This is a story of a band born out of prejudice and will. Less grand things, too: church singing, boredom, riot grrrl feminism, outspokenness. It starts in Arkansas, but takes place mostly abroad, though Arkansas is never too far in the distance, even in Paris. The arc our heroes traverse is so unlikely — from poor and repressed to famous and naked — that, glossing over the particulars, it reads like a cliché movie treatment, tweaked just enough to be sold as new. Here's the pitch: “wish-fulfillment goes punk.”
At the center stands Beth Ditto, a 29-year-old Judsonia native. Ditto is many things, but at the crux of her fame, she's an overweight, outspoken lesbian with a voice like a hurricane.
A little more than three weeks ago, she and her band Gossip appeared on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” to celebrate the release of “Music for Men,” the group's fourth studio album and first on a major label. Unlike its late-night peers, “Kimmel” uses half a dozen cameras to film its musical guests. Viewers get off-kilter angles, pans, zooms. But save for a few moments of Gossip's performance, Ditto remained the focus.
And why not? She was the strangest sight to hit late night TV since Andy Kaufman started wrestling. Barely five feet tall and just north of 200 lbs., she looked somehow petite and voluptuous at once, with one bare, square shoulder peaking out of an asymmetrical dress, round breasts and hips and legs like triangles descending to the point of four-inch heels. Her hair, dyed safety-orange, appeared to have been curled and then shocked upwards (a look that required her hairdresser to fly in from London earlier that day). That, coupled with bleached eyebrows and Japanese-style cat-eye-shadow, suggested a drag queen paying tribute to Vivienne Westwood.
Gossip, which was known as The Gossip until 2006, is a band rooted in punk. Its early albums sound exhilaratingly lo-fi — “punk damaged,” founding member and Searcy native Nathan Howdeshell described them recently — full of deranged blues notes, pummeled drums and hollering. But on “Kimmel,” the only glimpse of that past was aesthetic: Howdeshell wore a vintage Sonic Youth shirt. Otherwise, the band's performance signaled the latest phase of what's been a long evolution. Howdeshell played a clucking, rhythmic guitar figure. Drummer Hannah Blilie maintained a disco beat metronomically. And Ditto flexed her dynamics, starting with a coo, building to soul-inflected pop and climaxing with a diva wail like something out of “Tosca” by way of the Pentecostal Church. Somewhere Grace Slick sulked.
"I've been really surprised about what's been happening lately,” Ditto said over the phone a few hours before her “Kimmel” performance. She could've been talking about any number of things ? that she'd recently unveiled a clothing line in the British retail store Evans, that she and pop starlet Katy Perry were involved in a protracted war of words over the song “I Kissed a Girl,” that Gossip had played the ultra-exclusive Fendi party at Paris Fashion Week, that the band had been asked to record the theme song to “The Simpsons” for the show's 20th anniversary. But she was focused on Rick Rubin, the bearded music guru who co-founded Def Jam and coached Johnny Cash into his late-in-life creative frenzy. Two years ago, in a New York Times Magazine cover story, he called Gossip the best live band he'd seen in five years, and last year, he produced the sessions for “Music for Men” at Shangri-La Studios, a legendary Malibu recording space built to spec for Bob Dylan and the Band in the early '70s.
Rubin's involvement signaled a major turning point for Gossip, Ditto said.
“It meant that people were taking us seriously as a band, when we, personally, hadn't really even taken ourselves seriously as a band.”
On one hand, Ditto was being coy. For the last three years, she's been as big as Beyonce across the pond. Increasingly, throughout Europe, too (she's on the cover of this month's Italian Rolling Stone with her toe in her mouth). In 2007, after a British TV show adopted Gossip's “Standing in the Way of Control” as its unofficial theme, the song became a European smash. Now, in London, Ditto can't go out in public without the paparazzi following her. She's been on billboards and talk shows, and she remains an inescapable presence in the tabloids. The Daily Mirror recently ran a photo of her and her friend Kate Moss (yes, that Kate Moss) that epitomizes the dynamic between Ditto and the U.K. media at its coarsest. The headline read, “Want to look beautiful? Stand next to an unattractive friend.”
It's a relationship where Ditto plays the role of unconventional pop star, offering herself and her opinions as a rejoinder to the status quo in everything from fashion to sexuality. And the British press laps it up, shamelessly condemning, distorting and lionizing in turn.
So on the other hand, the notion that the band is only now winning respect after years of fame hints at an ongoing debate. One that's inspired not just by Ditto but every faddish artist from Elvis to Eminem. What's their celebrity all about? How do you separate art from provocation?
In the beginning, there was little consideration of either. “We got bored and just kind of started playing together,” original drummer Kathy Mendonca recalled recently by phone from her home in Portland, Ore.
All the principals ? Ditto, Howdeshell and Mendonca ? played a role in Searcy's tiny, but vibrant punk scene in the years leading up to the formation of Gossip. Howdeshell, who now uses the stage name Brace Paine, served as ringleader. He formed a handful of bands, which he remembers now as either built around trying to play really fast or trying to make a lot of noise. That he didn't know how to play an instrument didn't get in the way. “If you want to be in a band, and you love music, nothing should stop you. Talent is not an issue,” he offered for his senior quote in his high school yearbook (By contrast, on the opposite page, another Searcy High School schooler said, “I really like Christian music, but I'm also really into show tunes.”).
“I think Nathan's just now learning what chords are,” Ditto said recently. “He can play chords, but you say, ‘Play an A,' he'll say, ‘Huh?' ”
Howdeshell's window into DIY culture came from magazines and mixtapes (he happened on a Thrasher in Fred's), where he learned about feminism and bands like Bikini Kill and the Germs. He dyed his hair pink and accessorized with duct tape and black permanent marker. Once, he wore a dog collar to school. It caused an uproar. The school newspaper reported on it. Mendonca recalls him telling the paper, “I wanted to make the statement that men are dogs.”
That those strands of modern counterculture didn't take root in Searcy in any measurable way until 10 years after they'd taken hold in Little Rock and nearly 20 after they hit the coasts should surprise no one familiar with Searcy (“where thousands live and millions wish they could!” and, in full disclosure, where I grew up). If there are more churches per capita in a county in Arkansas, it's not by many. Because of their influence, the local cable provider didn't include MTV in any package until sometime around 2000. The city's biggest annual tourist attraction has long been “Spring Sing,” an Easter weekend musical revue staged by students of Harding University, a conservative Church of Christ school that otherwise discourages dancing.
Ditto grew up just north of Searcy, in Judsonia, a town contained within three-square miles, perhaps best known as the halfway point between Searcy and Bald Knob. Her family was large and poor, but also nurturing and liberal, she said recently.
“[They've] always been really accepting of everything that I've ever done, and not just accepting but extremely encouraging, extremely positive, funny and nice.”
Ditto came out to her mom around 15 as bi-sexual, and as gay to most everyone else in her life by the time she was 18. She wasn't ostracized ? her class at small, consolidated Riverview High School voted her “best personality” her senior year ? but she still naturally gravitated to the Searcy punk scene.
“I think a lot of kids who feel out of place, whether they're queer or not, were drawn to the weirdness in people,” she told Punk Planet in one of the band's first big interviews. “Being queer definitely made you an outsider, but it was the same for a kid who was a punk, a raver, artistic or just different.”
In 1998, Mendonca moved to Olympia, Wash., to attend Evergreen State College, and the following spring, she paid for airfare for Ditto, Howdeshell and another friend to join her. Everyone lived together that summer. The band formed in the basement. A few years later, all moved south to Portland, where the band continues to make its base when not on tour.
In its early years, Gossip rose to the top of the underground, which means it released albums on small but respected indies, toured grubby clubs and earned endorsement from famous bands that had earlier worked the same trenches like Sleater-Kinney. Mendonca left the band in 2005; Blilie, a veteran punk drummer, replaced her and helped aid the band's transition from distortion to disco-punk.
“Standing in the Way of Control” may've hefted Gossip and Ditto into the U.K. spotlight, but the singer's cover appearance on influential British magazine New Musical Express in 2007 ? nude, with breasts pendulous, folds of flab stacked on top of each other and underarm hair peeking out ? seemed to crystallize her fame. In the cover story, she bashed Paris Hilton and blamed gay men for size zero in the fashion industry, a quote she's since claimed was taken out of context, but one that nonetheless helped establish a warranted reputation for saying whatever the hell is on her mind. Media of all stripes descended. Feminist icon Germaine Greer wrote an editorial praising her for defying convention. The Guardian, around that time, invited her to write an advice column; she kept it up for a full year.
Among the mass accumulation of interviews she's given since she appeared nude on NME, Ditto's ratio of crazy to sensible (but unconventional) has been somewhere in the neighborhood of one to three. For every “I did ecstasy once ? and it ruled ? but fat people shouldn't do drugs,” she usually manages work in something about the beauty myth or take a jab at rigid notions of gender. Rescuing the word “fat” from the pejorative has long been a passion project. She's on record as hating the word “overweight” (she thinks it creates an unfair standard), and she has refreshingly enlightened ideas on body image.
“A body isn't something we're taught to love; it's something we are absolutely taught to fear no matter how ‘perfect,' ” she told the Village Voice recently. “I can tell you that the moment I let go of all the rules that had been instilled in me, my life opened up to possibilities I never would have imagined.”
Still, it often seems as if Ditto only wants to talk about Arkansas. Over the years, perhaps at least in part out of a keen sense of her audience, her stories tend to lean heavily on tales of repression and cornpone caricature. That she has one of those intractable Southern accents (when she says “rural,” it gets an extra “r”? “rur-ral”) makes them all the more convincing.
She's talked about her grandmother speaking in tongues. Of meeting Bill Clinton when he was governor at a fish fry and asking him to sign a dollar bill (“I think that's illegal, darlin',” she says he told her). Of getting stoned, killing squirrel and eating it, an anecdote that few profilers forget to mention. (She told Elle recently that she didn't mind being asked about it. “Everyone's just doing their job. At the end of the day, I'm not going to be mad when someone asks if I want ketchup with my fries, and I'm not going to get mad at people if they ask if I ate squirrel as a kid. Yes, I did. A lot of 'em. Tons. Trees full.”)
Perhaps emboldened at the prospect of digging up something really juicy, the Daily Mirror sent a reporter to White County not long ago to track down her family (an experience that has perhaps made them wary of the press; neither Ditto's mother or sister would go on record for this story).
“I think they were expecting to go and find some backwards people,” Ditto said. “But instead they just found people who said, ‘Yeah, people liked Beth in high school,' and, ‘We love Beth.' I think they were expecting to find corncob pipes and moonshine. It's not that far off ? they just went to the wrong place.”
As she's grown older, Ditto said she's grown more nostalgic.
“I love everything about the way I grew up. I love that my grandmother didn't have a bathroom until the '80s. I love that I know what it's like to go squirrel hunting. I love that I grew up poor and rural. I love that I grew up in a huge Southern family. I think about growing up fishing. Growing up by the river, with the mosquito trucks coming by and spraying.”
But move back? “You couldn't pay me,” she said.
As Gossip winds down its North American tour, the future looks promising. By and large, reviews have been positive for “Music for Men.” Even those critics who disliked it rarely seem able to finish a review without admitting that they are rooting for the band. Most if not all the band's recent concerts have sold out. Friday's concert in Little Rock finds Gossip on the precipice of a new kind of fame, one that could launch Ditto, if not into the American mainstream, near enough in the periphery for her to touch it. The prospect of her mixing it up on the covers of grocery-store-aisle magazines is enough to make your head explode.
“I don't put expectations out there very much,” Ditto said recently when asked about her hopes for the future. “I can be kind of superstitious.”
But her tone is unmistakably hopeful in “Pop Goes the World,” a song about Gossip's taking over the world thinly disguised as an anthem of change.
“We'll start a demonstration, or we'll create a scene…” Ditto howls. “We'll capture their attention!”
Who better than Beth Ditto to lead the revolution?