“i’m hardcore, but i’m not that hardcore”
by lela scott macneil
I missed the whole goth thing by a few years but even if I hadn’t, I would never have been a goth. It wasn’t the aesthetic I had a problem with, and it wasn’t the music. I write fiction some have called painfully dark. I’ll watch anything with vampires. I love Gothic architecture and Gothic literature and black velvet and black lipstick and Joy Division and Nick Cave and Siouxsie. When I say I would never have been a goth, it’s not something I’m proud of. It’s a failure of courage.
If you were the natural outcast type growing up, the books-over-social-skills type, and I was, you had two choices. You could make it your singular ambition to become cool, or you could give up and let yourself love what you loved. I know I made the wrong choice. What I’m trying to understand is how people make the right one.
There’s a way to read Goths, the latest album from the Mountain Goats, as fanfiction about a fandom. I’ve heard fanfiction defined as loving something so much you want to make stuff about it. I don’t think I’ve ever loved something that much, except when I was twelve I cut out every newsprint film still of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet I could find and glued them into an ugly collage that hung proudly on my bedroom wall for years. In 1996, it was very cool to love Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet. I saw the movie in theaters with Sara and Josefine, who were the coolest girls in class because their JNCOS were the widest and their messy buns the messiest. I risked nothing loving that movie. It was required. Like when my friend Tim realized if he was going to be taken seriously in the business world, he would have to take out his piercings and become a sports fan. The dominant narrative depends on Tim rooting for the Eagles and twelve-year-old me wanting to dress up like an angel and kiss Leonardo DiCaprio, dressed in his suit of armor. And I did want to kiss him, hard, especially in the scene where we first meet Romeo, smoking a cigarette, floppy hair backlit by the sultry California sun, Radiohead’s “Talk Show Host” in the background, Thom Yorke softly moaning, “You want me, fucking come and find me, I’ll be waiting, with a gun and a pack of sandwiches,” Romeo scribbling moodily in his journal, “Why then, O brawling love, O loving hate.”
I wanted to kiss Claire Danes too, wanted to giggle with her under the sheets, but I didn’t tell people about that. Recently, someone told me there’s a whole thing about lesbians having queer awakenings to 90’s era Leonardo DiCaprio movies. It was strange to learn I wasn’t the only one who took those movies and transformed them into something that made sense to me. I hadn’t realized how reflexive this sort of internal rewriting is for those of us who have to squint to see ourselves in “all men are created equal.”
Goths is not about the kind of fandom that gets you invited to Sara and Josefine’s super cool joint birthday party. It’s about the kind of fandom that inspires you to file your teeth down to fine points, the kind that sends you hurtling down the highway with a cooler full of Corona and Pineapple Crush, wearing a purple velvet waistcoat stained with Maalox and dried vomit, Siouxsie blasting from the stereo, as you watch the red and blue flashing lights grow closer in the rearview mirror. It’s the suffocated splendor of the once and future goth band played to a musty, mostly empty club. It’s the kindred lost souls in the audience who discover one another and revel in the darkness like a pair of open graves. It’s the singer, having locked up his crusty black boots and taken on a mortgage, fondly remembering the time his band was paid in cocaine. It’s the forgotten brothers of Gene Loves Jezebel, who had to get jobs, even though Billy Corgan brought them on stage that one time. It’s a place everyone, even Andrew Eldritch, comes home to eventually, a place Mountain Goats songwriter John Darnielle loves so much he wanted to make stuff about it.
Although he never identified as goth. “On the West Coast, the term ‘death rock’ was floating around in the ether. Nobody really used ‘goth,’” he told VICE, “there weren’t any bands saying, ‘Oh yes, we play death rock.’ But I liked that term a lot. I was 16 years old and I loved that the word ‘death’ was right there up front. Who has never been 16 and not thought that was cool stuff to be thinking about? To me, goth was Wuthering Heights, and I was more into gore. I wanted stuff that had death in it, not people that faint.”
In an article titled, “Fandom is Broken,” Devin Faraci offhandedly describes the young fanfiction community as “a group that seems uninterested in conflict or personal difficulty in their narratives (look at the popularity of fan fics set in coffee shops or bakeries, which posit the characters of a comic or TV show or movie they love as co-workers having sub-sitcom level interactions. I had an argument with a younger fan on Twitter recently and she told me that what she wants out of a Captain America story is to see Steve Rogers be happy and get whatever he wants - ie, the exact opposite of what you want from good drama)…”
Reading this, I think how the brilliant fiction writer Aurelie Sheehan taught me the power of showing your characters just getting coffee, how the mundane offers a way to unlock stubborn truths. There’s a common understanding readers and writers of fanfiction are overwhelmingly women, and there’s research to back it up. In one survey, more fanfictioners identified as genderqueer than male. Knowing this, it’s hard for me not to read critiques like Faraci’s as gendered.
When my writer friend Jess was in high school, she spent up to ten hours a day reading and writing Harry Potter fanfiction, sometimes staying up all night. Her focus was on stories that shipped Draco Malfoy and Ginny Weasley, and she ended up helping run one of the top Draco/Ginny sites. She won multiple awards, including a Prisoner of Azkaban poster signed by all the stars, which still hangs in her house.
I bought her a beer the other day because I wanted to find out how she balanced the intense adolescent pressure to be cool with a love as gloriously geeky as Draco/Ginny fanfiction. She told me being cool didn’t feel like an option for her, and also the cool kids weren’t interesting, so why would she try to be them. She’s a few years younger than me, and this felt like progress. Although maybe there have always been people who think this way, and I was just too afraid of being seen as uncool by association to talk to them. Jess grew up in a house full of chaos, and fanfiction was a place she could express the full range of who she was without making her home life more complicated by coming home drunk or getting arrested for shoplifting. Also, at an age where I was writing bad poetry in my journal about the very deep sadness of the very cool boys I was getting drunk with, she was spending every free waking hour in an intensive, craft-based writing course, learning how to give and receive constructive feedback, how to write within a consciously chosen framework of stylistic techniques, how, as she put it, “to use writing to focus on something outside yourself.”
“What did the kids you went to school with say about your fanfiction?” I ask her.
“I didn’t really tell kids at school.”
She showed me her old Livejournal, with its drabbles, and ficlets, and exchange submissions, with story summaries like: ‘There's this mirror,’ she told him. ‘And I need to use it.’ I was intrigued. She was visibly cringing. I asked her why, though I knew the answer.
“I don’t know,” she said, “It just feels childish.”
In The Republic, Plato wrote, “All the pursuits of men are the pursuits of women also, but in all of them a woman is inferior to a man.” In 1837, Poet Laureate Robert Southey wrote to Charlotte Brontë to say, “Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life, and it ought not to be.” In 1922, T.S. Eliot wrote to Ezra Pound to say, “There are only a half dozen men of letters (and no women) worth printing.” “Leave the writing to me,” Saul Bellow told one girlfriend, explaining to another, “Women are the rails on which men run.” In 2010, Bret Easton Ellis said, “There’s something about the medium of film itself that I think requires the male gaze.” When I was in grad school for fiction writing, a male classmate refused to read Mary Gaitskill because her writing was “too woman-y” and a male professor called my writing “a waste of time.” It’s very possible that last comment was personal and had nothing to do with my gender, but you start to see things in a context.
I don’t include the above list to “feed the outrage machine,” or to “fem-splane,” or because I’m “freaking out with hysterics,” although I worry you’ll think all those things about me. I’m trying to carve out a small space for what it means to write when the people in the books and the people writing the books and the people writing about the books and the people whose job it is to teach you to write and the people learning to write alongside you are saying your writing is a waste of time. Are saying don’t take it personally, there’s just something about the medium that requires the male gaze. And no, #notallmen, but enough men, saying the same words, echoing each other across the centuries.
My preferred explanation is the idea that the vast majority of what we watch is from the male perspective—authored, directed, and filmed by men, and mostly straight white men at that,” fan culture journalist and professional fangirl Elizabeth Minkel writes about why women and genderqueer people are drawn to transformative fandom. “Fan fiction gives women and other marginalised groups the chance to subvert that perspective, to fracture a story and recast it in her own way...It often feels as if there isn’t much space for difference in the dominant cultural narratives; in fandom, by design, there’s space for all.”
If I were to write fanfiction, I would write about John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats. In it, he and I would be close friends from way back, although because we’re both so busy, we wouldn’t get to see each other as often as we’d like. Once summer, my wife and I would finally make it out to visit him and Lalitree in Durham. John and I would embrace, then settle onto the porch I imagine he has, looking out at his backyard, which would be lush and beautiful and a little wild. The air would be heavy with the smell of sun baked wood and late summer leaves. We would drink local craft beer and catch up, while our wives, close friends themselves, drank wine and talked about poetry in the kitchen.
I’d tell John how Goths showed me how to reclaim a part of myself I thought I’d killed a long time ago. I’d tell him I think he does that for a lot of people. He would deflect and say something nice about my writing in that shy, charming way he has of responding to compliments. When I pushed him, he would open up about recording an album without the driving guitar riffs that helped make him famous. He would tell me how good it felt to be out of his comfort zone. His eyes would brighten as he talked about working with Nashville pro Robert Bailey, a longtime singer in Garth Brooks’ touring band who sings backup vocals on Goths. He’d tell me how Bailey worked with Wynonna Judd and sang on Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s televangelist show in the 70’s and 80’s. The conversation would drift to the new novel he’s working on, and he’d ask what I thought of the narrative structure. I would play him some of the songs I’d been writing, something he’d encouraged me to finally try, and he’d offer kind and helpful feedback.
The conversation would take a turn for the deeper, like a flashlight dropped down a well. He’d say something like “Suffering is seldom joyful, but expressing one’s capacity for survival almost always is.” Pretty soon we’d both be crying about the deaths of our complicated father figures. Our wives would come out and laugh at us, tell us it was time stop crying and start cooking because they were hungry. John and I would cook something simple, pasta with tomatoes and basil from the garden, a loaf of good crusty bread, the two of us side by side, slicing garlic, falling into an easy rhythm in the kitchen. The next morning, we would all go to a cafe, or maybe a bakery.
I haven’t always been obsessed with the Mountain Goats. I didn’t know about them back in the 90’s, when it was really cool to like them, back when Amanda Palmer liked them. I liked “This Year” and “No Children,” and I think I had “Woke Up New” on a breakup playlist, but before last March, I would barely have considered myself a casual fan. And then last March I found myself driving solo across West Texas, and decided on a whim to use up the time on a new podcast called I Only Listen to the Mountain Goats. In it, Night Vale podcasting genius and Mountain Goats fanboy Joseph Fink goes song by song with Darnielle through the 2002 album All Hail West Texas!, their soaring, twisting, spiraling conversations exploring the centrality of fandom to the experience of people who make stuff.
As I drove through those big, empty West Texas hours, listening to Darnielle’s nervous, vulnerable voice, something started to collapse in me, fast and slow, the way it does when you’re falling in love. At the end of each episode, a fellow musician and fan would do a cover of a song from the album. I listened, enchanted, as Dessa talked about transforming Darnielle’s simple composition “Balance,” sad and shouty, recorded on a boombox, into something symphonic and lushly layered, like a melancholy Bond theme. By the time I got to Eliza Rickman and Jharek Bischoff’s wistfully sublime “Riches and Wonders,” the sky was black and full of stars and I was sobbing. The weeks that followed were dizzy and love sick as I made my way through the band’s discography and read Darnielle’s two novels, as I started quoting him like a missionary, telling friends things like “Well you know, John Darnielle says, Life is hard, you’re tired, and there’s disease. The strategy that works for children is to be delighted by the things that delight you.” When the Mountain Goats came through my town, I bought a ticket, and a poster, and I pushed my way towards the stage and I cried, right there, in front of and along with my people.
Studying the narrative structure of All Hail West Texas! helped me figure out what I needed to do to fix the novel I’d been avoiding for two years, but that isn’t the point. The point is I don’t love the Mountain Goats because it’s cool, or productive, or rational. My love for them is hopeless and absurd and total. This feels good and also sad, because how much time have I wasted not loving this way.
The way the dominant narrative regards fanfiction shifted a little after the success of the (fanfiction based) Fifty Shades trilogy led to everyone at Random House getting bonuses. Minkel told this story at San Diego Comic Con in 2015: “I remember maybe five years ago, I told a coworker—I work for a fancy magazine that I probably shouldn’t name, not to indict anyone—and I told her that I’d spent the weekend writing fanfiction (it was Torchwood fanfiction, but I didn’t mention that part) and she said, ‘Don’t say that word in this office.’ You know? And I was like, ‘Oh God, I’m so sorry. Like, I’m so embarrassed.’ And now when I talk about fanfiction with these people in publishing and magazines, they, like, want to buy me lunch.” This isn’t the point, either, but it’s the only success story we know how to tell. And if commercialized fanfiction helps displace the tide of realist novels about white boys looking back at their childhoods and having complicated feelings about that one time they found a dead animal, I guess that’s something.
My friends who work with youths tell me these days, it’s all about K-Pop, so I reached out to Instagrammer @jdiminiee, whose account is devoted to the K-Pop band BTS, and who likes BTS enough to write fanfiction about them. Last year, the band made headlines by beating Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez, and Ariana Grande to win Billboard’s Top Social Artist Award, after receiving more than 300 million votes on Twitter. I wanted to know what it means to be a part of ARMY, as BTS’s mostly female fans call themselves. I wanted to know how the choices of fandom have changed.
“Being in ARMY changed my life a lot,” said @jdiminiee. “I learned how to love myself and care for others. ARMY is like another family to me. BTS helps me through my anxiety and depression. They also make me a lot happier.” Predictably, people are upset. K-Pop is “evil and should be eradicated from the planet,” according to tharp42, and Antoast_cheese writes, “Kpop is really a horrible genre filled with autotune and a really rabid fabdom idolizing men looking like girls (no offense to LGBT there).”
But maybe it doesn’t matter what people think about our rabid fabdoms anymore, because maybe the tyranny of cool is starting to loosen its cultural death grip. @jdiminiee also told me this: “Being cool is not something I care about. All I want is to just be myself and be kind to others.”
In my Mountain Goats fanfiction, John and I would discuss K-Pop, and decide that even though we don’t get it, we support it, because it’s good for the world for people to love things in a way that is hopeless and absurd and total. And then bassist Peter Hughes would come over and he and John would let me watch while they made out a little.
Lela Scott MacNeil was born in Los Alamos, same as the Atomic Bomb. Her work has appeared in Gertrude, Trouble in the Heartland, and Essay Daily. She writes about food (plus everything else) at boneandall.com.