The Big Dark Secret at the Heart of the Gothic

Christopher Patrick Nelson on the anatomy of being Gothic.

Music reviewers, especially in England, always want to be the first to proclaim a new trend or movement, even if they have to help form it. Hence, the popular conception of the Gothic is false. How so? Well, the two main schools they usually name are heavy metal (Black Sabbath or Paradise Lost or Type O Negative) and post-punk (Bauhaus or Echo and the Bunnymen or Gene Loves Jezebel.)

Both supposedly Gothic schools built on prior musical traditions, with blues and classical elements in the former, or with glam rock and psychedelia in the latter. However, neither metalheads nor post-punks only played songs about the undead. None of the original members of either supposedly Gothic school wore all black as part of their image, either. They followed the fashion in clothing for their times, the early 1970’s and the early 1980’s, respectively. Black Sabbath wore bellbottom blue jeans, large belt buckles, fringed jackets, mustaches, and collared shirts in their promotional pictures. Bauhaus wore rather colorful attire for their appearance on Top of the Pops. There was no uniform. It was the media that labeled these bands as they did, because of certain remarks in interviews, specific songs, and individual album covers. However, as they went about setting the sonic foundation for the darkly-inclined of later years, the musicians roamed widely. Siouxsie and the Banshees did German-style cabaret. The Cure did tons of heavy-on-the-one funk, even on the Disintegration album. Fields of the Nephilim did straight up country & western! The old school (and not just the Sisters of Mercy or Depeche Mode) had hit singles and huge followings. The current movement does not. And why is that? Well, the press told youth hungry for identity that the pure form existed, but it didn’t, so they created it themselves. Yet the foundational authors, poets, painters, filmmakers and musicians sought to represent the human drama, which purity does not.

Just because Edgar Allan Poe dreamed up “The Masque of the Red Death” doesn’t mean he didn’t also laugh himself silly as he typed out “A Tale of Jerusalem.” Tim Burton’s first major motion picture was Pee-Wee Herman’s Big Adventure. (Have you seen a picture of Pee-Wee Herman?) If we, the elegiac, wish to afford healthy food, avoid gangs, and pay our rent, we must reach the masses with art that shows a balance, we must conquer the world, as the kings and queens of mournful contemplation did (or at least Europe). As Emilie Autumn has pointed out (in not so many words) in interviews, artists are not better than other people. We can reach out to the public creatively. So, if we want to write a lush, verdant I-perceive-the-Creator-through-Nature piece bookended by two ghost stories, we can break our chains and do it. This is the big, dark secret at the heart of the Gothic, hidden even from many practitioners: creative freedom. Without that access to the vivid, we wind up with everyone who ever went to the Batcave Club in 1982 denying their part in the gloom aesthetic, because they see it as a straightjacket made of clichés. And we’re not madmen, are we?

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