Monstrous, Musical Beings: Analyzing the Gothic Mode from Mary Wollstonecraft to Amy Lee

Written by Madeline Happold

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Much has been said about rock’s Romantic phenomena  — the counter-culture connections to the works of Blake, Coleridge, or Wordsworth from artists like, most notably, the Doors to Iron Maiden’s 1984 “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” cover. In the introduction to Rock and Romanticism: Post-Punk, Goth, and Metal as Dark Romanticisms, editor James Rovira argues “that rock itself is a late-twentieth-century expression of Romanticism  — an extension, continuation, partner, or doppelgänger of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century movement” (2). Yet to define Romanticism Rovira strays from a strictly literary definition, instead encompassing a Romantic movement predicated on the opposition to capitalism and modernity:

“Romanticism is therefore modernity’s self-rejection. When it is hopeful, it reimagines the pastoral. When it is not, it enters a Gothic mode that manifests modernity’s self-hatred.” (Rovira 11-12)

The Gothic spurred as a subgenre, the thorns of the rose. With a focus on negative aesthetics, as outlined by Fred Botting’s Gothic, the Gothic shares ties with Romanticism through its rejection of rationalism and realism, instead outlining parallels of freedom and rebellion, imagination and reality, and a self caught between the two. If Romanticism is idyllic and emotive, then the Gothic is the unleashed underbelly that corrupts affectivity, prioritizing the dark forces of the natural, the sublime, and the human psyche. To speak musically: if the 2016 Nobel Laureate for Literature, Bob Dylan, is Romanticism singing about times a’changin’, then the Gothic is Joy Division’s suicidal lead singer Ian Curtis’s monotonizing disorder.

Pivotal to Rovira’s argument is the construct of a Gothic mode, an argument separate of rigid aesthetic or genre standards (12). I aim to classify my proceeding analyses through this careful definition. ‘Mode’ connotes both musicality and characteristic qualities — it is a rhythmic pattern or convention of a music style as well as a model or manner. In my argument, the hybridity of the term serves as a basis for the interconnected lineage of thematics in both Gothic literature and music. Botting continues to describe Gothic as based in “negative aesthetics” that rely on extreme contrasts to provide dissonance and disturbance. The Gothic is concerned with “vices” and instead “register revulsion, abhorrence, fear, disgust and terror” (Botting 2). Themes from Gothic literature are often revisited in music lyrics concerning power, sexuality, innocence and loss. This can be seen carried through to musicianship with jarring arpeggio jumps, fluctuating volumes and the juxtaposition of classical sounds with modern rock.

Yet, again, even when speaking of Gothic themes in music, much has been said of the founding fathers. The Smith’s Morrissey’s own rockstar image is inspired by his favorite poet, Lord Byron; Bauhaus’s ”Bela Lugosi’s Dead,” considered the harbinger of gothic rock, can be traced to John Polidori’s “The Vampyre;” Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures  — and the band’s own title  — a nod to Keat’s “Ode on Melancholy.” The men are reconfigurations, alterations and emulations of the dark Romantics and Gothic writers before. The women are written out  — a critique Rovira offers of his own edition (21). I aim to apply Rovira’s definition to rock’s dark female figures, with a comparison of post-punk and goth artists in relation to Gothic women writers. The comparisons of the female Gothic to contemporary Gothic female singer-songwriters will analyze how the Gothic mode carries across centuries, from lyrics that echo prose to musicianship that draws from Gothic themes. I will then focus my analysis on three albums of differing decades in relation to the mother-daughter pair of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley: 1.) Siouxsee and the Banshee’s 1986 Tinderbox in comparison to Shelley’s 1819 Mathilda; 2.) PJ Harvey’s 1993 Rid of Me in comparison to Shelley’s 1818 Frankenstein; 3.) Evanescence’s 2003 Fallen in comparison to Wollstonecraft’s 1788 Mary: A Fiction.

 

Siouxsie and the banshees Tinderbox:

If ‘60s rock pairs well with Romanticism, punk was the abjection of peace ‘n’ love. While both revolted against institutional power structures, modernism and capitalism, punk was the fist to counter-culture’s hug. Gothic rock – often simply referred to as goth – derived from post-punk subcultures and included a polished sound compared to the crudeness of punk. Synthesizers were heavily used, and lyrics were more melodic, focusing on Gothic themes like perverse sexuality, alienation, violence, and neurosis. Siouxsie Sioux and the Banshees, forming in the late ‘70s, became a harbinger for the goth movement – but they would prefer to classify themselves as Gothic. According to bassist Steve Severin, Gothic better described “the bleak, dark music being made by Joy Division and also the Banshees around 1978-79” and admitted “the band pored over Gothic literature – Edgar Allan Poe and Baudelaire.” By 1986, the year of their seventh album Tinderbox, their initial shock-luster had grown stale. Yet Tinderbox was a concept album underappreciated – or perhaps misunderstood – by critics.

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A ‘tinderbox’ has a folded definition: it holds the kindling for fire, or is the steel in which the spark was ignited, but can also be personified to mean someone who is hot-headed. It is instigative; it is what causes the fire, the burning. In an interview with Record Mirror, Sioux said of the title, “It's called that because everything seemed to happen either around situations or the effect of weather, and the word conjures up something explosive.” The cover art foreshadows the proceeding chaos of the album with a scarlet-saturated image of a tornado moving through a rural landscape, the clouds and smoke swirling overhead. The album art, acting like a frame for the music, mimics the opening lines of Mary Shelley’s Mathilda: “There are no clouds in the clear, frosty sky to reflect its slant beams, but the air itself is tinged with a slight roseate colour which is again reflection on the snow that covers the ground” (Shelley 151). The novella is also structured as a frame narrative, with the young Mathilda writing a letter to her friend Woodville of the incestuous desires of her father, of his subsequent suicide, and of her processing of the emotional aftermath. Nature becomes a metaphor for its own tinderbox, alluding to immorality, innocence lost, and incest.

As with Mathilda, the figures of a young female heroine and villainous older male are central to the Gothic, and “her vulnerability and his violence play out in the lawlessness and insecurity manifested in setting and landscape” (Botting 5). The power dynamic between young and old, victim and villain, becomes a central theme in Tinderbox, too. In an interview with Creem, Sioux said the first track, “Candyman,” was an “anti-incest” song. She continues, “the culprit's armor is this sense of guilt, sense of shame that it's the victim's fault, and the power they can rear over an innocent because that person is trusting.” The lyrics contrast sexual innuendos with images of innocence, with the song opening, “Sickly sweet, his poison seeks / For the young ones who don't understand.” The song continues to outline the candyman’s immoral desires with the corruption of the youth: “And all the children, he warns ‘don't tell,’ / Those threats are sold / With their guilt and shame they think they're to blame.”

The lyrics are coupled with jarring arpeggio jumps, eerie children taunting, and repeated staccato cooing by Sioux, much like the stabs of a dagger. The shattering of innocence is paralleled in the irony of Mathilda’s father’s proclamation, “’My daughter, I love you!’” (Shelley 173). When Mathilda first dreams of her father’s love, it is hopeful; yet, when she actually hears the phrase, it is corrupted. She is “almost dead with excess of sickness and fear,” much like the children in “Candyman” (Shelley 173). Both Mathilda and the narrative of Tinderbox become victimized and corrupted, and both chronicle the unraveling aftermath.

Corruption of the mind was a common Gothic theme that showed the decay of reason and could lead to psychological, and narrative, breaks from reality. This often manifests in lingering trauma caused by emotional shock from prior memories which remain unhealed. Tinderbox is haunted by the effect, as Sioux describes nightmares, terrors, and hauntings. In the proceeding “Sweetest Chill,” nature is liquefied in wordplay of “glistening showers,” “icy breaths,” “a fountain of needles,” and “a drowning so sublime.” The surrounding nature becomes the chill that seeps, much like the memories that creep; the song opens, “Hearing you in my sleep / Feeling you, your cadence seeps / Whispering in flashback / The specters of your memories.” The personification of nature and its incorporation is also interwoven into characters’ speech in Mathilda, such as Mathilda’s father monologue of his incestuous desires. He says, “I am struck by the storm, rooted up, laid waste: but you can stand against it; you are young and your passions are at peace” (Shelley 172). There is an irony to his statement that Mathilda is currently at peace, as his confession will become the tinderbox for the characters’ proceeding fate.

In “This Unrest,” the trauma “crucifies my chest” and “beats out my breath.” Trauma becomes a living nightmare in which the narrator is entrapped as the “friend” returns, “Demanding new favors for old time's sake.” The beat starts slow, ominous, and encompassing as incoherent sounds travel from ear to ear (headphones are best for the effect) only to break in quick fits of cacophony. The music becomes like the drone of the sea, a steady cadence that can become unpredictable, uncontrollable and unrelenting. While Mathilda and the narrator of Tinderbox are both haunted, perhaps surrounded, by past trauma, there is a common means of agency in both narration’s nameless villains in which they are not given the space to fully materialize for both reader and listener. They are present yet removed.  

In the album’s final song, “Land’s End,” two figures meet at “the cliffs around the crashing sea” at night, flirting with the danger of the dark and the violent waters. Death becomes the unspoken third party, as the lyrics paradox the finite with the everlasting: “Moths touched by flame repeat their fatal game / Forever and eternally, the cliffs around the crashing sea.” The final line is repeated as the song fades out, “Take a walk with me down by the sea,” as if slowly giving to the darkness that ends the album and the night. The lyrics are eerily similar to the Mathilda’s chasing after her father, the repetition of the lyrics like the siren song that brings Mathilda to the sea. All that can be heard is “the dashing of the sea, and to all this there would be no end” (Shelley 184). Death here is more obvious in her father’s suicide, which crystallizes the chaotic, festering sorrow that leads to her own mental demise and sickness. In both Mathilda and Tinderbox, there seems to be no escape but in the foreboding fade into death.

Image from  Novella Magazine

Image from Novella Magazine

The Banshee’s appearance – especially Siouxsie Sioux’s – was a tinderbox in its own regard, acting as a provocateur of not only goth subculture but the aggression it faced. Goth fashion included all-black clothing, unruly or spiky hair, ghost-white faces and thick black makeup that was campy in its rock mock-glamour. Music scholar Charles Mueller noted goth rock’s feminine style with “its emphasis on gyno-centered traumas, portraying masculine sexual energy as a source of terror, and by shunning and ridiculing masculine conventions in rock music such as misogyny, instrumental virtuosity, and the obsession with authenticity” (Mueller 78). Sioux became an icon for the female goth aesthetic, with “her continuous death fixation, raven, gravity-defying spiky hair, Egyptian make-up and pervy fishnets.” In her study of formidable punk women, Jane Bradley notes the hyper-sexualized appearance of Sioux and other women was a “means to repel, with their provocative dress becoming a powerful statement against sexual repression” (176). Much like Gothic heroines, female sexuality was coupled with disorder and deviance. “Assaults and violence (including sexual violence) were commonplace, as society struggled to accept the sartorial choices made by many punk women” (Bradley 176). Both “Tinderbox” and Mathilda show the aftermath of men usurping ownership over women’s bodies and affection. Mathilda’s father must control his daughter’s affection, and becomes jealous when his ownership is threatened by other suitors. In Tinderbox, incest leading to lasting trauma that problematizes and divides the mind and the body. Men become symbols of fiery control; women, vessels of that danger that are left with the burning.

 

PJ Harvey Rid of Me:

Counter to the staccato beats and incorporation of synths and electronics of ‘80s goth rock and new wave, 90’s rock was characterized by the grit of grunge and alternative rock. Distortion, thick bass lines and down tuning was mixed with structured melodies that focused on introspection and angst. This offered the contextual sound in which PJ Harvey – still a band rather than the solo act of simply Polly Jean Harvey – inhabited when they released their 1993 album Rid of Me. While often lumped in with other female rock groups (as critics often tend to label by gender, including this article), PJ Harvey, at the time, rejected the comparison and instead tried to shed the feminist, riot grrrl label. The band was no stranger to making listeners uncomfortable – their 1992 album Dry included songs about ‘dirty’ female anatomy like dry vaginas and menstruation. Rid of Me continues the uncouth absurdity. In her Rock and Romanticism essay on Harvey, Catherine Girodet states that, “Harvey not only disrupted the dominant rock discourse featuring sexuality as a hedonistic pursuit but also, from the outset, established her hallmarks as unequivocally Gothic: a predilection for the abnormal, the barbaric, the terrifying, the taboo, and the psychic edge” (165). The monstrosity of Harvey’s Rid of Me is comparable to the human amalgamation himself, Mary Shelley’s Creature in her 1818 novel Frankenstein.

Image from  Last.fm

Image from Last.fm

Rid of Me is an album that plays with a genderless narrator, less focused on sex than sexuality. In contrast to the hyper-sexuality of Siouxsie Sioux, Harvey instead employs an androgyny to her appearance. Harvey actually rejects, in earlier works, a sexualized performance even if the lyrics are inherently sexual and corporeal. In a November 1993 interview with i-D, Harvey said, “I spent my life up till I was 14 just wishing I was boy… I was a real tomboy. I still do prefer male company.” Her body is thin, shell-like, a fragmentation echoed in the music as the body is deconstructed to legs, a chest, a mouth, and if you miss the phallic imagery you aren’t corrupt enough. The deconstruction of the body rather than a recognizable subject is an iteration of Victor Frankenstein’s creatures, both the original Creature and the female companion he quickly destroys (Shelley 119). In The Gothic Body, Kelly Hurley explains how Gothic women were described as “abominations” and were “defined by and entrapped within their bodies, in contrast to the man, who is governed by rationality” (119). Women, as seen previously with the hyper-sexuality of Sioux, became feared as abhuman through their own embodiment, so instead Harvey breaks the body. Legs are a continuous symbol throughout Rid of Me, first seen in the titular “Rid of Me” where they take on an animalistic connotation: “Lick my legs I’m on fire / Lick my legs of desire.” The lines are first distant screams to the constant drone of the guitar, then recur as final acapella howls. The emphasis is continued in “Legs,” where Harvey sings of possessive love, one in which the narrator croons of keeping their lover close by “cut[ting] off your legs” and “kill[ing] you instead.” In female Gothic novels, Wollstonecraft tried to parody this lack of rationality; Shelley, to justify the senses. Harvey and Sioux instead take the negative aesthetic to the extreme, a corruptness they flaunt.

Yet the gender backbend of Rid of Me begs the question: is Harvey is parodying the sexual prowess of men or becoming their worst fear? In the album’s first single, “50 Ft Queenie,” it is hard to distinguish if Harvey is parodying sexual machismo or gaining power from it. The masculine phallic imagery is then juxtaposed by the feminine title of power. The chorus repeats, “Hey I’m the king of the world / You better hear my song / You come on measure me / I’m twenty inches long.” The command of each line – growing in inches as Harvey’s voice becomes more chaotic – asserts an ostentatious thing-ness of the body, a monstrosity that “marks a refusal to stay in an allotted place, a destabilization of power relations (Botting 10).

Some songs openly focus on securing the desire of female subjects, like “Hook” and “Yuri G.” In “Man-Size - Sextet,” Harvey continues to perverse masculinity. Much like Shelley’s Creature, Harvey’s narrator is that of an outsider or “other” wanting to belong in a man’s world: “I'm coming up man-sized skinned alive / I want to fit I've got to get / Man-sized." Just as the Creature’s reaction to his own rejection, the song turns vengeful (“Can you hear, can you hear me now”) as high-pitched, jarring strings screech and Harvey’s spits spiteful scowls. While ‘80s goth might have relied on jarring juxtapositions of scale jumps, PJ Harvey incorporates the same contrast but with volume, moving from sultry, solo-singing by Harvey to full-band booming choruses. The song ends in destruction. The strings drop out in the final verses, juxtaposing the violence of the last lines, and the musicality is anticlimactic as only Harvey eerily drones “Get girl out of my head / Douse hair with gasoline / Set it light and set it free.” The same song is repurposed later three songs later, “Man-Size,” backed by the masculine bravado characteristic of rock. Now Harvey is confident – like the Creature, the song accepts and owns its monstrosity.

Yet what happens when the physicality necessary for creation – the action of sex – is removed from the narrative, such as with Frankenstein? PJ Harvey’s Rid of Me can be likened to a reinterpretation of the creature’s conception, one where sex becomes perverted. The lyrics are purposely ambivalent, as Harvey upsets a strictly gendered sexual interactions, and all that remains in the power and seduction. Perhaps PJ Harvey best embodies the female-creature-that-wasn’t, who embodies so much fear, uncertainty and power that her potential is too much to handle. She “might become ten thousand times more malignant that her mate” (Shelley 118). PJ Harvey seems to be.

 

Evanescence Fallen:

The early 2000s were both metal and nu-metals heyday, and in the same year groups like Linkin Park, Godsmack, Marylin Manson and Metallica each topping the Billboard 200’s No. 1 album charts. Nu metal combined typical heavy metal riffs with other music genres like rap, hip-hop and alternative rock. In 2003, the nu metal band Evanescence broke into mainstream pop charts with their debut album Fallen. Employing orchestral tones like piano solos, accompanying string melodies and choir backings, Evanescence was more tonally characteristic of goth metal, derived from goth rock and heavy metal, than their associated contemporaries. Evanescence was also the first metal band of mainstream success to include a female lead, vocalist and singer/songwriter Amy Lee. Lee’s wailing soprano vocals were a stark contrast to the raspy rap and screaming of male nu-metal singers – a criticism Lee often received for sounding too feminine.

Music video by Evanescence performing My Immortal. (C) 2004 Wind-Up Records, LLC

The album also focuses on more ‘feminine’ themes than its metal counterparts, themes such as love, caregiving, identity, and loss. These themes are also visited in Mary Wollstonecraft’s first novel Mary: A Fiction. In Gothic Feminism, Diane Long Hoeveler argues that Mary is, like the novels it tries to critique, a Gothic novel. Hoeveler then theorizes her own definition of gothic feminism as “... a version of ‘victim feminism,’ an ideology of female power through pretended and staged weakness” (Hoeveler 2). In the book, Mary is often characterized as a victim to the larger sufferings of life, and she is quickly characterized as both the “creature of impulse, and the slave of compassion” (9). The diction, of being a “slave,” is likened to the victim narrative of gothic feminism. Fallen’s opening track “Going Under” opens in a similar vein as Lee whispers, “Now I will tell you what I’ve done for you,” supported only by an ominous bassline reminiscent of a record scratch. Both women are poised as the innocent givers who sacrifice themselves, or fall into fits of violent sensibility, for the care of others. Both heroines’ giving nature is ultimately in quarrel with the inescapable nature of loss. Mary tries to care for both her friend Ann and love interest Henry, only to have both die under her watch. The theme is explored most notably in the chorus Evanescence’s “My Immortal,” in which Amy Lee laments the loss of a loved one: “When you cried I’d wiped away all of your tears / When you screamed I’d fight away all of your fears / And I held your hands through all of these years / But you still had all of me.” The somber subject matter is accompanied by soft piano and string lines, uncharacteristically “metal.” The song juxtaposes both lyrically and musically the rest of the album, embodying the negative space extremes of the Gothic.

When experiencing loss, both women turn towards outward affection as a scapegoat means of salvation. In Fallen’s hit “Bring Me To Life,” as can be noted by the title’s passive command, Lee turns to outward affection to “call my name and save me from the dark.” Lee’s lament soars over the metal guitar lines while adding to the song’s desperate sentimentality. Mary is more composed in her desires – she would never yell for someone to save her – but she does turn to Henry as an escape for her suffering. In her affection, Mary becomes entrapped in her own battle between sense and sensibility, often succumbing to her emotional distress only to quickly compose herself. Further exasperated by Henry’s own failing health, she cries, “I am not his! – she said with fierceness – I am a wretch! And she heaved a sigh that almost broke her heart,” only to continue later in the same paragraph, “Yet I will not weep; and her eyes were fixed by despair, dry and motionless” (49).

Music video by Evanescence performing Bring Me To Life. (C) 2004 Wind-Up Records, LLC

 Lee’s appearance matches the romantics of her lamentations. She parallels the fallen Gothic heroine with flowing dresses, corsets and curly, loose tresses (she keeps it metal, though, with thick black eyeliner, dark color palette, and temple piercing). In the music video for “Bring Me To Life,” Lee is trapped in an urban tower of sorts, suffering from a nightmare. She sleepwalks onto the window ledge, where her long hair and dress dance in the wind, matching her soaring vocals. “Bring Me To Life” is also the only song off the album to feature an accompanying male vocalist, another compromise to have the single match current radio-friendly, male-fronted nu-metal. Paul McCoy, member of the Christian rock band 12 Stones, raps the call-response echo of the chorus: “(Wake me up) Wake me up inside.” In the video, he is the one to hold Lee from falling over the edge of the building, acting like a lifeline. Yet Lee still falls, the battle ultimately being her own. 

Both Lee and Mary seem to be caught in negative space, both damned and damning. Mary finds herself caught in the internal battle between reason and sensibility, admitting that when “she reasoned she became inexpressibly sad, to render life bearable she gave way to fancy – this was madness” (31). Lee outlines the double-edged nature of stardom in “Everybody’s Fool,” of a woman that cannot live up to the perfectionist standard of female icons. She sings, “No flaws when you’re pretending / But know I know she never was and never will be / You don’t know how you betrayed me / And somehow you’ve got everybody fooled.” Much like Harvey’s “Ride of Me,” the tone of the song also crescendos between soft verses to booming choruses with driving electric guitar riffs, their only connector the underlying wails of a choir. The plea in the previous “Bring Me To Life” is echoed in the song’s last lines, “You're not real and you can't save me,” as Lee becomes a victim of societal standards and of her own mind.

The lyrics are strikingly similar to Lee’s own external battle as a female lead in the male-dominated metal genre. Mary: A Fiction and Fallen employ goth feminism tropes, as “female characters are depicted as constantly struggling against powerful forces that they think are real and that they believe are poised to destroy them” (8). In Fallen’s final track, “Whisper,” Lee is haunted by these paradoxes in the echoed response of the chorus: “Don’t turn away (Don’t give into the pain) / Don’t try to hide (Though their screaming your name).” Keeping with the big-album-finish, “Whisper” employs deep guitar solos with choirs composed of both angelic sopranos and raspy baritones in a manner that rather clashes than compliments. The song seems to fall apart, as the caregiver is the one left without care or compassion. The women crack and double, equally “ideal and frightening, comforting and horrific” (Botting 12).  

 

Monstrous, Musical Beings:

When speaking of Gothic literature and music, it is easy to write women as subjects rather than as active participants. Their complexity becomes intertwined with perplexity and deviancy, often disregarded or “othered” in comparison to their male counterparts. Their affiliation with similar female writers and musicians, their labeling of “female gothic,” is too easily and lazily comparable – a critique that can be made of my own argument. Yet the ability to even continue this critique upholds the argument: that the positions of Gothic authors from the 19th century parallel that of Gothic women in the rock cannon almost two centuries later. Each are considered outliers, they are labeled as offensive, and yet somehow their artistry considered too effeminate. Diane Hoeveler argues the paradoxical situation in which female Gothic writers, which I extend to other female musicians and artist, is caught in the patriarchal setting under which they create, where, “women can accept and survive; on the other hand, she can rage and self-destruct” (18). While inhabiting different eras and genres of rock, common threads are seen through the Banshees, PJ Harvey, and Evanescence as they draw influence from, adapt, and recontextualize Gothic modes, both in lyrical writing and musicianship. They are extreme; they are romantic; they are perverse; they are monstrous, musical beings.

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