by Ellen Barry, photos by Dana Smith
It depends on whom you ask, of course, but some say the modern goth movement began with Siouxsie Sioux, who used the term to describe the Banshees' new direction in the late 1970s. That new direction was a retooling of punk; the Banshees, along with Bauhaus and Alien Sex Fiend and Sisters of Mercy, translated straight-out punk fury into a more dreamy, magical sound. Although proto-goths like Sioux and Peter Murphy and Robert Smith have steadfastly disavowed the term "gothic," they set off a ripple effect among London's young dispossessed. At a club called the Batcave, starting in 1981, the tribe of fans began to form. The cultivated their look, romanticized it. They turned punk inward.
From the very beginning, goth spoke to the particular world-weariness of the middle-class adolescent. Its followers were alienated by their parents, who were prosperous, and by their classmates, who were preppy, and by the culture at large, which was cheerful. All around them, the '70s were ending in a paroxysm of human potential and disco dancing. Who can blame them for reading too much Keats?
At any rate, they did. They fell upon the thorns of life. They bled. And this, in part, explains why every time goth is near death -- by some counts this has happened five times in 20 years -- it springs up from the gurney and sashays back out to the dance floor: it taps into the natural attraction of young adults to the morbid or the grotesque, without requiring them to drop out of society. (The first wave of London goths may have been squatters, but these days goth can be reconciled with a serious commitment to school.) Initiation tends to follow a predictable pattern: a slightly shy, slightly intellectual kid stumbles onto the first world she has encountered where nonconformity is celebrated. The first time she goes into a goth club is the first time she feels at home in a crowd. At that point, the darkness becomes fun.
Shannon Davis, a 21-year-old Smith senior who is also known as Nepenthe, says her own evolution began when she was 16 and cultivated a flamboyant combination of black boots, a black hat, and a Robert Smith hairstyle. One day a girl in her gym class, deputized by her friends, came up and asked Davis if she was a demon. At that moment Davis realized she was no longer disturbed by not fitting in.
"You feel like you have some sense of control," she says. "It is one way to set yourself apart from everyone else. It's saying, `I'm not like you. I'm wearing black now.' "
Cusr?ue puts it a little more bluntly. Goths tend not to be "mathematically beautiful," he says, but they work with what they have.
"Put me in jeans and a T-shirt and cut my hair and I'm a virgin," he says. "You have to figure when I'm going through puberty I was approximately this big and I was the brainiac from planet X-9. And there's just no way I'm going to pull chicks like that. But let me build around myself something extra, and . . . it's just like the animal kingdom. It's all about plumage."