Confession: I have never really listened to the Gossip, much less seen them perform live. This is not because I have any reason to think I wouldn't like them, but because I am old and put "paying attention to new music" on my Fuckit List somewhere around 1998. (How old? Old enough that I nearly wept when I followed this link to a gallery of "Tiger Beat Heartthrobs Then and Now," expecting to find Kirk Cameron and the Coreys.) Yet despite being unfamiliar with the Gossip, I am tremendously familiar with the band's lead singer, Beth Ditto. This is because she is fat.
It's not surprising that I would be aware of an unapologetic fat person who's in the public eye to any degree; that goes with the territory of what I do. What's surprising is that everyone else is aware of her, too. In the last year or so, Ditto has shown up in umpteen magazines -- including buck-nekkid on the covers of Love and NME -- designed a new line of clothing for U.K. plus-size retailer Evans, and even had a doll made in her likeness (or a thinner version of it, anyway) to promote the line. She's palled around with famous fat-hater Karl Lagerfeld, initiated a "band feud" with fake lesbian Katy Perry (Ditto's a proud real lesbian), and oh yes, recorded a new Gossip album that comes out next week. You could be forgiven for forgetting that last part.
But you shouldn't forget it, says Ditto's friend and fellow indie rocker Carrie Brownstein (of Sleater-Kinney) in a post at her NPR music blog. Noting that Ditto's especially well-known in Great Britain, Brownstein writes, "The U.K. press covers Ditto the same way they cover everything, like a rabid stalker. But for how obsessed they are with Ditto, they aren't really talking about her music, or maybe it's that they can't. They can't, because they're always talking about her size and her weight." She points to a recent Guardian review of a Gossip show in which Elizabeth Day begins by lamenting the focus on Ditto's body but goes on to serve up weight wisecracks and food metaphors galore. I'm personally rather fond of this (London) Times piece in which Giles Hattersley pronounces Ditto "brilliant" and "fabulous," but also notes that he's surprised by how nice it is to hug her because "There's always that slight worry that fat people are going to be a bit whiffy." And then there was British GQ editor Alex Blimes' recent assertion that fashionistas are merely using Ditto as a shield against criticism of their usual fetish for very thin models: "Clever, huh? That'll get the feminazis off their case. How can anyone say they only promote thin women when they are so enamoured of a porker like her?" Oh ho! Speaking of clever!
Not content to slam just Ditto's weight and influence on the fashion world, Blimes then goes on to describe the Gossip as "the one-hit wonders who provide Ditto with a night job," and "a deeply average, resolutely unsuccessful rock band." Them's fightin' words, if you ask Brownstein: "The Gossip has been on fire for ten years. Beth Ditto is one of the most amazing singers and performers in contemporary music." As thrilled as I am to have Beth Ditto as a fat-positive icon -- and as grateful as I am to her for publicly weathering an endless torrent of fat hate with grace and a healthy dose of "screw you" -- Brownstein's got a point that it would be nice if folks actually noticed the music alongside Ditto's size. (Or maybe even -- dare we dream? -- noticed the other two hardworking and talented musicians in the band, Brace Paine and Hannah Blilie, whose names, of course, I had to look up.) So I just watched the video she posted, for the Gossip's "Listen Up." And though I don't have much post-1998 music to compare it to, I do indeed think it rocks just as much as Ditto does personally. Watch it yourself and see what you think.