from the Chicago Tribune, April 27, 1999

Disturbed shooters weren't true goths



By Eric Lipton

As the nation strains to explain last week's massacre at Columbine High School, the dark lifestyle of the alleged killers, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, stands out.

Identified by some as "gothic," the Littleton, Colo., students wore black clothing and listened to freaky music. Reportedly obsessed with death and violence, they had beliefs that ranged from neo-Nazi to anarchic.

That's weird, dangerous and tragic. But it's not goth. Goth is not violent. These kids had it backward.

I should know. I'm not goth either.

But I tried to be.

My experiment in black began midcollege. I was a T-shirt and jeans wearer, but good friends who had more fun than I did had adopted the goth lifestyle. Partying with them was surreal, silly and sexy, with a mystical artistic bent that might have been annoying were it not for the ability to laugh that went with it.

What is goth? Lose the current hype and you'll find--despite a love of the macabre--goth is not the otherworld portrayed on news shows and front pages across the country.

It is just another fringe culture and fashion.

Like the hippie and punk movements before it, goth was born of alienation. But goth probably has the best sense of humor.

Unlike the hippies and punks, goth is not inherently political.

Some goths are into Wicca and paganism. But that's not necessarily goth. There are some who draw anarchy symbols all over their notebooks. But that's not goth either.

And violence and hate certainly are not goth. If anything, goth is the opposite. Just like the poets Shelley or Poe, the goth finds romance in the abnormal while deploring violence.

What's the allure? It's really fun clothes and music.

As for me, it wasn't until I was trapped one summer, carless and under legal drinking age in my parents' suburban home that I really turned to the dark side of the clothing drawer.

Bored. I was so very bored. Like most suburbs, the town I was in was great for raising kids, but as homogeneous as a plateful of peas. I missed my gothling friends and longed for the lush clubs where chanting over ambient electronic music led to the rhythmic swaying and bowing that ultimately passed for dancing.

It wasn't long before I found myself sneaking out at night in frilly shirts, vests and medallions, unfortunate piercings hidden underneath the cheap crushed velvet and black makeup. Combat boots from a long-ago heavy metal phase completed the picture. Some evenings I'd read under streetlamps--impractical, but cool. Other times, I'd debate music trends with friends. Mostly however, I was dressed funny and still bored.

No blood sucking. Certainly no guns, nor any love for them. No ritualistic animal sacrifices. Just dancing and rejection.

As I wasn't familiar to the local goths, my style clashed. My refusal to dye my long blond hair (a remnant from the grunge-hippie revival) was a real wrench in the works, and more than one beautiful Victoriana-clad goth rejected me as a poseur.

Which I was. Though my motive and angst were pure, my devotion wasn't.

Being a goth is time-intensive, which is part of its charm. Makeup is a pain to put on, no matter how sullen it made me look. Silk shirts must be ironed, and frills require special care. I was lazy, and eventually, even the piercings got infected and had to go.

Now, years later, when not in my new zoot suit for swing lessons, I still like to go gothing. Because it's fun.

In descriptions of the goth lifestyle, the element of fun always seems to be missing--like the Mickey Mouse ears that some goths I knew used to wear. Besides, the romance of life and death is as old as time. The same part of the brain that enjoys Halloween enjoys crushed velvet.

And as a change from the sterile, omnipresent Gap culture it's refreshing.

So school districts that move to ban trench coats and other goth wares are making a mistake. Kids will find ways to hide, to stand out or to shock--they always have. Goth is just a stranger-than-usual way to do it. And sometimes it can be a cry for help, as all behaviors can be.

But sadly, in Littleton, it became a mistaken symbol for senseless hate, for the horrifying lengths to which broken minds can go.

Long hair didn't make Charles Manson the spokesman for hippies. Nor do black clothes and trench coats make Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold the epitome of the goths.




I'm not a goth, but I tried to be...
(1994, Eric Lipton)

Copyright 1999 by the Chicago Tribune
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Photo copyright 1994 by Eric Lipton