How come nobody talks about the Gossip anymore? My own, completely unsubstantiated theory is that there just wasn’t enough mindshare to go around; so much of the punk-blues trio’s mid-2000s blog appeal–a red-state band with blue-state politics and a big-voiced, big-bodied frontwoman–has recently reemerged in the more commercially palatable form of the Alabama Shakes. And that’s a shame, because as much as I like the Shakes, it was the less “palatable” aspects of the Gossip that made them so fascinating.
Fueled as much by riot grrrl as by roots rock, the Gossip were always a bit too radical to fit in with the turn-of-the-century “‘the’ bands” they superficially resembled. Frontwoman Beth Ditto, a self-described “fat, feminist lesbian from Arkansas,” would frequently perform as close to nude as was legally permitted: an act of aesthetic aggression against the indie-waif ideal, years before fat-positivity entered the mainstream consciousness. And their music was similarly bold: their 2002 EP Arkansas Heat closed with “(Take Back) The Revolution,” an 11-minute feedback-laced freak-out that fused the ragged glory of early White Stripes with the Third Wave feminist sloganeering of Bikini Kill.
But sloganeering needs substance to back it up, and in that regard “The Revolution” also delivers. Ditto’s lyrics are a rallying cry against the patriarchy that spans (at least) two generations: “My mother worked every day of her life for a man who don’t care / While all you do is criticize my body, my hair, or the clothes I wear… But I tell you when it’s all through / You’re gonna get what’s comin’ to you.” As a Pitchfork reviewer put it in 2002, “it’s a coy maneuver to resort to these Huggy Bear-like ideological theatrics over a rousing Howlin’ Wolf-style guitar line– especially since the former helped to complicate rock music’s sexual politics, and the latter can be used as a tool to effectively silence conversations about sexual politics if played in the right context.” Subtract the obligatory layer of early-2000s Pitchfork smarm, and I’m inclined to agree.
And it’s that “coyness”–I’d actually say subversiveness–that makes me miss the Gossip. It’s rare enough these days to find a good punk-blues band; but a good punk-blues band that is also capable of challenging sexual politics and inciting you to smash the patriarchy is rarer still. The Gossip, of course, later morphed into a much nimbler (and still great!) dance-punk act, following the sea change of mid-2000s indie rock from the White Stripes to Franz Ferdinand; their subversiveness was just as welcome in this context, and probably a more natural aesthetic fit. But I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for the original group: a band that rocked as hard as the Detroit-area “garage” acts I grew up on, but with a much more progressive, political edge.
Later today, I’ll post an interview I did with Gossip frontwoman Beth Ditto back in early 2006, right around the time of the stylistic shift described above. Then, tomorrow, we’ll return to our regularly-scheduled programming with a new post from Callie. Playlists are below!