Mall Goth: A Chemically Castrated Romance

I’m putting the finishing touches on an essay this week that, surreally, I won’t be publishing in English.

Last month I received a really exciting commission to write an essay to be translated directly into Italian and I’m excited about it because it has given me an opportunity to have a dry run at an introduction to my second book which I’m already thinking about and working on.

I’m thinking it’s going to be some short tract on accelerationism, the Gothic and modernist literature but I’m not entirely convinced that all the different strands I have mapped out will hang together as well as I hope they will…

Anyway, it’s opportunities like this that allow me to go deep into topics in a way that makes for good book chapter trials down the line, so I’m hugely grateful.

I won’t give too much away in terms of what this new essay is about — more information on that in the New Year most likely — but, for the most part, I’m dedicating it to the current state of the Gothic and, more importantly, I’m expanding on what I think the “xenogothic” is.

I already have a short explanation on my ‘About’ page but it has so far felt really good to expand on that definition with some receipts and references.

The “xenogothic”, for me, is an involuted term for the Gothic’s own internally propulsive outsideness. It is what Deleuze called “a witch’s flight” and what Wilhelm Worringer called the Gothic’s “will to form”. It’s that unique momentum that has allowed the Gothic to subvert all the forms that have previously defined it whilst still retaining a sense of aesthetic continuation. It is that drive that has allowed the Gothic to survive for almost a millennium whilst all other artistic movements and trends have found themselves tied up and closed, reified into recognisable types.

This is not to say that the Gothic isn’t under threat from capitalist co-option, of course, and we’ve already seen this happen over the last thirty or so years. So, in the essay, I explore how the Gothic has been reduced to a commodity form whereas previously it has represented a proletarian fugitivity from capitalist control whilst excavating a subterranean xenogothic that still — albeit slowly — moves the Gothic forwards.

I pay particular attention to how, on the surface, Goth, as a music genre, seems to have been the Gothic’s last hurrah. The translation of a Gothic sensibility into the sonic opened the door for its commodification and, unfortunately, it seems like the 2000s “mall goth” moment was its final form and death knell.

Thankfully, despite this, there are still plenty of examples of a resilient xenogothic tendency to be found in our contemporary subcultures that treats the capitalist subject with a fresh contempt — Gazelle Twin’s “Belly of the Beast” is probably my favourite — but I’m nonetheless spending a lot of time at the moment trying to figure out what went wrong and this is partly what I’m using this new essay as a vehicle for.

This morning, I found myself embroiled in writing a ridiculously long footnote after having something of an epiphany but it feels like too much of a tangent even for footnote status. Instead of binning it, I thought I’d chop it up and distill it here instead for future reference. This might even turn into a short series of posts where I share my cut-offs from this essay for posterity.

Danny Baker has this Twitter bugbear that I really enjoy where he decries the resurgent popularity of Freddie Mercury and Queen as a musical entity that, for him, acted as lighter fluid for punk’s explosive emergence on the UK’s cultural stage.

He has posted a lot of tweets about this over the years:

It seems to be an opinion that has been getting him in hot water for almost a decade online — Queen are a national treasure apparently — but I don’t see how anyone can disagree with him. The band’s post-prog embrace of decisively uncool monarchist and bourgeois sensibilities is something I have always felt a violent revulsion towards and, the fervent reappraisal of Mercury’s own identitarian Venn diagram aside, I have never understood their elevation to pop darlings — something which has only gotten worse over the years with the beatification of Mercury’s legacy in film and on stage.

What’s more, I have always associated them with Goth’s more recent death rattle.

When I was growing up, as I’m sure was the case for most people my age, “Bohemian Rhapsody” was somehow still this giant classic rock anthem, thirty years after its initial release, cryogenically frozen in a cloud of embarrassingly pop-American decontextualisation, where everyone loved to recreate that scene from Wayne’s World for some reason, treating it as a genuine headbanger instead of some bloated slab of embarrassing bourgeois pomp. (More on America’s tone-deafness regarding class and cultural production tomorrow.)

In the mid-2000s, this revulsion came to a very surprising head for me when the corpse of Freddie Mercury was reanimated by Gerard Way and his emo megaband My Chemical Romance. Their 2006 “concept album” The Black Parade was this weird self-aggrandisement of emo that sought to elevate the genre’s stature by tying it to some woeful prior standard of sonic experimentation and high culture — specifically, late prog, glam and the “rock opera”.

The influence of Queen was particularly explicit, with the biggest nod towards their idols being their echoing of Mercury’s sexy camp marching band schtick.

Maybe this says more about the state of the cultural landscape in 2006 more than anything else but somehow the record found itself receiving considerable critical acclaim as some sort of post-hardcore innovation. At school, the hype around it pissed me off more than anything. As far as goth was concerned, it was the year of Liars’ Drum’s Not Dead and Scott Walker’s The Drift, but fat chance that was going to compete with the mid-2000s frenetic cultural stasis. (I was very bitter about it — for some reason, all these years later, I still sort of am…)

In hindsight, I think I have an better idea as to way. My Chemical Romance and The Black Parade have long been a bugbear of my own, akin to Baker’s Queen obsession.

It was precisely Gerard Way’s blatant aping of Queen’s stage aristocracy and faux-military pomp that made me despair at the emo kids in my midst as a teenager. Most of them were my friends but I didn’t understand where they were coming from. This wasn’t innovative. It was mind-numbingly nostalgic for a moment in musical history that I thought Goth was supposed to be against. Their cross-pollination of Goth decadence with their love of Freddie Mercury and Queen felt like a monstrous betrayal of all that Goth originally stood for and against.

It still does.

Their importance to the “mall goth” moment of the 2000s is surely, in hindsight, unsurprising. I only wish they’d stayed dead. We certainly don’t need them right now.


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