What Being Goth Taught Me About Feminism
Female electronic duo Switchblade Symphony were amongst the more popular artists with '90s goths.
Sometimes in the middle of the night, after a few hours of heavy swirling at our favorite goth club, Björk commanded, "Shh!" We stood still, fingers quietly pressed against MAC-stained lips, face makeup sweating off our brows as we scanned the crowd for dance-floor pals. We grabbed a hand, ready to spin and dip when the jazzy, big band part of "It's Oh So Quiet," kicked into motion.
In the latter half of the 1990s, L.A. goth clubs weren't so much about a genre as they were about a vibe. Goths had already been around for more than a decade at that point, but the crowd at the clubs was young enough to still be impressionable. And we took many of our cues from female artists.
Over the course of any given night out, Siouxsie Sioux, our spiritual leader, directed us to the "Red Light" that swathed the dance floor. Nina Hagen gave us the news from Radio Yerevan night after night via "Born in Xixax." Elizabeth Fraser transmitted incomprehensible messages through Cocteau Twins.
Other times, the female influences were more subtle. If we turned into a "Human Fly," Cramps guitarist/co-songwriter Poison Ivy was partially responsible. Marc Almond's voice could bring us to tears, but on the Marc and the Mambas' goth-club staple "Black Heart," the drama was heightened with the contributions of his collaborator, musician/composer/DJ Anni Hogan.
I think about this time often, particularly in light of the constant "women in music" conversation. In the last handful of years of the 20th century, I was a college girl well-read in feminist literature, well-versed in Riot Grrrl anthems. I knew sexism existed and that it was a powerful force in music. But I didn't find any of that in the goth clubs. In that scene, I felt free. It wasn't an overtly political space, but it's where the message of feminism hit me hardest, and made the most practical sense.
Women at 90's Goth Klub, a retro goth night at the Lash in DTLA
Photo by Levan TK
Within this community that met nearly every night at some Hollywood club, young people could create their own identities. You could change your name, dye your hair, pierce your face, become a person completely unrecognizable to the "you" that existed in your suburban high school. Even if many chose to wear all black, there was plenty of room for freedom of expression. You could show up to the club in a cloak, covering everything but your made-up face. Or, you could hit the dance floor in your underwear. It didn't matter. Guys could wear a skirt, heels and/or makeup, and it was no big deal. This isn't meant to romanticize goths — scenes always have their issues — but the one thing they still do very well is give the finger to gender norms.
But the openness of the goth scene goes beyond just the freedom to dress as you please. It has long been a safe home for LGBT people and has been influenced by a number of different non-mainstream views on subjects ranging from sexuality to spirituality. All that came together in a way that made this a music community where women and men were on relatively equal ground.
The contributions of women in the goth scene were valued. We saw their names on album liner notes and their bylines in genre-specific zines. We saw women onstage frequently; one of the more popular groups at that time was Switchblade Symphony, a female duo who made synth-centric music. We heard the work of women over and over on the dance floor, either in the form of an individual song or a mix played by a female DJ. A young woman could walk into this space and know that she could become an active participant.
When I got involved in the goth scene through DJing, gender wasn't an issue; I was neither the first nor the only woman to drop a This Mortal Coil track to a roomful of spooky dancers. I played alongside male DJs who were my friends, and we respected each other. I would ask them their opinions and vice versa. People took me seriously as someone with a passion for music and a desire to learn more about it, and that came as a great relief.
The rest of the world, though, isn't as inclusive of women. I felt that later while branching out into different music communities and different pursuits. The barrage of "You're a chick, what do you know?" cracks is frustrating, but thanks to that time in the goth scene, I had built up enough confidence to stand my ground, even when the dudes get really insulting. I came from a place where the contributions of women had value, and no snide comment from a clubgoer or patronizing reader email can erase that.
That L.A. goth scene that I joined years ago has morphed over the years. There are many more clubs now hosting more parties with more clearly defined genres and subgenres. The influence of the women, though, remains strong. You'll hear them whether the nights lean more toward rock or synth sounds, retro tunes or new school jams. You'll see women in the DJ booths across town playing dance nights or in between bands at shows. You'll see women onstage in various capacities.
On the occasions that I play out, I know the ladies have an effect on my sets, too. When I grab new music for the crowds, it's frequently from artists like Savages or Grimes or Purity Ring. On the dark side of music, the influence of women is strong and, even as the fashions and genres have changed, it's good to see that this has remained.
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