Conventional wisdom says that trends run in roughly 20-year cycles. Within the last few, thanks to TikTok’s supremacy, the trend cycle has shortened, but it remains as potent as ever. In 2020, when so many young people were isolated due to a raging pandemic, apps like Instagram and TikTok became the lifeline to maintain a social life, with ’fit checks dominating feeds. A new aesthetic inspired by Y2K futurism, anime, nu-metal, mall goth, and mid-’00s emo rose among a group dubbed the “e-kids.” This interest in 2K culture reignited an adjacent style as well: goth fashion and, by extension, goth music. With listings on Etsy and Depop tagged as “#goth” and “#y2k,” it seems like just about anything can be goth if the listing says so. Goth culture celebrates the macabre, but how does that translate online?
The roots of goth are deep and nuanced. Starting in the late 1970s and into the 1980s in the United Kingdom as an offshoot of post-punk acts like Killing Joke, as well as the rich voice of Nico, goth took inspiration from Victorian-era dress (long black gowns, lace, boots, and clove cigarettes), literature, society, and the grim theatrical nature of the early 20th century vamps and silent film stars, like Theda Bara. The term “goth” as an adjective for music wasn’t recorded until 1967, when music critic John Stickney called The Doors “gothic rock.” During the ’70s, goth developed in the United States with bands like Christian Death, known for seminal hits like 1982’s "Romeo’s Distress." Some of the most famous goth groups in the ’80s — many of whom remain shorthand for the very word — include The Cure, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and Joy Division.
The subculture was built from the love of dark elements in storytelling and art. This spilled over into the television and film of the ’80s and ’90s, when goth characters were often written as the weird side players or the comic relief (think Danny Phantom’s best friend and eventual girlfriend Sam Manson or NCIS’s chief forensic scientist Abby Sciuto), but were also often cited as fan favorites. As social media has since taken over culture, and as apps progress and new ones launch, subcultures develop from terminally online lifestyles where the association lines are often blurred. What is or isn’t goth becomes harder to identify.
Today, it feels fitting for goth to be passed down through TikTok, just like it was through Tumblr in the 2000s with soft grunge and pastel goth taking over adolescent closets, with looks built from black velvet chokers, flannels, and shorts styled with black nylons. The neo-goth invasion picked up steam in 2020 when Belarus-based band Molchat Doma’s album Etahzi started gaining traction, with users clinging to the track “Sudno” and soundtracking the song by posting pictures from Soviet-era Europe, both romanticizing it and showing the harsh reality of life in the Eastern Bloc.
Meanwhile, Los Angeles-based musician and producer Aryan Ashtiani, who goes by the moniker Mareux, became a TikTok sensation overnight with his 2021 cover of The Cure’s “The Perfect Girl,” taking a floaty song originally from their 1987 album Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me to gritty electronic depths. Mareux’s synth-heavy reinterpretation sparked a movement on TikTok, with some well-known users posting videos using it as a backing. Mareux was shocked. “There were a few very famous TikTokers who used the song back in summer ’21. This gave it that boost overnight,” he tells MTV News. “From there, it ran rampant on various edits and meme videos and continues to this day.”
On YouTube, you can find “The Perfect Girl” intertwined with American Psycho fan edits containing Patrick Bateman’s monologues. There’s an internal ecosystem created from edits, memes, and media literacy that continues to feed the social-media sensation of alternative culture. While the origin of the current enthusiasm for goth and blanket alternative culture can be hard to trace, Mareux thinks it’s due to the current state of society. “It's probably a mixture of every other scene getting stale, the growing sense of doom in the world, and how undeniably good the music is,” he says.
Last year, Dua Lipa was photographed by Jordan Hemingway for 032c, styled in a Trad Goth look inspired by Siouxsie Sioux. GothTok celebrity Zander Buel, a.k.a. awfullysinister, posted a video praising her for the ensemble, saying, “I think she looks great! She nailed it.” Buel is another face of the subculture on the internet. As one of the resident DJs at the Phoenix club 6 Feet Under, he uses his platform to educate the masses by giving satirical goth history lessons.
“When goth goes through this cycle, like it does every so often where it has its ascendance in popularity, it takes a bunch of people with it,” he says. “Some of the people, it spits back out, and those people move on to the next thing. But some people, it takes with them, and then they keep that long-term interest in that label, and they stay within it and they continue to listen to the music, or they go to the clubs and shows, and they discover new bands.”
Buel’s devotion to preserving the scene through DJing helps keep it alive and vibrant. Young people visit the clubs, dressed up and ready to dance — pushing goth past its digitized Batcave revival — and Buel spinns Male Tears and Rosetta Stone as a way of connecting them with goth history. But his playlists also include Mareux, as well as another newcomer who has been helping carry the torch of the subculture.
Dusty Gannon, of the band Vision Video, has become TikTok’s “Goth Dad,” a comedic character he made up to provide reassurance and levity through his dad jokes, makeup tutorials, and advice, while also promoting his music. Aside from being a digital dad, Gannon has focused energy on explaining goth culture and history, and the importance of maintaining a safe community.
Gannon explains how e-kid culture, while already an immersive one, has helped bring the goth aesthetic to a new generation. “The e-girl/e-boy culture was sort of a basic introduction in an aesthetic sense,” he says, “to a deep-rooted subculture that's been around for decades. And it's already got its own mythos, its own norms, and music, and fashion, and whatnot. So I think it just sort of opened the door for people to dive deeper if they wanted to.”
Where is the future headed? Bauhaus, one of the original goth bands, released a new single for the first time in 14 years in March, and they are touring again. Chicago’s Cold Waves and Germany’s Amphi Festival will be bridging the gap with bands from all ends of the spectrum and creating a union of unique sounds. Mareux is happy to be a part of that.
“Most of the other artists have not embraced TikTok because they think it's cringe or detracts from their brand. I saw a huge opportunity to connect with fans and create new ones and haven’t looked back,” he says. “In regards to younger people, I think a lot of the stigma towards goth and alternative cultures in the past was linked to homophobia. Now that mainstream culture is more open and accepting, I think a lot of these previously disenfranchised scenes will continue to flourish.”
As the scene grows, the community is full of Baby Bats and Elder Goths ready to share the experience of dancing to darkly dazzling tunes and breathing in fog from the smoke machines. However, that only happens if we continue passing down the music and fashion. TikTok is divisive, but it can be influential, opening doors into new worlds and allowing us to experience other avenues of expression and art. Beyond likes and views, exposure is paramount.
“It's probably going to be a mess for a while,” he continues. “It's in a transitional stage where it's becoming very mainstream. People love to fight and argue and gatekeep online, so I can see it staying ugly for a while. Still, that doesn’t mean there won’t be plenty of cool creators and new artists to discover.”