The Gossip and the Great Fat Majority

By Gianmarc Manzione
Originally published on Culturespill.com

“I like the word “fat” . . . what’s funny is that they treat it like a minority, but it’s actually the majority and I wonder why we haven’t gotten it together, because we are the majority . . . really most of us are fat asses, you know.”

– Beth Ditto, The Gossip

If the jury was still out on whether Arkansas is the armpit of America–it is, after all, the birthplace of Wal-Mart–Beth Ditto has donned the black robes, adjourned court in a characteristically thunderous manner, and settled it once and for all: “Fuck, no. No. Never,” she says as Matt Gonzalez of Pop Matters asks if she’d ever consider moving back to Searcy, her small hometown in Arkansas where lesbians are subject to the fiery wrath of the Lord and “punk” is the new communism, “There’s no way, no way. No, no, no.” OK, OK, we get it: Arkansas sucks. When you’re talking to Beth Ditto, a Southern Baptist lesbian punker with a penchant for feminism and fried squirrel, you kind of expect her to tell you how she feels about things. And she does. This is a woman who holds nothing back in life–not on stage, not over the phone, not anywhere. And that’s why she fronts one of the greatest bands to surface from the festering pond of indie rock in years.

That Ditto’s band The Gossip garners far greater notice in the UK than in the US is proof enough of their greatness–take The Eels, for example, a monumentally significant group summarily ignored in the States but whose every album’s considered for record-of-the-year honors in NME editorial meetings–and so it’s no shocker that their first record for Columbia, on subsidiary label “Music with a Twist” which seeks LGBT talent, is a live album cut at a club in Liverpool before a writhing crowd of 500 people whose stunned shrieks accompany every wail, lick and thump the band delivers. Whether those shrieks are gasps of horror or expressions of joy is anyone’s guess–the two emotions tend to be interchangeable at most Gossip shows, especially when Ditto starts taking her clothes off–but Ditto, a proudly rotund modern incarnation of the Mama Cass she adoringly listened to as a kid, performs to inspire both, and if you don’t like it, you can shove it.

“I don’t really care. I could give a shit,” she tells the A.V. Club, “I think if I were someone who takes themselves completely seriously as an artist I would, but I don’t take myself that seriously, I don’t think Gossip takes itself that seriously.” Look, the woman’s made a life-long crusade of bringing “heavy” back (she reportedly weighs in at 210), tells grand tales of smoking weed from a Coke can with friends down home who shoot squirrels out back for frying when they get the munchies, and frequently removes her clothes live to expose a hulking pair of pale legs that quiver with cellulite as she romps through the rest of the set in a bra and panties. It may also be important to note at this point that she neither wears deodorant nor shaves her armpits, because “punks usually smell.” “Serious” may not exactly be the woman’s M.O., but try telling that to a single person who’s sat through five minutes of The Gossip’s uproarious live act–these kids mean it.

Gossip guitarist Nathan Hodeshell (A.K.A. Brace Paine) rips such a nasty flame through Live in Liverpool that the album sounds like a devastated Jack White blasting an amp apart by himself in the middle of an abandoned and burning garage. Ditto, flailing and twisting in place as a quilt of sweat cements her self-made clothes to her body, belts out a tune like it’s the last piece of music the world will hear before an imminent nuclear holocaust. And drummer Hannah Blilie fuses every groove with a snarling backbone of disco that directs LCD Soundsystem to the back of the “cool” line at once. Yes, this is most certainly the band that Rick Rubin went to see one night to declare that it was “the best show I’ve seen in five years.”

It’s also a band you’ll be hearing about a hell of a lot more–this article, after all, results from the fascinated but profound trauma I experienced as Ditto and her rockin’ posse took the stage for an MTV performance the other night. If I recall correctly, my various responses ranged from a bewildered “WTF” to desperate and groveling 7-year-old-girl cries for my mother; but this, I learned after a bit of research, is a perfectly normal and scientifically documented symptom of initial exposure to The Gossip. It takes a minute to reconstitute your mind in such a way that the spectacle they put on becomes comprehensible–and when that happens, there’s no turning back. In short, I’m hooked.

Beth

Ditto’s crusade to put the human back in pop music is as admirable as it is sincere. Rarely will you meet someone as comfortable in her own skin as Beth Ditto–the woman did pose nude for for On Our Backs, for Christ’s sake, a lesbian erotica magazine run exclusively by women. At 210 lbs., that’s pretty much my definition of “comfortable.” It’s a courage she brings to every second of her stage performance, a kind of “fuck you this is what real people look like” schtick that wins her an understandably vast amount of respect. “I don’t want to look like Britney Spears, I just don’t want to. She’s Hideous,” Ditto explains, “I just like food too much, and I don’t want to change. I spent so much of my childhood trying to change, and I just got sick of it.”

And before we all weep into our double-pump Venti no-sugar soy vanilla lattes about the discriminatory semantics of the word “fat,” we may want to listen for a minute to Ditto herself: “I like the word ‘fat’,” she tells Pop Matters, “people bitch about fat people who are quote unquote overweight, which is a term that I hate, because it sets a standard for people to be.” In an industry dominated by plastic pop wannabes on steady diets of locust, bean sprouts and tape worm, Ditto’s daring assertion that real people make music too is a warmly welcome concept.

Amid all of Ditto’s well-publicized eccentricities, though–publicity whose flames she seems to fan at every opportunity–it’s easy to lose sight of how powerful and genuine a band this is. Joining a not-too-crowded list of great three-piece rock groups (Nirvana, The Police, Cream), The Gossip are a trio that pack more attitude than a rock stage has seen since Dylan turned to his band and ordered them to “play fucking loud” after some forgotten imbecile in the crowd called him “Judaaasss!” for going electric in ’65. While earlier projects such as their Arkansas Heat EP or 2003′s relentless Movement convey that ferocity as effectively as a studio allows (was it Cyndi Lauper who said that recording in a studio is kind of like faking an orgasm?), nothing captures it more clearly than 2008′s Live in Liverpool.

Ditto herself is the first to admit that their studio output sounds a little canned at times, particularly on the comparatively tame Standing in the Way of Control, an album whose title track, a cry of rage against anti-gay discrimination, nonetheless became their best-known tune to date. “If I weren’t in this band, I would never listen to it,” Ditto concedes in laughter, “but I would go see it. It’s a band you would go see that you don’t necessarily listen to.” As usual, Ditto may be overstating the truth, but as the scorching torrent of meaty riffs and grooves she dresses in her full-bodied wail throughout Live in Liverpool proves, that doesn’t mean she’s wrong.