What Characterizes Goth Music?

Goth music is a broad subgenre of music that shares close ties with post-punk music and draws inspiration from several other styles, such as glam rock, punk and some New Wave music. An entire "goth" subculture exists that embraces goth music as well Romantic literature and fashion and gothic horror writing - although not all "goth" bands lend themselves well to this subculture (and indeed this goth subculture is a relatively new creation). Goth music itself can range from ethereal and haunting to edgy and aggressive, and like anything that has to do with musical genre classifications, getting people to agree on what is and isn't goth music is tricky. One thing most goth fans can agree upon is that there are three main waves of goth music, each with its own important bands and unique characteristics.

First Wave of Goth

The first wave of goth music is loosely defined as the period between 1979 - 1985. The goth music from this area first appeared in the UK and were closely tied first to the UK punk scene and the hugely influential burgeoning post punk scene. In fact, many bands from this period of goth would be just as at home on a list of post punk bands. Later, many New Wave bands were involved with this first wave of goth in the UK.

Although many of these bands had a specific fashion sense - dressing in black, often wearing make-up (a nod to glam rock), there was no identifiable "goth" subculture per se. In fact, the term "goth" did not even come into use until 1981, when a writer at Sounds magazine, a British music mag, referred to the band UK Decay as "punk gothique" - and even then, it really did not catch on and start sticking to bands until 1983. Later in the first wave of goth, a subculture did begin to form, especially around the famous Batcave club in London, but it was quite different from modern goth subculture.

Some of the most influential bands in music, goth or not, came from this first wave of UK goth, as did some of the most important goth bands ever to emerge. A few of the most recognizable names are:

  • Joy Division
  • Siouxie and The Banshees
  • Bauhaus
  • Danse Society
  • The March Violets
  • The Sisters of Mercy

British bands were the main players in the first wave of goth, but there were goth bands coming out of other areas of the time. In particular, Australia contributed the beloved The Birthday Party (though they relocated to London). Other notable non-UK goth bands of the period were:

  • Xmal Deutschland (Germany)
  • Siglo XX (Belgium)
  • Clan of Xymox (The Netherlands)

Second Wave of Goth

The second wave of goth took place roughly between 1985 - 1995. During this period, goth music grew in popularity and goth bands began to spring up around the world. The New Romantic movement, influenced by New Wave, shared many influences with goth bands, and the genre expanded to include a wider variety of music styles. The post punk influenced goth bands began to fall out of favor, but new, more ethereal sounding goth bands like The Cocteau Twins and Dead Can Dance rose in popularity (thanks in large part to the seminal label 4AD).

Goth also began to find its way into the mainstream to some degree. Mainstream music magazines began to write about goth as a genre of music and "goth culture" began to take hold. Goth fanzines and goth clubs began to spring up around the world.

An important goth offshoot style emerged during this period - Industrial. Industrial goth shared more ties with punk music than did the ethereal goth of 4AD style bands. Synthpop also went goth during this period, and these goth synthpop bands were the central part of goth's crossover success.

Some of the important goth names from this wave are:

  • Red Lorry Yellow Lorry
  • Cocteau Twins
  • The Cult
  • Masochistic Religion
  • Skinny Puppy
  • Depeche Mode

Third Wave of Goth

The third wave of goth runs from 1995 - the present. Goth went well into the mainstream during this period, thanks to the popularity of acts like Marilyn Manson and Evanescence (acts that many would consider to actually be pseudo-goth). A new kind of goth subculture emerged during this time, especially during the early 2000s - the so-called "mallgoth." While technically not goth, bands like Marilyn Manson gave a rise to the mallgoth - the rebellious teenager catered to by chain stores like Hot Topic. The shocking (albeit studied) look of mallgoth kids, combined with a vague linkage between mallgoth culture and the Columbine shootings, earned goth a negative reputation in mainstream culture during this third wave.

Quite apart from the mallgoth movement is a relatively underground group of new goth bands, especially bands on the Projekt Records and Metropolis Records labels. The sales may have peaked during the second wave of goth, but the music genre still carries a lot of weight in terms of influence.

Get Your Goth On

For a more complete history of goth music, visit these sites:

What Characterizes Goth Music?