Flamboyant Darkness: Female-Fronted Goth Bands Subvert Gender Norms

Salt Lake City metal band Subrosa—which includes musicians Rebecca Vernon, Kim Pack, and Sarah Pendleton—says their sound owes a lot to goth music.

With The Cure and Bauhaus’s David J touring the globe this summer and fall, it would be easy to think goth culture is experiencing a comeback. In reality, though, the genre of dark beauty never went anywhere.

Born as an offshoot—and in many ways an antithesis to—punk, goth emerged in the late 1970s in a swirl of black clothing, theatrical makeup, and sky-high hair. Its sound followed in the moody, dramatic footsteps of bands such as the Doors and the Velvet Underground, often creating eerie or suspenseful atmospheres as backdrops for emotional and nihilistic lyrics. Where punk made room for kids to be angry, goth made room for a range of other marginalized feelings: sadness, alienation, dread, and loneliness.

There was a time in the ‘80s and early ‘90s when goth seemed to be everywhere. Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Cure, and the Sisters of Mercy were on the pop charts. Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands were hit films. Even fashion house Dior’s Poison perfume embraced the dark-fairytale aesthetic that was key to goth culture.

But then came the commodification of goth with Hot Topic and Marilyn Manson, who was arguably—if accidentally—a big part of the reason goth faded from the mainstream. After the massacre at Columbine High School in 1999, rumors started that shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were goths and fans of Marilyn Manson (they weren’t). Schools across the country began cracking down on “goth kids,” barring students from wearing black clothes, trench coats, weird makeup, and spiked collars to school.

Goth may have gone underground after Columbine, but it didn’t shrivel up and die. Far from it: Listen, and you’ll hear it in all sorts of bands. Newer generations of musicians who fell in love with goth’s spooky, ethereal, reverb-soaked vibe and its willingness to embrace humanity’s shadow side brought those elements into fresh musical contexts. While more than a few—including In Solitude, Grave Pleasures, and She Wants Revenge—have brought classic goth and goth rock wholesale into the present day, others are grafting goth onto black metal, drone, folk, and witchy pop to create new blossoming branches on the dark-music family tree.

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One such band is Salt Lake City’s SubRosa, whose dramatic doom rock is big on atmosphere laced with soaring violins. Despite being decidedly on the metal side of the fence, SubRosa’s Rebecca Vernon, Kim Pack, and Sarah Pendleton all acknowledge that goth music was a huge part of their musical upbringing and feeds into the music they make today.

“The goth movement, to me, represents a stylistic, musical, and expressive bravery; a fearlessness of shadow and being unknown or underappreciated,” Pack says. She remembers the goth kids at her high school being fearless outcasts who rebelled against mainstream culture and embraced a beautiful style all their own. Those impressions stuck with her and come out in her work with SubRosa, whose new album, For This We Fought the Battle of Ages, comes out August 26.

Vernon agrees. “I feel like there was a sense of purposeful rebellion in the early goth movement, a sensitivity towards the darkness and absurdity of this world, a sense of disquiet, unease, and alienation that carries over into our music.”

Ides of Gemini. Photo by @mattsigns via the band's Instagram.

For those who like their goth music unadulterated, there’s Los Angeles–based Ides of Gemini, whose dynamic goth rock evokes the spooky, witchy energy of early-‘80s bands. Frontwoman Sera Timms is a powerful force onstage, wielding her bass in flowing black dresses, dark hair, and a massive bird-of-prey necklace at her throat.

Timms says she wasn’t consciously influenced by earlier generations of goth music, but she definitely felt a kinship when she explored it.

“I actually discovered goth by being compared to Siouxsie Sioux a long time ago, which led me down a rabbit hole to the whole ‘80s goth scene,” she says. “I still occasionally get compared to her and take it as a great compliment.”

Timms says she sees goth’s influence all over today’s underground music scene—particularly in West Coast bands inspired by the Chameleons, Ministry, Bauhaus, and the Cure.

In goth music, Timms says, there is also “a general state of discontent with the status quo, and a romantic notion that something more beautiful might be experienced by creating art and music which transcends the monotony and spectacle of today's society.”

Prolific guitarist and songwriter Emma Ruth Rundle finds a variety of ways to weave gothic elements into her music. Rundle caught audiences’ attentions with her expressive work in Red Sparowes, which has toured with goth godfather Nick Cave. More recently, Los Angeles–based Rundle formed Marriages with Greg Burns and Andrew Clinco. While Red Sparowes’s sound leans in a moody, shoegazey direction, Marriages sounds more like what you’d get if you locked the Sundays and early-years Dead Can Dance in a dark room together. Meanwhile, Rundle’s solo work is dark, acoustic, and often ethereal—a kind of unplugged sister to her Sargent House labelmate Chelsea Wolfe, one of the best-known musicians in present-day goth.

Emma Ruth Rundle 

Rundle, whose new solo album, Marked for Death, drops in September, says she sees goth’s influence all over her music, particularly in her fondness for reverb and minor chords and her love of darkness.

Although she is often compared to goth artists of yore such as the Cocteau Twins, Rundle says such comparisons are flattering but inaccurate, and that the complex distinctions between women musicians are often ignored: “All us women wearing anything black or flowing, or perhaps even in well cut-button downs, will all be put into the same space ship of sadness and sailed into the nothing.”

There’s often a ceremonial, even ritualistic element to goth-infused music. That’s certainly true of European doom-rockers Lucifer, whose frontwoman, Johanna Sadonis, often takes the stage in black robes and leads the performance like a medium channeling spirits. Sadonis says that she fell in love with Dead Can Dance as a teenager and tries to bring that duo’s otherworldly sensibilities to her work.

“Maybe this is not detectable musically much as it is more connected to my internal universe,” she says. “But it is a feeling that I always search within music. This eerie, ceremonial feeling rises within me.”

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Some of today’s goth-inflected bands take things in a softer, gauzier direction, like San Francisco Bay Area–based Them Are Us Too. The duo, Kennedy Ashlyn and Cash Askew, say they’re often compared to the Cocteau Twins, which they find both appropriate and “really frustrating, because the similarities are pretty superficial,” Askew says. “We're definitely not trying to replicate or rehash existing music.”

The duo Them Are Us Too. Photo by Kristin Cofer.

Other bands, like Montreal-based thisquietarmy or Seattle’s Mamiffer, push the ethereal in a more unsettling, drone-based direction. Helmed by Faith Coloccia and Aaron Turner, Mamiffer makes music that often seems placid on the surface; the band’s latest album, The World Unseen, evokes madrigal-style chanting over spare piano. But beneath that calm surface, washes of static and noise bleed through like the suspense-building soundtrack of a psychological horror film.

Coloccia says she’s adopted those concepts of difficult beauty and emotion into her work in part because they leave room for listeners to interpret the music in their own ways. Onstage and in the studio, Coloccia says she also plays with different performance roles, “using what has been historically seen as weak or submissive and revealing the power and strength inherent in emotion and beauty or the feminine in music and sound.”

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Indeed, one of goth culture’s most important and lasting messages is that the feminine is something to be embraced and celebrated. Goths who are male, female, or elsewhere on the gender continuum are encouraged to dress up, play with makeup and presentation, to be flamboyant even in their darkness. Although goth’s beauty standards have often been exacting—calling for slender, almost alien looks—they also make room for people to explore.

Like goth itself, the culture’s androgyny and gender play has its roots in 1970s glam and particularly in David Bowie, Sadonis notes. (And, indeed, Bowie’s vampire film, The Hunger, remains a touchstone for many old-school goths.) Coloccia says she loves how goth culture continued that exploration and redefinition of gender. “It felt very welcoming to see men disregarding stereotypical male stage presences and methods of creating and instead welcoming and playing with female or gynocentric-based ideas of performance, living, experimentation, and composing,” she says.

SubRosa’s Pack agrees, noting that goth culture has made space for expressions of dark, powerful femininity for women, but it has especially done so for men, who are traditionally discouraged from showing that side of themselves. It has also made space for transgender performers like Anohni and Them Are Us Too’s Askew.

“As a young teenager I was definitely attracted to goth and new wave in part because of the androgyny,” Askew says, “and that aesthetic gave me a way to explore my gender expression before I could even come to terms with being transgender.” Still, the bulk of today’s goth and musical realm is still “clean-cut straight dudes in black jeans,” Askew says. That, combined with the fact that goth is full of femmed-up men, leads to some frustration, Askew says. “People don't think I'm a freak for looking the way I do, but they still see me as a man most of the time, and it's really frustrating.”

SubRosa’s Pendleton says by breaking gender and psychological barriers, early goth musicians made it easier for today’s generation to get straight to what making music is all about: emotional expression.

“I think what has made it easier for us as musicians now is the hard work of those that came before us, singing and playing from the deepest part of themselves with everything they had to give.”

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This article was edited on August 10 to fix a quote that was misattributed to Emma Ruth Rundle. We apologize for the error. 

by Beth Winegarner
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Beth Winegarner is a widely published journalist and the author of several books, including "The Columbine Effect: How Five Teen Pastimes Got Caught in the Crossfire and why Teens are Taking Them Back." For more, visit www.bethwinegarner.com.

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