The Accursed 90s: Talk Show Goths

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[More Accursed 90s: Televised Lad ContestsDon’t Forget Your Toothbrush]

So much of 90’s trash culture either emanated from the raft of American afternoon talk shows, or used them as fertile breeding ground, like germs fucking in an old yoghurt. From “you ain’t all that!” to talking to the hand, cos the face ain’t listening, these series left a terribly brown and smelly mark across across pop culture, with make-overs, DNA tests, and truly endless episodes about wild kids with crying parents, which in hindsight, were an excuse to wheel out half-dressed teens in boob-tubes to brag about giving blowies for a home audience of pervs. I will be taking a closer look at the staples of the format in future posts, but for Halloween, we’re focussing on a frequent sub-genre of the talk show; one that’s able to skilfully cross-pollinate with popular themes such as ‘sneering at weirdos’ and ‘stirring up moral panic’ — the goth episode.

The 90s were a fulsome time for goths, with Marilyn Manson as Middle America’s public enemy #666, and every fancy dress party filled with twenty different blokes all dressed as The Crow. Of course, this made its way onto the talk show circuit, which had many hours to fill, and much outrage to spread, as it did on a 1996 episode of Ricki Lake. Ricki was the youngest of her generation, a Gen-X-er stood between the crinkled Maury Povich and grandmotherly Sally Jessy Raphael, and seeming like an aging highschooler at the clique table during lunch. “I’m one of you guys! I’m an anthropomorphised floppy hat, and I could’a been Winona!” Never was that more evident than in the frequent ‘look at these freaks!’ episodes. I’m not throwing that word around lightly, as the episode literally opens with zany circus music, and is genuinely titled ‘Mom, You Think I Look Like A Sideshow Freak, But Chill Out, ‘Cuz I Look Cool!

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Most teenage years are spent at the extreme ends of contemporary fashion, and the only reason to look at old photos is to laugh at that sullen, ridiculous version of yourself, back when you were trying to find your feet and establish your own persona. But each outrageous new trend will quickly become the norm, like those first long-haired men of the 1960s, and these shows existed solely on a shock value which is remarkably twee 20-odd years on. Regard Ricki’s opening promo, stood next to a juggling clown, which a snapshot of a time akin to 1920’s beach-goers fainting at the sight of an ankle, as she warns us “step right up… they have tattoos, body piercings, dyed hair, spikes through their faces… their mothers think they belong in a circus!

You know the format; the parents are brought out first, wiping away tears while describing the shame; their sweet little girl, a child no more, kicked out of the house lest she return to the sensible dresses and straight-As. Then the teen’s revealed to the baying mob, who rain down boos while thinking up zingers, ready for when Ricki comes round with the mic. By modern standards, most of the ‘freak’ kids — entering through dry ice with squealing guitar — wouldn’t get a second glance; average mall-goths with a dye-wash and a single tattoo. There’s an obvious gender divide, where much of the outrage sparks from the notion of girls wearing a leather jacket, which is boy-clothes! Thanks to the magic of evolving fashion, the parents are now as frightful as their offspring, each looking 20 years older than their age, and like they rode to the studio inside a tornado.

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One girl wears pink hot-pants, with half-purple hair, and though we’re primed by the mother to expect a vomiting demon-child, she’s well-spoken and polite, and explains that being from Utah, “I have to rebel. I have to.” Another mom sobs, cross hanging round her neck, convinced her daughter worships the devil. Though she’ll enter taking a lap of the stage with her cloak billowing like Dracula, it’s just a 19-year-old in a leather dress and black lipstick; a costume that’s taken off for work. There’s a brilliant moment when a jokey mention of a “master” who drags her round nightclubs on a leash has mom leaning across to whisper “it’s not S&M or anything?” though most telling is the plea to “go and live in LA with your sister.” They show side-by-side pics of how they used to be, like police warnings against the dangers of crystal meth, but the true weirdos here are the nervous Nellies of 1996, gasping as a mom describes her daughter’s blue hair — “every mother’s dream!” — and terrified of piercings and tattoos, especially on female bodies.

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Stars of the show are the Alans. Alan Sr, who looks like a scarecrow, is embarrassed to be seen with his 15-year-old son, Jr, who’s the classic Manson goth, in an ensemble of black lipstick, arm-stockings, spiked collar, and Manson shirt. He carries a lunchbox — a motif from that band’s infusion of goth with the trippy kid’s TV of the sixties; Sid and Marty Krofft, Willy Wonka and Dr. Seuss — and later reveals it’s filled with pictures of Ricki. His dad mockingly calls him Alice because of the make-up, while he burns his old man by calling him “Mr. Seventies.” Sr’s main worry is his son’s lack of masculinity, lipsticked and getting Valentine’s from boys, though in the kid’s last phase “he was acting black… into the rap music thing.” These days, Alan Jr has a mildly successful Youtube channel, trading off his fame as a budding crush for 90’s goth girls. On it, he discusses his experiences on the show, along with videos entitled Pain, and Conclustions (sic) Of Randomization — with a thumbnail of the bleeding word ALAN carved into flesh with a razor — and showing a night on the karaoke with David and Alexis Arquette. Decades on from Ricki Lake, most of the comments are from women as thirsty as they are pale.

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Of course, they do the table-turning deal of a preppy daughter with an outrageous mom. How outrageous? Prepare yourselves, because this is a woman with tattoos! Put in a crop top and hot pants to show off the ink, this is by far the guest with which the audience have the biggest problem.

An onscreen caption reads “MY MOTHER IS A FREAK, SHE HAS HOLES AND TATTOOS ALL OVER!” as eyebrows hit the ceiling, and an audience member chides “she doesn’t really have the body to be wearing that, cos she’s had children.” Though you may be picturing a P.T. Barnum tattooed lady with no visible skin, she’s just got a tat going up one leg, and one on her back. Still, this elicits actual shrieks. “Isn’t this a little extreme?!” asks Ricki, down on one knee to plead she changes her ways. Ricki plays up how the daughter’s crying, which she isn’t; not until the repeated assertion that she is eventually upsets her into sobbing for real.

There’s also a fun audience makeover “to the extreme, guys!” where the crowd are left open-mouthed, purely at the sight of the man who swaggers camply in a PVC vest to take the volunteer backstage. The resulting transformation is a good barometer of what was considered extreme back then, in this case, a light purple/brown hair-dye and a top that bares your shoulders. It’s off to the circus for you, my girl! Though let’s not get complacent, because they do save the best for last, bringing on a trio of goths to talk to the parents, and well…

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Ricki’s closing thought will set viewers’ minds at ease, telling watching parents to take heart, as “most of the flower children of the 60s graduated to three-piece suits and briefcases eventually, and your children will find their way too.” Tell that to Alan Sr. Of course, this mid 90’s goth revival began with one man, and before immi’gants and fake news liberal cucks, America’s boogeyman was Marilyn Manson. A corrupter of children, if legend was to be believed, concerts wouldn’t begin until a live chicken thrown into the crowd had been torn to pieces, and he’d removed a couple of ribs, so he could casually lean down and suck himself off, like those gym-bros who’re constantly supping from a gigantic jug of water. Conservative paranoia was riding on the fumes of the previous decade’s Satanic Panic, and elevated Manson to a literal Antichrist, when in reality, he was just a guy who really liked two things — David Bowie, and shocking people.

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One of Manson’s early introductions to the mainstream was an appearance on The Phil Donahue Show. Epitome of the old white man, Donahue traded in moral outrage, with Manson booked on a 1995 episode about the dangers of a deadly new craze sweeping America’s youth — moshing. By this point, moshing had been around for decades, but it’s presented like a hyper-addictive new drug, ready to take the life of your child. Great portions of the hour are taken with Donahue reacting to footage of slam-dancing at a rock club like he’s George C. Scott seeing his daughter getting nobbed in Hardcore. He returns, again and again, to the grainy video, offering WWE-style commentary — “That guy’s down! Where’d he go? This is the edge of violence!” A bloodied nose is replayed multiple times, glorified with slow-motion and zooms, as the camera cuts to concerned expressions in the audience, from people in turtle necks and big glasses. A hysterical caption reads “BLOODY NOSES AND BROKEN BONES, ROCK AND ROLL IN THE 90s!

Convinced moshing will lead to riots and stampedes that’ll stomp the nation underfoot, Donahue interrogates a row of young concert-goers, with whom he absolutely cannot connect; playing like Amy Adams trying to talk to the aliens in Arrival. In one comment, aiming to be psych-analysis, but coming off as the frustrated cry of a grandpa whose errant boner is straining painfully against his slacks, he remarks how moshing “really looks like the ultimate orgasmic expression of what ails us in this culture.” Once again, there are clear gender issues at play, with particular umbridge at a female rocker, of whom Donahue is most shocked by the leather jacket and black lipstick — “not what your father dreamed for you.” He becomes obsessed with the idea of crowd surfing, where “they just pass you around,” and enraged by “the liberties that could be taken by all those horny guys!” which cuts to this brilliant reaction shot.

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Eventually, with the kids not swayed on the perils of moshing, even when their own parents are forced to sit alongside and watch the video, he brings out a couple whose son died at a Life of Agony concert. It’s horribly exploitative, with the nervous, grieving pair fielding questions like “was he ambulatory after he hit the floor?” and asked for details of the autopsy, though it turns out, he was pushed offstage onto his head by a bouncer, so… murder and not moshing? Footage of a stage-diver is run back and forth like the Zapruder film, with Donahue sneering “a future CEO right there.” He constantly sounds like he’s getting off on it all — “all those bodies bumping together” — and you expect him to take it out at any moment and start pumping his muck into the front row. When a young audience member accuses him of showing fighting, not moshing, an aggressive Donahue sneers: “this is what old people do, then? They screw up the real truth?!

Finally, Marilyn Manson makes his entrance, flanked by bandmates Twiggy Ramirez and Madonna Wayne Gacy, who — it has to be said — look hilarious, with Twiggy rocking a Myra Hindley wig and green 1950’s housewife dress. Donahue reads a long Manson quote regarding music-related suicides, and audience jaws unhinge when it gets an an “effing.” But the man himself is articulate and surprisingly well-behaved. This appearance pre-dates the release of Antichrist Superstar, and the shock persona’s greatly dialled-down, perhaps yet to be so burned by the negative media that he’s still earnestly playing the game. When he eloquently explains the thinking behind his stage-name — the dichotomy of Charles Manson and Marilyn Monroe being elevated to equal celebrity status by television like this — both the audience and Donahue just stare, open-mouthed, like they can’t even hear him behind the glass at the zoo.

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With all these shows, the best stuff is the audience questions, like the woman who demands to know why everyone onstage has got “Satanic signs all over you.” Twiggy responds by holding a small tape player up to his mic and playing a sped-up guitar riff. “That’s funny, ‘Twiggy’…” scolds Donahue. Another says moshing is a “self-centred way to live,” and “who knows what kind of perverts you have, the security touching and feeling the kids?!” A guy who looks like they should be chasing him in the next season of Mindhunter asks the teens, “kids, have you got violence other places in your lives, or is this kind of a fantasy thing for you?” Sadly, Manson’s line “I went to a private Christian school, see how I turned out” gets lost in the murmurs of discontentment, and when a rock club owner quotes a stat citing more people are killed skiing than moshing, there’s a grumbling from the audience of boomers that you can feel in your bones.

Despite the broey mosher in a baseball cap name-checking “local bands like Hermaphrochrist,” the Satanic evil of moshing turned out not to be the biggest killer of a generation, and Conservative parents turned their concerns to other threats, like vaccinations. But ridiculing goths wasn’t an entirely American phenomena, with one British show taking it further along the evolutionary path of the goth, to guests who were actual vampires. Vanessa Feltz has absolutely nothing to say that’s worth hearing, yet has been afforded baffling hours of airtime and column inches over her career. Perhaps the highlight of the Feltz oeuvre, barring her appearance in Brasseye — “I’m Marvin Gaye, shot by my own father” — is an episode of mid-90’s afternoon talk show, Vanessa, entitled Vampires and Goths.

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It’s sure to be an intelligent and even-handed look at a sub-culture, being that it opens with Vanessa bathed in green light and dry ice, and stroking a coffin, with a pair of plastic fangs shoved in her gob. First guest, Sam, emerges to the strains of Thriller, in a red velvet cape. But we know how these shows work, and if you went on with a PhD in folklore to discuss feminist iconography in 15th century woodcuts of witches, they’d send you out of wardrobe with a pointy hat and broom. Sam’s deal is that she’s got ‘real’ fangs, which they harp on about, even though they only cost £30 and can easily be popped in and out. Regardless, Vanessa does a big “eeurgh!” Middle-aged male comedians with Netflix specials titled Triggered! moan about snowflakes and safe-space culture now, but fuck me, in the supposedly xxxtreme nineties, everyone was permanently on the verge of a faint, and outraged by anything that dipped as much as a toe outside the middle path.

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Sam, who bites men’s necks in pubs, is training to be a teacher, and the audience are very much not into that. A parent governor stands to announce she wouldn’t have that in her school; “your ideas to society today are wrong… you say you bite necks and stuff like that, it’s rubbish!” She’s livid at the idea a child might see the fangs, as though Sam would wear them to work. A women who looks like Charlie Chuck tells her “I wouldn’t be seen dead like that,” while a bloke with a horrible droning voice chastises with “you’re watching too much movies… you can’t be a teacher, it can’t happen.” As the show’s psychiatrist (previously the shrink on Have I Been Here Before?) talks about vampire myths, all Vanessa wants to know is if Sam’s “just a very sad kind of sicky?

Vanessa is a patronising presence, with the insincere eagerness of a bored kindergarten teacher counting down the hours until gin o-clock. The audience behind her form an incredible gallery of 90’s looks; all big shirts, curtains and ponytails; gel-combed heads with spider-leg fringes; women with hair like instant noodles, and glasses so perfectly round, they could only have been forged by the gods. Next out are a pair of newlyweds who legally changed their surname to Dracul. Let’s take a look.

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For a pair so extravagantly dressed, their mild manner is delightfully British, but the thing that stuns the audience into silence is the revelation that, as well as a normal white wedding cake, they also had a sponge cake with black icing. Sacrilege! When they stick up a photo of their baby, the mere fact it’s dressed in black sets the audience grousing like they’d stuck a little Hitler tash on him. Yes, they named the baby Jareth Valen Lestat Dracul, but the idea this pair could be in charge of a child causes mass consternation in the audience of fuming dunces. A very serious women lectures that “something fundamental must be missing in your life,” while they’re mocked by a lad over their outfits, his arms folded as he fumes, “it’s really ridiculous, you should grow up and get a life!” Note that he is wearing a waistcoat over a denim shirt over a polo neck. The audience despises everything about the Draculs, from their hats to their parenting, to the fact they’ve got pet rats; which gets a grossed-out reaction in the good old nineties. Rats?! What’s wrong with a normal pet, like a cat named after Enoch Powell? When one man takes the mic to spit “there’s a difference between looking different and looking weird,” it educes a very loud and impassioned “YES!

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The lifestyle shaming is outrageous, and sure, they’re comedy sketch goths who’d be too cartoony for an episode of Keeping Up Appearances where Hyacinth accidentally double-books the church hall for a mayor’s silent auction with a Bram Stoker convention, but the crowd wants them lynched just for dressing funny. Nowadays, reality show oddballs or people with mental health issues are just laughed at by Simon Cowell, but in the 90s, we wanted them beaten until they bloody well stopped it. But we’ve still yet to meet an actual vampire. Bring out Lesley, who drinks blood, sleeps in a coffin, and claims to be immortal. Even in the interests of journalistic impartiality, Lesley’s really hot, in that Elvira/Morticia Addams way, and if I’d seen this episode when it first aired, aged 16, I’d have damaged myself. Vanessa takes her to task over drinking blood, which is a bit rich, considering her own habits.

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As they bring out Lesley’s drinking vessel; a skeezy-looking guy in a leather jacket; the audience ups pitchforks for a final round of abuse, in a series of back and forths between guests and gallery. Folded-arms guy takes another shot at the married couple, so incandescent, he can barely speak — which you simply must see below — while Lesley tells one detractor that she’d kill herself if she looked like him.

Soon, we’re down in the dirt, when Goth Bride (who in the biggest shock, turns out to be just 18), loses her rag, telling an audience member she hopes they never have children, and we go off air with Vanessa shaking everyone’s hand, as a close-up on Lesley’s boyfriend reveals a Nazi iron cross medal pinned to his jacket. Thanks to Youtube comments from Goth Bride, in a 2019 update, the pair have since divorced, while Lesley sadly left neither a comment, nor a forwarding address. As for Vanessa, the show soon moved to the BBC, where it was cancelled after allegations of hiring actors to portray fake guests. God, I hope none of those real vampires were just pretending.

This piece first appeared on my Patreon, where subscribers could read it a month before it landed here. If you’d like to support me for as little as $1 a month, then click here to help provide the world with regular deep dives about weird-bad pop culture, and all kinds of other stuff.

There’s a ton of content, including exclusives that’ll never appear here on the free blog, such as 1970’s British variety-set horror novella, Jangle, and my latest novel, Men of the Loch. Please give my existing books a look too, or if you’re so inclined, sling me a Ko-fi.

~ by Stuart on November 4, 2019.

One Response to “The Accursed 90s: Talk Show Goths”

  1. A good write-up. I adored The Ricki Lake Show in particular, but most American chat shows were essential viewing. Club Kids. Freaks. Drag Queens. They all looked so bright and colourful. We had Kilroy. Sigh.

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