Goth culture: Darkness at noon

Goth is cool again, though now it's called emo. Liz Hoggard charts a craze that has reached from Siouxsie Sioux, via Marilyn Manson, all the way to The Horrors
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The Independent Culture

When the NME put an unknown goth band, The Horrors, on their front cover, displacing the Arctic Monkeys as the cult band of the moment, it caused quite a stir. For a start, The Horrors only formed 10 months ago. Their signature tune, "Sheena Is a Parasite", lasts only one minute and 20 seconds. But already the ghoulish five-piece from Southend have achieved more than 300,000 plays on MySpace. Without any television exposure, they've built up a huge, underground network of teenage fans.

The Horrors look like Victorian undertakers. Their lead singer Faris Rotter favours indie-glam dressing: pussy-bow blouses, mushroom hair and tons of mascara. "They look awful and sound terrible - but so did The Sex Pistols," says the NME editor Conor McNicholas. But then goth is this season's biggest fashion story. Look through the September issues of Vogue and I-D, and you'll see sooty-eyed models with powdered white skin and jet-black hair. Topshop and River Island are shipping in autumn's gothic-inspired collections - heavy, fussy clothing in sombre shades. Such is the buzz about The Horrors that hundreds of fans are turned away from their chaotic live shows. Jarvis Cocker was an early fan. He played "Sheena is a Parasite" on a Radio 4 show about rock. When the legendary music-video director Chris Cunningham heard it, he was so impressed he persuaded the Oscar-nominated actress Samantha Morton to take part in the promo (which was promptly banned by MTV). Their latest single, "Death at the Single", is likely to go through the roof.

While the Arctic Monkeys pioneered social realism (chip shops and unrequited love), The Horrors believe that rock'n'roll is all about fantasy excess. Their heroes are Johnny Depp (playing the dissolute 17th-century poet the Earl of Rochester in The Libertine) and Screaming Lord Sutch. Their music - essentially screaming over a primal rock riff - is raw but urgent. "At last a band parents can hate", proclaimed one headline.

Each decade throws up its own goths: Siouxsie (1970s), The Sisters of Mercy (1980s), and Marilyn Manson (1990s).

"The coolest people of my age are emo," explains fan Zoe Apostolides, 15. "They tend to be the middle-class intellectual kids who have started to view the world differently. They spend a lot of time in their bedrooms reading, but they also love films like Donnie Darko, or TV shows about death and horror such as Buffy or Six Feet Under."

With his drainpipe jeans, winkle-pickers and mad hair, Russell Brand is very new-goth. Even Posh Spice is getting in on the act. Last week she paraded her new look. Gone were the bling and long tresses of the footballer's wife. In came a radical bob and black nail varnish.

Goths' predilection for black clothing (their styles of dress borrow from punk, Victorian, even Renaissance influences) is a reflection of the black aesthetic - taking those things society regards as evil or wrong and making them beautiful. And this season the skull is everywhere - cropping up on belts, ties, T-shirts and swimwear. Since May, the New York store Barneys has sold more than 400 of Alexander McQueen's skull-print silk scarves (sported by Sienna Miller), while Damien Hirst is threatening to cast a life-size skull in platinum, adorned with 8,000 diamonds.

The skull is all-purpose," said Sasha Frere-Jones, a music critic at The New Yorker. "It simultaneously refers to horror movies, to the misfits and, by extension, all punk rock, and to a generalised culture of blackness and spookiness and the larger, mall-Goth culture."

The original goth music was a working-class youth culture that grew out of punk as a response to Thatcherism. Some people even credit Bauhaus's first single, "Bela Lugosi's Dead", with the start of the subculture.

Key bands included Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Sisters of Mercy and The Mission. The opening of the Batcave in London's Soho in July 1982 provided a prominent meeting place for the emerging goth scene, which the NME had previously labelled "positive punk".

Posh is, of course, pioneering glossy goth: chunky belts, accessorised with tough leather boots and ludicrously expensive designer bags. But if you want to encounter goth in its rawest form, check out gigs at London's 100 Club and the Astoria - where you'll find fans, their faces smeared in black paint, pogo-ing to bands such as The Horrors, The Alkaline Trio and My Chemical Romance.

And they aren't wearing Stella McCartney. "These aren't particularly rich kids," observes William Higham, founder of the trends forecasting consultancy Next Big Thing. "They're not into consumerism. They'll buy T-shirts from band websites on line, but it's pretty cheap and cheerful. It's not so much about the fashion for them, more a uniform."

Emo is camp, androgynous even. If anything it's the women who are stronger than the men. But emos are not cynical - they believe in open displays of strong emotion. "The lyrics are very emotional, all about personal issues," says Higham. "They're closer to music like The Smiths than they are to grunge.

It's even cool to be seen sporting a novel in your back pocket (Dostoevsky or Oscar Wilde). And anyone visiting the Tate's recent exhibition, Gothic Nightmares, a study of supernatural themes in Henry Fuseli and William Blake, will have noticed the number of black-clad teenagers. Goths get a bad press, but earlier this year Sussex University's Dunja Brill published a study on the goth scene in London, Brighton and Cologne. "Most youth subcultures encourage people to drop out of school and do illegal things. Most goths are well educated, however," she observed.

"It's not so much about being an outsider and railing against things as old goth bands did," says Higham. "It's more about a heightened sensitivity. In fact, quite a few of these emo bands are Christians. Emo is very much straight-edge. It's not really about drink and drugs, or even sex before marriage."

Although they range from left-liberal to anarchist, goths have no set political agenda. The emphasis is on individualism, tolerance of diversity, and creativity.

"Classic emo books include Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray, Bram Stoker's Dracula and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein," says Apostolides, "because they deal with narcissism - very emo - and horror. In fact, emos and goths are very well educated - so parents should be reassured that this culture is an art-form rather than something 'scary' to avoid."

But it's true that the alienated stance of the goths suits our age. "I think we're looking for something darker generally, it's the whole memento mori thing. We're scared in the West," says Higham, citing the example of global terror threats. "We're more aware of the possibility of death."

Emo has always been a cool, underground cult in the UK. As of this week, however, it has gone global, thanks to Posh. Will they ever forgive her? "I think it will make a few more mainstream kids start investigating, so maybe the ranks of goth and emo will swell a bit," says Higham. "But I think for the people who are really into it, they're not going to bail out now. It's their whole life."

THE NEW GOTH CULTURE

Films:

Donnie Darko, Brick, Ghost World, The Libertine, Pirates of the Caribbean 1 (but not 2), The Ring (the original Japanese version), The Lost Boys, The Notorious Bettie Page, The Omen, The Nightmare Before Christmas, A Clockwork Orange

Bands:

The Horrors, My Chemical Romance, Funeral for a Friend, Alkaline Trio, Dirty Pretty Things

Tv Series:

Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Alias, Six Feet Under, Kingdom Hospital

Goth Fashion:

Pussy-bow blouses (and that's just the boys), drainpipe jeans, band T-shirts, winklepicker shoes, biker boots or Doc Martens, ripped jumpers, jet-black or peroxide-blond hair, lace, hoodies and rucksacks, tons of mascara and mushroom-cloud hair

Venues:

100 Club, London; Junk Club, Southend; Astoria, London; Lady Luck Club, London; Victorian churchyards

Musical Influences:

Fifties surf, Sixties garage and psychedelia, Eighties UK indie, Nineties grunge

Shopping:

Camden Market in London; Oxfam and Laurence Corner (cheap); Stella McCartney, Alexander McQueen and John Galliano (couture)

Heroes:

Rochester, Byron, Screaming Lord Sutch, Marilyn Manson

Heroines:

Angelina Jolie, Buffy, Milla Jovovich, Dita Von Teese (Manson's wife)

Literature:

John Webster, Aubrey Beardsley, Shelley (Mary and Percy)

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