For many, the wide-ranging cultural phenomenon we now call “goth” ended sometime in the mid-to-late 1980s,with a stereotyped core of face-painted corset-wearing fans keeping the faith alive in dim basements and hole-in-the-wall clubs across America (a stereotype ruthlessly satirized in the late-90s era SNL “Goth Talk” skits). It was as if ex-Bauhaus frontman Peter Murphy's “Deep” (featuring the hit “Cuts You Up”), The Sisters of Mercy's “Vision Thing”, Love & Rocket's 1989 self-titled commercial breakthrough, The Creatures' “Boomerang”, and The Cure's “Disintegration” encompassed a collective last gasp of that misunderstood and oft-maligned musical genre. If post-1990 “dark” music was mentioned at all by rock critics or historians, it was usually (and often negatively) referencing the rise of Nine Inch Nails, Marilyn Manson, and their numerous chart-making Industrial-rock also-rans (Filter, Stabbing Westward, Gravity Kills, etc).
But while mainstream attention turned away from all things “goth”, or mistakenly equated “goth” with Marilyn Manson's legion of “spooky kid” followers, those inspired by the first wave of UK goth bands, and by America's own home-grown “deathrock” scene (sparked by Rozz Williams and his band Christian Death), were quietly building a network of club nights (the longest running, Death Guild in San Francisco, founded in 1993, is still active), networking on alt.gothic (founded in 1991 on Usenet, and soon leading to the yearly Convergence festival, founded in 1994) , and starting their own bands. This flowering of second-wave bands in the 1990s were often lumped together under the moniker of “darkwave”. Darkwave bands were often more club-friendly than their post-punk predecessors (dance clubs often being the main transmission point for new music in this era), and included everything from hard-edged experimentalism to ethereal soundscapes.
If there is a “golden age” of darkwave, then it started in the early-to-mid-1990s, which saw key releases from seminal bands like Faith & The Muse, Switchblade Symphony, and Sunshine Blind, and the ascension of specialty labels like Projekt, Tess, and Cleopatress closed up shop, and many popular disbanded or entered long periods of creative hibernation. Also at this time, the online service Mp3.com, providing unsigned and niche bands (including many goth and darkwave acts) with an easy way to distribute free samples of their music, was sold off, its service discontinued. It would be years before sites like MySpace, Bandcamp, and CD Baby rose to fill the vacuum created by its loss.
However, musical genres or “scenes” never simply end, and while the Golden Age of Darkwave may have passed, a number of veteran artists kept making albums, new bands continued to form, and a handful of record labels continued to promote them. Indeed, modern goth/darkwave music, while seemingly stuck in a semi-permanent cultish underground in America and the UK, in Europe has flowered, spawned new sub-genres, and found something akin to mainstream acceptance, particularly in Germany, home to Wave-Gotik-Treffen and M'era Luna, the world's largest goth festivals, each drawing crowds over 20,000 annually. In Germany, it isn't unusual for acts like Unheilig to share space on the singles chart with Lady Gaga, and there's been a noticeable exodus of American and UK goth/dark-focused musicians and promoters to Germany in recent years.
Currently, rumblings from the American underground point to a new resurgence of interest in this creatively vital, and sorely overlooked, thread of musical expression. Darkwave stalwarts Faith and the Muse, who have regularly put out albums since their debut in 1994, are engaging a new American tour for their recently released album “ankoku butoh”, which seems to be prompting/promoting a mini-resurgence of the genre. Several of their dates feature opening acts that double as reunion gigs, which will be as exciting to veteran goth scenesters as is the looming Pavement reunion to aging indie rockers. The California dates alone feature neo-cabaret pioneer Jill Tracy, who last released an album in 2008 (after a six-year hiatus), Pagan darkwave favorites The Shroud, who last put out an album in 2002, and the infamously too-goth-for-Andrew-Eldritch Sunshine Blind. The tour will also see them play a gig with former Tess labelmates Autumn, as well as The Ghosts Project, from Paul Mercer of The Changelings.
Aside from the nostalgic thrill of seeing some of these bands again, and the possibility that some of them may be inspired to put out brand-new material, it could also illustrate how the American/UK dark underground has been influencing, sometimes perhaps subliminally, the recent crop of darkly-inflected indie-rock darlings. Madison-based band Zola Jesus' sound on their latest ep “Stridulum”, and 2009 full-length “The Spoils”, spotlights a sound (and a look) that, had it debuted 15 years ago, would have meant critical isolation in the goth “ghetto”. The ethereal ambient-drone of Portland's Grouper would fit in just fine at Projekt Records. Pitchfork Media described Cold Cave's 2009 album “Love Comes Close” as “synth-pop, post punk, new wave, atmospheric industrial,” but an easier shorthand would have just been "darkwave."
If the current trend in music criticism has been away from the rockist notions of authenticity, with its suspicion of synthesizers, hostility towards romanticism, and ambivalence towards queering gender norms, perhaps we can finally reevaluate the 1990s goth/darkwave underground and give it its proper place in the canon, as when writers like Simon Reynolds acknowledged the place of first-wave goth in the post-punk continuum. We may even reach a point where using “goth” or “darkwave” as a descriptive term isn't a thinly-veiled insult, but is one that bands wear with integrity. Finally, we can eliminate the incorrect narrative that states goth died twenty years ago, and that what did survive (or rose from the grave?) wasn't worth mentioning.
On Facebook, I recently got a heads-up about a Pagan music festival being planned for October. The name?
The Festival of Pagan Music That Doesn't Suck
Being that I am someone who likes music that doesn't suck, I immediately checked it out. The proposed line-up so far reads very much like a partial who's-who of what I would call the "Third Wave" of Pagan festival bands/musicians.
"Do you want to see S.J. Tucker / Skinny White Chick, Tricky Pixie, The Traveling Fates,Heather Dale, Alexander James Adams, GB Mojo, Gypsy Nomads, Kellianna, Celia, and more of the best pagan musicians at the same event?"Why "Third Wave"? It's an arbitrary distinction I created while researching the history of Pagan and occult music. The "First Wave" of Pagan festival bands are seminal artists like Gwydion Pendderwen, Isaac Bonewits, Jim Alan & Selena Fox, and others who hatched the idea of a self-consciously Pagan music created for Pagans from the primordial ooze of the 1970s. The "Second Wave" are artists who emerged, and saw the peak of their popularity, between 1985-1995, some examples include Kenny Klein and Tzipora Katz (aka Kenny and Tzipora), Holly Tannen, and Ruth Barrett. These artists were working during the explosion of Pagan festivals, and some are still touring and performing at them. The "Third Wave" started in 1995, and includes many of the artists listed above. These performers are often influenced by non-folk styles, enjoy some measure of popularity outside the Pagan festival scene (even if it's at other subcultural festivals), and some are reluctant to be seen solely as "Pagan" musicians.
To be honest, I'm surprised a festival like this is only now emerging within a Pagan context. While many Third-Wavers get gigs at Pagan festivals, they still have to compete with their predecessors, and with a melange of Baby Boomer-friendly artists that cater to the demographic majority of paying festival goers (in the Pagan context). This has meant that many modern Pagan bands/musicians get gigs, when they get gigs, outside a specifically Pagan context. Fantasy/Sci-Fi conventions, neo-tribal gatherings of various flavors, goth, faerie, or steampunk events, Renn. fairs, and other subcultural havens that Pagans congregate to.
So in a certain sense, even if done subconsciously, this festival is a shot across the bow of Pagan festival/event organizers. It says "you are losing the younger generations", it comes right out and says what many Pagans from the younger generations have been thinking. That most musical options to be found at Pagan events don't speak to them, that they, in their opinion, suck.
It is a message I can certainly empathize with. As the guy behind "A Darker Shade of Pagan", I can attest that my own personal search for darker (and in my mind more vital) Pagan and occult music was partially born from my frustration at what I was told "Pagan" music was. The stuff sold, often in cassette form, in any number of New Age and metaphysical/occult shops. Endless circle chants, warmed over folk-rock, over-earnest Goddess balladry, New Age reincarnated dolphin synth-washes, and "rock" that often refused to "rock". I was squarely in the "Pagan music sucks" crowd for some time, which is one step up from "ignoring the cultural output of the Pagan community entirely" crowd, a group that is far larger than some would care to realize.
So in a sense, I should be excited to see a "Festival of Pagan Music That Doesn't Suck", but I fear they are walking into a trap. The first is that when you draw your line in the sand, but don't set any parameters as to what, exactly, doesn't suck, you'll find yourself flooded with offers from artists that don't live up to your non-sucky standards. After all, I doubt any musician or band truly thinks they suck. Most will instead remark to themselves that they certainly do not suck, and that they should offer to play at this festival forthwith, creating some bad blood when you start turning folks away (because you are saying, by not including them, that they suck).
Secondly, they are creating a festival that is more about what they are against, "sucky Pagan music", than what they are for. Successful music festivals cater to a certain aesthetic or subculture. Whether it's hippy-jam-bands, goth, esoteric freak-folk, or indie rock, they all know who they want to please. They aren't explicitly branded as rebellions against a nebulous musical "other".
Finally, for a showcase of what "doesn't suck" in Pagan music, it's awfully uniform in style and substance. Which isn't to say I don't think some of the participants are talented or worthy, only that a goodly chunk of the proposed line-up centers around the orbit of (the immensely talented) S.J. Tucker. Tricky Pixie is a side-project of SJ Tucker, Alexander James Adams is a member of Tricky Pixie, Heather Dale is pals with Tucker, The Traveling Fates is another Tucker side-project, and GBmojo is a duo that makes up the other 2/3rds of The Traveling Fates. That's 2/3rds of the revealed so-far line-up! Now maybe they have a lot more planned, but at this point it hardly seems like any kind of definitive statement about Pagan music (sucky or not) as a whole. In fact, it seems somewhat unadventurous. Sure to please fans of the S.J. Tucker orbit, but hardly drawing in all the other folks "dissatisfied with the quality of music at your pagan festivals".
Where's the plethora of Pagan and occult goth and darkwave bands? What about the Pagan metal bands? What about the neo and psych-folk artists? The experimental drone? It seems to me that if you are going to go all out and claim to be the Pagan music festival that doesn't suck, why not go all out? Why not have the Pagan version of All Tomorrow's Parties? Inviting different folks to "curate" the line-up each year. Ensuring that you'll have an eclectic and ever-changing line-up. Or, if you want to have a festival that centers on music in the vein of S.J. Tucker and friends, then do that (like Fairport Convention does), but be clear that this is what you are doing. I realize that this is all armchair quarterbacking on my part, but I'd change the name to something that could have a legacy. One that could educate, enlighten, and entertain, instead of merely cause a minor ruckus by picking a somewhat divisive title.
Again, this isn't commentary on the artists involved. I think Tricky Pixie, Kellianna, and the others are talented folks. I like S.J. Tucker's music, and I very much look forward to seeing her perform at Pantheacon next week. I just think marketing a new event that could be somewhat ground-breaking like this is a bit off. At least, that's my opinion. Maybe I just suck.
That definition is from someone who hasn't been down the idealogical rabbit hole of the Pagan/New Age/occult subculture, he would no doubt blanch at some of the things taken as matter-of-course within certain sections of my wider religious community. I have, at certain points in my life, been a participant or observer in Reiki healing, past-life regression, Chakra alignments, Ouija Board sessions, individual and group spell-work, multiple forms of divination, trance channeling, psychic warfare, and various other occult practices. That's leaving out the purely personal beliefs of some of my co-religionists that I've encountered, which run the gamut from fairly reasonable to whispers of true madness. Today, I'm not sure how many of the above practices I would seriously attest to as being "true".
The personal problem here is that I've always thought of myself as a rather level-headed fellow (as, I suspect, we all think of ourselves). I believe in science, in the advances of Western medicine, in what can be measured. I think that despite the rapacious and morally repugnant foibles of corporate capitalism on the practices of medicine and science, it is Western medicine and science that will eventually deliver us from scourges like HIV/AIDS and other killers. That affordable access to quality health care would eliminate most troubles that people currently seek alternative medicines for. Further, after doing some recent digging, I've been somewhat surprised to see that alt-health proponents are often far more "angry" and conspiracy-minded than the most brazen of hard-nosed skeptic.
For the most part I take a "live and let live" attitude. I've believed a few crazy things in my day, and so long as nobody is getting hurt (or as Jefferson would say, so long as it "neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg") I'm generally sanguine about the woo. It comes with the Pagan territory, and I'm just as susceptible as anyone to the urges for otherworldly aid when it feels like "mundane" tactics are failing. But lately, it seems like the woo-pitchers are getting increasingly strident in their "rights" and claims. When people like Oprah start lifting the anti-vaccine antics of Jenny McCarthy up from the fringes, and endorsing the money-swilling Secret-peddlers, I start to get worried. I worry that the woo is getting elevated beyond its mostly harmless place in the utter fringes, and being adopted by the taste-makers. To a place where people could really get hurt. I also worry that my increasingly skeptical and "mundane" outlook will eventually alienate me from the community I have been serving for the last several years.
I do believe that the rise of modern Paganism is a positive thing. That it offers a way forward from the idealogical and theological rigidity of the dominant monotheisms. That a post-Christian society is ultimately a better one for those who don't fit into the roles (gender, sexual, societal, or racial) prescribed by the institutions that brought us to this point. I believe that modern Paganism can reinvigorate us creatively, that it can inspire us, and provide us with deep wisdom concerning the planet with live on and the values that we should hold dear. But I find that I increasingly have little time for much of the "woo" that has come along for the ride so far. It makes me feel like I'm playing a game, and I don't want the lens through which I gaze at the ineffable to be cheapened by fantasies of power and importance. And ultimately, that is what "woo" feels like to me, a grasping for control over the uncontrollable. A hubris, you telling the world that you reject its truth in favor of one where you are a mythical warrior avenging ills on the astral. A world where matters of dragons and faeries become more important than the sufferings of our fellow human beings.
Perhaps this makes me deficit in the childlike wonder that many Pagans claim is necessary for magic to work, or to see the wondrous things they see, but I don't think I want to trade the "mundane" world I live in, with all its unique splendors and glories, for a different one.
Also scheduled to appear will be Janet Farrar & Gavin Bone, Donald Michael Kraig, and musical guests Coyote Run.
Here are the talks I'll be giving:
1) Emerging Trends and the Pagan Movement:
Reflections and predictions from reading and reporting the Pagan news.
As the Pagan movement grows and enters the mainstream, what can we expect in the coming years? Jason Pitzl-Waters, author of The Wild Hunt blog, will share some thoughts on emerging trends and possible outcomes gleaned from reading, investigating, and reporting the Pagan news on a daily basis for the last five years. Topics explored during the talk will include the ongoing growth in Pagan numbers, how the coverage and treatment of Santeria and other minority faiths will affect our rights, and moving into a post-Christian society.
(2) Pagans and The New Media:
How blogging, podcasting, twitter, and other technologies are changing the way we do things.
(Depending on who else is at event, this might be a panel discussion.)
Modern Paganism once relied on handwritten personal correspondence and small newsletters to connect like-minded souls. Now, in an age of instant information and social networking, blogs, podcasts, and services like Facebook and Twitter have come to dominate how many of us communicate. What are the advantages and disadvantages of these new technologies? How will new media affect book and magazine publishing in the Pagan world? How can we utilize these advances in a way that benefits us? Join us as we explore these and other issues.
(3) A Darker Shade of Pagan:
A brief (alternate) history of Pagan and occult music.
Many of you know the common circle chants, or have heard of well-regarded Pagan musicians like Gwydion Pennderwen, Isaac Bonewits, and Selena Fox, but did you know there was a parallel development of Pagan and occult music gestating deep in the musical underground? Join us on a trip through the "darker shade of Pagan" as we explore a variety of artists from the Industrial music pioneers of the late seventies to the psych-folk resurgence of today. Plus, we'll also spend some time on some common ancestors linking these two worlds together.
"Police arrested a University of Wisconsin Milwaukee graduate student and teaching assistant on Monday after he turned himself in. What police want to know: is he part of group of 20-to-30 anarchists intent on committing violence? The vandalism was extensive and expensive for east side businesses. Windows were smashed late Friday night by an apparent anarchist group wearing black ninja costumes. They did more than $25,000 in damage at five businesses near Prospect and North."
So which businesses did these awesome anti-capitalist ninja-heroes of anarchy vandalize? A bank, a Whole Foods, a Subway, a mexican-food chain, and a bagel chain. Yes, Bruegger's Bagels, enemy of freedom and love! Why do you oppress these freedom fighters with your kettle-boiled dough! WE MUST RESIST! GRAH!
Now, as much as I like to kid the anarchists, I do find some of their ideas appealing, though the whole mindset and philosophy just isn't my bag (I'm more a democratic socialist). Sadly these "ninjas" do anarchism no favours. Worse, I already imagine that many anarchists are already preparing to lionize these wanton window-smashing "heroes", prepare "solidarity" actions for those arrested, and construct an argument that these individuals were somehow striking a blow for freedom. But really, aren't they just smashing windows instead of smashing the State? Who are they hurting? Certainly not the well-insured corporate chains, certainly not the local, state, or federal government. You want to know who they made life difficult for? The workers they claim they want to free from the shackles of capitalist slavery. They created some extra work and nuisance for some under-paid workers. Bravo. But then they are capitalist tools, no doubt giving police statements, sweeping up glass, and dealing with endless questions from customers will enlighten them to the anarchist cause.
Or maybe not. Maybe they're just smashing windows instead of smashing the state.