I'm fascinated by the disparity in how certain subcultures are sometimes represented in the media. Just a few weeks ago, 16 year old murder suspect Scott Dyleski was being described by CNN as a "goth loner" who "followed the occult and dressed in black," including that ubiquitous signifier of teen depravity, the black trenchcoat (thank you, Highlander movies!). Dyleski has been charged with bludgeoning Pamela Vitale to death in Lafayette, CA, allegedly because she received his marijuana-growing supplies that were being financed by stolen credit cards. Of course, whenever a white, middle-class teenaged boy commits some atrocious crime (Columbine, Red Lake), the media immediately finds someone (usually other students, who may or may not actually have known the suspect) to describe him as a goth, a loner, an occultist or Satanist, and usually a Nazi sympathizer to boot.
At the other end of the spectrum, however, the New York Times fashion section a few days ago declared goth style to be "in" -- or, more specifically, the "Gothic Aesthetic." (Embrace the Darkness, Oct. 30, 2005, in Fashion & Style) Admittedly, the Times doesn't really distinguish between "goth" (the contemporary subculture that revolves primarily around music and nightclubs) and "Gothic," a Victorian genre in literature and architecture in the 19th century that appealed to a decadent, macabre sentiment thought to be embodied in medieval architecture.
The Times article cites the imagery in Tim Burton's latest animated movie, Corpse Bride, not to mention a litany of recent works (a musical, a best-selling novel, a Met exhibit) -- and consumer fashion. Apparently, Goth fashion allows respectable New Yorkers (instead of "freaks" who embrace "subversive" imagery) to be "edgy." In all fairness, there's a common thread here, where "goth" is used to denote the dark, morbid and socially marginal. But I think it's telling that this demarcation is used perjoratively to frame the behavior of wayward, dangerous teen boys (at least, when they're white and middle-class), but is permissible for well-off women on the Upper East side of New York when they want to be "edgy."
I recognize, of course, that the use of subcultural imagery in the media is largely divorced from actual subcultural practices. This was entertainingly illustrated by local San Francisco news coverage of the Vitale murder, when reporters showed up at the DNA Lounge for a monthly industrial night called MEAT. After much deliberation, one of the promoters consented to an interview (which you can watch here). After the promoter described goth as a non-violent club scene that attracts adults over the age of 21 who want to dance and listen to dark-themed electronic music, the reporters concluded that the actual goth subculture had little to do with the allegedly "goth" teen murder suspect.
Still, the use of goth as a cultural category in the media attests to the semiotic value of imagery associated with the subculture. Goth, or rather, the stereotyped images associated with it (black clothing, dark makeup, an obsession with morbidity and death), has become shorthand for a particular kind of rebelliousness, whether that's the largely sanitized vision promoted by fashion designers, or the instant assumptions made in the press about teens like Dyleski, given a lack of better information (ultimately, for instance, it turned out that the Columbine shooters Klebold and Harris were not really into goth at all). The New York Times, however, is about 15 years out of date, since Victorian fashion was big in the goth scene in the early 90s -- subcultural styles continually shift just like in popular culture, and recent goth looks include more futuristic "cyber" styles, 80's-influenced deathrock looks, and retro/hipster fashion.
What I find interesting, however, is the relationship between goth imagery in the press and popular culture, and how goth style is used within the actual subculture (a community of semiotic "practice" and common interest). Of course, the goth scene is not immune to its stereotypes, especially as media exposure often attracts newcomers. Hopefully, these newcomers discover that the subculture is somewhat different from how it's popularly portrayed -- but presumably, these codified images of goth re-enter the scene through new participants. As a subculture, however, goth operates comparably to other communities of practice, using semiotic signifiers like style or slang to communicate identity and in-group affiliation to other members. Goth, as the newsreporters in San Francisco discovered, consists of a subculture concerned with music, clubbing, fashion and socializing, largely by young people in their twenties and thirties, and not brutal murders or sacrifices to Satan (or Marilyn Manson, for that matter). While I'm not convinced of the simple thesis that "mainstream" interests co-opt subcultural styles and diffuse their subversiveness, clearly the look of the goth scene has taken on symbolic meaning in popular culture, in intriguing and revealing ways.