Gossip. Girth. Gay. Goddess. Singer Beth Ditto and her fans know she’s all of those, because for every fat girl with a pretty face and loads of talent who’s ever been told she’d look prettier if she lost weight, Ditto has been exacting revenge as Gossip’s front woman every time she opens her mouth and sings. In fact, her entire career has been a fat finger in the face of a skinny entertainment industry. After the band’s 2006 breakthrough album Standing In the Way of Control, Gossip became immensely popular across the pond, and Ditto a British institution. Having once been named “The Coolest Person in Rock” by an NME poll is proof plenty; lists are silly, but for once, we agree. And not many American pop stars, particularly ones from Searcy, Arkansas, have won that distinction.
Even after a measly allotted 20 minutes with Ditto over the phone, I could instantly picture the two of us at the mall splitting a Wetzel’s Pretzel and cruising for guys (in her case, girls), or fanning ourselves on a verandah while sipping mint juleps. She’s sweet, chatty, unpretentious and still has an honest-to-goodness Southern accent. It’s the day before Gossip’s current North American tour, and the day of the U.S. release of their major label debut on Sony, Music for Men, produced by Rick Rubin. It’s a tongue-in-cheek title, and one that would’ve done well in the late ’80s when hair metal ruled. “People always say feminists don’t have a sense of humor,” says Ditto. “Hair metal was so derivative of queer culture. But you know, I was a huge hair metal fan. Huge. Mind you, I was 8 years old. I love Poison. I love the Scorpions. And my first cassette single was Skid Row’s ‘18 And Life.’”
After rumors of Rubin wanting to work with the band began circulating, Ditto, guitarist Brace Paine and drummer Hannah Blilie sat down with the producer in L.A. “He took us out to lunch,” recalls Ditto. “I’m so superstitious that I don’t let myself believe something until it actually happens. I didn’t take it seriously until we were eating with him, and we nonchalantly mentioned that we always wanted to do a live album. And he was like, ‘Let’s do it.’ The next thing I know, there was a live album (2008’s Live in Liverpool). That’s how it happened. I really feel like it was more about him approaching us then us approaching him. We’re not the kind of band that has the kind of self-esteem to approach somebody like Rick Rubin.”
“One of his amazing talents,” says Ditto on working with Rubin “is finding people’s strong suits, where they’re the strongest and nurturing that point, and filling those holes. When he sees a weakness, that’s when he comes in and he tries to lift that up so you can believe in yourself. He was always really honest. There’s a vision, of course, but there’s no mold that he wants to put you into. It’s very much a process of you guys working together.”
And the band’s undeniable strong suit is Ditto’s voice. Having an unconventionally beautiful singer who’s as successful in Europe as Beyonce may make for good publicity, but Ditto is, first and foremost, a pop-punk powerhouse vocalist who can out-sing any balladeer under water. She’s a joy to listen to. A streetheart, girlish and gutsy. Even at her rowdiest and most rebellious self, Ditto’s voice has a crystalline purity, as if the wildest thing that’s ever passed through those pipes was Gatorade. That makes her adaptable to nearly ever genre, whether she’s singing Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You,” or performing an ’80s relic like Heaven 17’s “Temptation” alongside Jarvis Cocker of Pulp, or recording a cover of “Careless Whisper” for a BBC Radio 1 compilation. And she’s all over the place on Music for Men, from the bluesy “Dimestore Diamond” to the relentlessly raucous “8th Wonder” to the disco funk of “Men in Love” and its kick-ass rolling bassline.
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If Ditto wanted to rest on her love affair with the British media, she’d have plenty to write the folks back home about. She’s another in a long line of American artists, going back to Hendrix, who’ve been better embraced abroad. She’s appeared on major award shows, hosted talk shows, written a regular advice column for The Guardian and recently created a clothing line for the English retail chain Evans. Ditto’s on the cover of the current Italian Rolling Stone licking her own toe, and back in 2007, she appeared completely nude — fold after fold of glorious skin, with a tattoo of two lips on her butt — on NME. And she has celeb friends in her wing and famous designers, including Alexander McQueen, designing for her.
“When you see buildings that are so old and so beautiful and they’re preserved, you grow up with an appreciation of art,” says Ditto. “That simple ethic doesn’t exist in the United States. That’s embedded in their culture. The first thing that gets cut in the U.S. is always art funding, and that is going to play a big hand in how we treat artists and how we treat society. Think about Jools Holland, Jonathan Ross. There’s nothing like that here. There’s nothing like a Jools Holland show (Later with Jools Holland) that’s based solely on music where you would get six acts in a room on primetime television. You would never get that in the U.S. because we don’t prioritize.”
Gossip’s popularity may not have translated well stateside, and Ditto may not want to consider herself a plus-size poster child, but she’s widened the margins of beauty every time she’s stripped on stage (girlfriend’s gotta breathe when it gets too hot). If she did see herself as a role model, she’d have the right approach. “It’s not about changing the landscape as much as it is about inspiring people to change their minds about themselves,” says Ditto. “A lot of it is fueled by activism and inspiration and for the future of women in music. I wouldn’t have met radical queer feminists like Charlotte Cooper. I don’t think that I would’ve ever been able to break out of the chain of ‘You are not pretty enough to be in a band,’ which is an absolutely absurd concept. And it’s absolutely what we’re told. Major labels tell their artists that all the time. I don’t try to change those people’s minds, I try to encourage other people to fight for themselves. And that’s how I have to see it, or else I’ll go crazy.”
Gossip performs at the Henry Fonda on Monday, October 26.