Gossip’s Raw Power

(Originally published on MOLI 4/15/8)

Is the Gossip a dream? Watching the video for “Standing in the Way of Control,” the band’s ’06 club and UK hit that is featured on Gossip – Live in Liverpool, it’s hard to believe that a major label is promoting this concert album and DVD (Columbia’s Music With a Twist imprint releases Liverpool today). Or that the self-defined radical feminist band is playing on Late Show with David Letterman tomorrow night (April 16). And that in the UK, where proudly overweight singer Beth Ditto has been an unlikely, sometimes naked music-tabloid cover girl, the members are already rock stars. Even MTV is in on the action (the band’s part of the network’s “52/52” campaign). Is the revolution being televised?

Like the album, the “Standing” video (you can watch it in the View player) is a resolutely raw-power document. Singing in a throaty blues howl that actually merits the usual Janis Joplin comparisons, Ditto wears a shiny skin-tight minidress; in a recent Bust magazine interview, she talked about how she purposely wears exactly what fat girls are told they’re not supposed to. Token guy Brace Paine manages to play bass, lead, and rhythm guitar on one instrument, while drummer Hannah Blilie is the siren of the snare.

Back in the heyday of what Bikini Kill called Revolution Girl Style, I’d have been moshing with a pack of other tattooed women in some tiny Lower East Side anarchist space to a band like this. That was some 15 years ago, back before Gossip expressly moved from Arkansas to Olympia, Washington, to hook up with Riot Grrrls. Of course, even back then, major labels were dying to sign Bikini Kill and Sleater-Kinney; corporations like to buy into rebellion. The politicized musicians stuck with indies – and ultimately self-destructed (BK a lot quicker than SK).

It would be ridiculous to call the Gossip a sell-out. The band is scarcely trying to hide who it is; Music With a Twist is a label for gays and lesbians. In press releases, interviews, lyrics, everywhere, the band wears its politics on its sleeves. “This is for the faggots,” Ditto shouts before “Yr Mangled Heart” on Liverpool. (Later, she dedicates her cover of Aaliyah’s ’98 pop hit “Are You That Somebody” to that tragically short-lived R&B star.)

As much as the Gossip’s success makes me giddy with surprise and delight, it doesn’t mean the revolution is won. In some ways, they make it harder for their kin. Any rock conservative can now counter an argument that so-and-so’s career has been waylaid by homophobia, misogyny, fat prejudice, or the feminist backlash by saying, “Well, that didn’t stop the Gossip!”

But like a precision instrument led by a diamond-hard drill bit, Ditto et al are an unstoppable force. They’re that good. When there’s a band as mediocre as a dozen popular boy bands – or surgically altered pop tarts – and fronted by a big, fat, loud, strident, bull dyke that gets its MTV spotlight, then I’ll believe the revolution has been won.

Until then, somebody pinch me.

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Filed under Populism, Recommended listening

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