gothic Charm School – An Essential Guide for Goths and Those Who Love Them. This is a book I had seen mentioned again and again in my twitterstream and finally just had to order. Gothic Charm School is ostensibly an etiquette guide for Goths, however, the advice given by "The Lady of the Manners" is entirely applicable to any subculture, including Steampunk.
Ms. Venters begins with a brief overview of the history of Goth and then breaks down, analyzes, and offers salient advice for many situations faced by those who look and act somewhat differently than the mainstream. Some sample chapter titles are: "Help! I'm a Goth and My Parent/Friend/Significant Other/Coworker Doesn't Understand Me!," "Goths and Romance," "Socializing, Cliques, and Gossip," along with others covering fashion, clichés, and club etiquette. Every sigle one of these chapters is filled with well written and highly entertaining advice that is just as apt for the Steampunk as it it for the Goth.
In fact, I'll be passing my copy on to my eldest daughter who, while neither Steampunk nor Goth, I am sure will find it full of most useful advice.
"Steampunk" as a made-up word is easily traced to it's origins, a letter from author K.W. Jeter to the editors of Locus magazine describing a nascent literary genre. But the moment that Steampunk morphed from a literary genre to something that people self-identified as, is harder to pin down.
Goth, on the other hand, has had more time to develop it's own creation myths. Ms. Venter's examines some of the classic touchstones of the Goth subculture in Gothic Charm School , she nutshells it thus:
The Goth subculture as it is known today began as an offshoot of punk rock that mixed a flair for the theatrical and a fondness of campy horror movies."
Ms. Venters goes on to single out the song Bela Lugosi's Dead by Bauhaus as signifying the start of Goth's "current dark flowering." She specifies current because she holds that Goth as an aesthetic influence has a far longer history. She goes on to cite the influence of Gothic architecture of the Middle Ages, and more to the point, the Gothic Revival movement of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
Flowing from those influences we have the Gothic novels of the late ninetieth century, works such as Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights, The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole, and of course Bram Stoker's Dracula and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.
Moving into the twentieth century many of these novels were adapted into movies that become hits and all-time classic films. These later influenced the 1950's horror film genre Goth has such close alliance to and begot the television classics of the 1960's such as the Addams Family, The Munsters, and of course Dark Shadows.
If we accept the release of Bela Lugosi's Dead as Goth's seminal moment then Ms. Venters is correct when she says that "this current incarnation of the Goth subculture has been gliding around elegantly for almost thirty years now." She goes on to cite the movies of director Tim Burton calling them "key modern Goth touchstones" as evidence of Goth's influence in mainstream culture, these most notably being Beetlejuice and The Nightmare Before Christmas.
This was a bit of a "Eureka!" moment for me. You see, each and every one of these Goth touchstones has it's Steampunk analog. Steampunk as a literary genre was created in the 1980's, but the term has been expanded to include actual Victorian science fiction such as the novels of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, books that were being written close to the same time as the dark novels cited as so influencing to the Goth movement. In fact, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is oft sighted by both–though I'll bet that each subculture has it's own ideas about of what lessons should be taken from that particular text.
These Victorian Science fiction novels also inspired some absolutely classic films in the twentieth century. Films like The Time Machine, Journey to the Center of the Earth and most notably, Disney's 1954 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. These in turn, went on to inspire and inform television show's like Wild, Wild, West in the 1960s and later series such as Q.E.D., The Secret Adventures of Jules Verne, and The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. just as their Gothic equivalents did.
Things do break down a little when one tries to tie Steampunk back to an equivalent of Gothic architecture and the Gothic Revival movement of the 19th century. But perhaps if you allow that the aesthetics of the technology in development during the industrial revolution are what most informs the Steampunk aesthetic and that these styles were indeed heavily and directly influenced by the Gothic, as anyone can see with briefest glimpse of some of the great steam engine cathedrals of the time that this is true, it is not so difficult a stretch.
So what does this all mean for Steampunk? I honestly don't know but I hope that it's an indication that it will continue to grow and increasingly influence the mainstream as Goth has. It also gives me hope that Steampunk will continue to develop core philosophies that go beyond the aesthetics and fashion.
It's often said that Goth is all about the music and fashion and is largely apolitical and lacks social activism. While that may seem to be true on the face of it, I think I have to strongly disagree. While it may be that Goths do not champion a specific cause, or battle a particular foe, it's very clear to me even after brief exposure that they value individuality, tolerance, creativity and respect for human feeling. Any movement that promotes such values among it's members does great social good.
Maybe Steampunk's role will be similar, perhaps with an appeal that will draw in folks with a more technological bent who will take things in a slightly different direction. I also will not be at all surprised if an increased interest in Steampunk results in a resurgence of Goth as people discover, and follow, the cross-over memes. I know that my recent music purchases have been mostly Goth Industrial bands and that recent clothing purchases have been running about 50/50 between the black and the brown.
In any case, 2010 promises to be an exciting year!