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Here’s how the term “goths” went from ancient barbarian invaders to sad teens

Robert Smith, not a barbarian invader (Photo: Peter Still/Getty Images)
Robert Smith, not a barbarian invader (Photo: Peter Still/Getty Images)

What do you think of when you hear the term “goth”? Chances are, it is something like the South Park interpretation: misfit kids dancing forlornly to The Cocteau Twins and writing poetry, or, worse, the more modern, store-bought Hot Topic version of goth, a mixture of striped socks, steam-punk cosplay, and mall-punk. But the term has a rich countercultural history, not just through pop music and horror fiction but tracing back to its origins in ancient Rome. This new explainer from TED Ed fills in the details nicely.

Perhaps most interesting is the way it has always meant something of an insurgency. Originally, the goths represented the barbarian invaders who threatened the Roman Empire, leading to the end of the Classical period and the beginning of the so-called Dark Ages. A style of cathedral that popped up during that supposedly less enlightened time was skeletal and spindly, a trend that was disdained as “Gothic” by the writers and thinkers of the Italian Renaissance, who vastly preferred the art of the Classical era. Over time, that “gothic” descriptor was embraced to describe ornate, eerie artworks reminiscent of the Dark Ages, including early horror novel The Castle Of Otranto and, finally, a sub-genre of rock music inspired by The Doors and The Velvet Underground, as played by Joy Division, Bauhaus, The Cure, The Cocteau Twins, and more. The rest is sad, teenage history.

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