Red Hott

I haven't admitted it since 2001 but The Gossip is my favorite band. Or, they used to be. I think my favorite band became the Breeders some time around 2004. That summer. But for a long time the Gossip were my favorite band. And for a long time I wouldn't admit that because I felt like everyone and their mother liked the Gossip and I didn't want to be like everyone else.

I was a teenager then.

The first time I saw the Gossip perform, they were teenagers, too. I think maybe Kathy was 20, but Beth and Nathan were 19 I think. On June 8, 2000, they opened for Sleater-Kinney and Bratmobile at the Fillmore in San Francisco. When they took the stage, I remember being really struck at the line-up. A roadie laid out four setlists: one for Beth, one for Kathy, one for Nathan, and one for SassyLassy. It totally blew my mind that the band had a full-time back-up dancer. For one thing, SassyLassy was a great dancer. But it was also really cool to be in a band and not have to be good at guitar or something. Just participate. I thought that was amazing. The Gossip played a really great set, and kind of brought down the house that night. They started with "Sweet Baby" and ended with "Hott Date". All their shows in those days ended with a marathon sing-along version of "Hott Date", Beth convincing everyone to sing along ('Come on, y'all it's not that hard! Doo-doot-doot-doot-doo-doo-doo! Just like Michael Jackson, y'all! Don't y'all wanna sing along with the Gossip?!'). I was almost crying. This band wanted people to dance. And the singer was really nice. And they just looked like they were having FUN. I was instantly obsessed and have been ever since.

The Gossip had formed when original drummer Kathy Mendonca moved to Olympia, Washington from Arkansas to go to Evergreen. Nathan and Beth followed shortly after. In Olympia, they played house shows until Calvin Johnson put out their first single, the self-titled 4-song e.p.

It's a favorite. I've listened to it every June for the last 9 years. The lyrics to "Red Hott" are actually the same verse sung twice, but live, the song actually used the phrase "red hot". It was about being sexually passive, I think. "If you wanna do it, well then come and do it. If you wanna use me, well then come and use me." In performance, SassyLassy and Beth would spank each other during the rev-up part of the song. Its lyrics are about being sexually passive but Beth's delivery is powerful. She's in control. It would be years before I thought about the phrase 'bossy bottom'.

By mid-summer 2000, the Gossip was a pretty buzzed-about band. Their opening slot for Sleater-Kinney introduced them to a lot of people. Their bare-bones, punk-y post-riot grrrl style appealed to Sleater-Kinney's fans. Especially since S-K was touring their arguably most conventional, least interesting material (All Hands on the Bad One). The Gossip's early-60s church revival vibe, and bluesy, anarchic, adolescent cacophony was a big contrast. A highlight of that tour was seeing Sleater-Kinney dance in the wings, shyly emerging onstage to bop along to the Gossip. Also, S-K often invited the Gossip onstage during their set. They usually ended their shows with a sing-along of "Fortunate Son" with Beth and Corin belting along. When I saw them in San Francisco, S-K gave the Gossip roses (it was the end of the tour). Beth teared up and announced that she had only had flowers once before in her life, and she was in the hospital then. The band played "Good Things" and Beth sang the second verse. They were a hit.

I went to the first Ladyfest that summer, in Olympia. I could say a lot about that week. It was sort of what would determine the course of my life. Anyways, everyone knew that the Gossip were the hottest game in town. In fact, there was one night at the Capitol Theater when NO ONE WENT. While there was what I'm sure was a totally great country music show, everyone who was cool (which included a 200lb black dyed-hair gothic closet teen-aged Max from Alameda, in town with his mother) knew that the place to be that night was the house party on the outskirts of town. There, Panty Raid was opening for the Gossip in some one's basement. It was probably the best show I've ever been to in my entire life. The Gossip was headlining an afternoon show at Ladyfest, too. At the Thekla. This show was fucking insane. Their album wasn't even recorded, but thanks to rabid fans who still traded cassettes and tons of internet communique's everyone at the Thekla knew the words to their songs. The picture above is from that show. I *think*. I could be wrong. It was sweaty. After that show, I remember asking a sweaty, cigarette smoking Beth Ditto for her autograph. She ended up getting in line right behind me for the Cat Power show the next night at the Capitol Theater. I couldn't believe she actually talked to me. Around this time (possibly right before), I remember SassyLassy posting on the Strap-On.org messageboard about a new band what was playing shows with the Gossip, called the White Stripes. Saying that if you liked the Gossip, you'd like the White Stripes. Which was true, I really dug their first record. History is funny. "History".

They toured a whole bunch that year. At some point, they had to cancel some dates because of Beth's voice. I may be misremembering but I think that was why. They recorded their first album, That's Not What I Heard around this time. Or I'm projecting. The album is really amazing. The songs are angular and sharp and really hook-y. But Beth doesn't scream. "Bring it On", from their live shows, was fucking insane. Beth would be screaming like a madwoman. On the album, the smolders. It works just as well, but I remember being struck by the difference. The songs on the first LP are about leaving. About being "Where the Girls Are". About leaving, moving to a cooler city. Finding your people. Their tour for that record was pretty great, too. I remember seeing them in SF and a friend of mine in high school got to party with the band back at their hotel room. Gossip about the Gossip. It was amazing.

Their next record, Arkansas Heat, was a sign of things to come. The band had opened for Sonic Youth even before their first album, and their live shows had a sort of feed-back noise band quality that their records up until that point had not. The Arkansas e.p. began to incorporate more noise, but also more 1960s influence. The song "(Take Back) the Revolution" was their new closer at their concerts, a sort of neo-hippie-soul happening. People jumped onstage. "Rules for Luv" remains one of my favorite songs, if only for the spoken refrain: "Now I hear people say: 'See that girl? She don't have class. She don't have this and she don't have that.' Well, I know something that I do have..." The e.p. is kind of a call to arms. If their previous album was about leaving, finding a cooler better place to be, then Arkansas Heat was about where you came from. The why of leaving. The work you do once you're in a new place. Burgeoning political content, but from a personal perspective. Not some heavy-handed academic theorist thing. Beth's politics have always been radical, but are also vernacular. Anyone can do it.

Movement came out in 2003. I remember listening to it a lot the summer after my freshman year of college. It seemed to be a distillation of all of the Gossip's elements: Kathy's sort of fierce, fretful punk clash drumming, Beth's slightly fuzz-boxed but otherwise right up front and center wails, and Nathan's increasingly dissonant and freaky guitar work. There wasn't a formula or anything to the songs, but the parts making up the band became more and more recognizable. Their subsequent tour with the Chromatics (then a noise band as well, before the Italo thing) was captured first on a cassette bootleg released by Nathan, then re-released on CD by Dim Mak, Undead in NYC. It sounds noisy. I bet it was amazing.

And to be honest, I was not really following the Gossip as closely by the time they released what has become their most well-known album, Standing in the Way of Control. There was been a time, maybe in 2001, when Beth said she recognized me from their shows, because I went and I danced my ass off. And some kids didn't dance. But by 2006 everyone was dancing to them. I didn't really go to a lot of shows then. That record, Standing, seemed like just a logical extension of what the Gossip had been doing before. Kathy had left the band by this point. To me, it was a great record, a little poppier and darker than their other albums and definitely more cohesive. It is absolutely a punk record, but it feels a bit... freer. The ESG bassline stuff and George Michael covers were cute. I was into that record, but I wasn't obsessed. (Sorry). I remained a fan.

I remember being sort of vaguely aware that while the record was doing ok in the US, selling alright to the Gossip's usual fans, that people in England really liked it. I was really surprised, and felt really excited for them to get famous. Beth Ditto has become a bona fide superstar in Europe. And remains totally radical and queer and punk and real. She doesn't want to alienate people just for the sake of pissing people off, but at the same time speaks her mind. She is a really cool type of star. She's vocal but not mean. There have been no controversies. She said one slightly negative thing about Katy Perry using lesbianism to sell records, and how that was exploitative of gay people. Which, um, it is. Beth Ditto should be president. She's nice. Like, she just actually seems like a nice person. This is good role-modeling.

I got the Gossip's new record, Music for Men, last night. I was sort of scared, because this is their first record since they've become international stars, as well as their major label debut. It's an amazing record. The Gossip are very cool, but not entirely in the sense of hipness. I mean, they are the sound of Young America, this is true. But they're not trendy. They're not riding some fad. They burst onto the scene well after Riot Grrrl was over, but Nathan (now Brace) and Kathy had a real genuine love for that kind of music. They mined the early 90s for a new way of presenting the sounds they liked. When the White Stripes and the Strokes were convincing America that a certain kind of vintage rock and roll swagger was cool, the Gossip was mining the 1960s for the idealistic political ecstasy found in soul music and pop music, but not necessarily in rock and roll. Fuck rock. They're punks. Movement and, to some extent, Standing in the Way of Control bear some similarities to the 1970s. Movement's artwork gave a bit of a nod to the Germs, one of the Gossip's queer-punk ancestors. Standing had a kind of dance-music vibe at it's heart, put through the meat grinder of Portland punk. But again, this is after the 1970s disco thing had already happened. After punk's re-re-revival.

Music for Men is an album influenced in part by the 1980s. It's a little bit new-wave. It is the record that the Yeah Yeah Yeah's It's Blitz! should have been. Beth sounds amazing, Brace has moved beyond the squalling guitar to find the liberatory noises across the disco spectrum, and Hanna Billie's drumming sounds important, crucial, vital. It sounds sort of like their last record, yes. But bigger. But further pushed. But even less constrained. Part of this free-ing of the Gossip is making a more polished sound.

There's some noise in the press about the Gossip selling out or needing to hold onto their punk/DIY roots. This is stupid. The Gossip, I think, can have a Top 40 pop record with really clean guitar sounds and still be a punk band. Beth does not have to prove her punk credibility. Punk is an attitude and a practice, not always an established form. Punk is about change and is in a constant state of flux. Punk is like hip-hop, it is a technology belonging forever to the young, who constantly upgrade it. Right now, there is a group of queer kids in a basement who are listening to Music for Men and starting their own band. And it's gonna be great.


Daniel Portland said...

i have been thinking about this a lot lately too. i jus finished my summer mix and "where the girls are" is on it. diggin music for men too.

3 encounters why i love the gossip:
rachel carnes was playing at reed with king cobra and i was literally breaking out in hives i was so excited. beth kept hugging me and telling me it was gonna be all right.

my best gal pal and i took the last bus to ne pdx to see the gossip (and the chromatics, i think. sidenote - favourite chromatics lyrics - "i'm such an ingenue, you wanna stick it in and show me what a man can do.") we didn't have any way to get home and so we were the last ones there. beth called us a cab.

brace used to have this really funny i think livejournal page (wish i could remember the address) through which i found out about his love of mr. winkle (http://www.mrwinkle.com/). so when i came upon a mr. winkle calendar i decided to deliver it in person. he was djing downstairs at a get hustle show. but to go downstairs you had to be of age. the girls and i were taking turns getting high and hopped up in the bathroom and dancing like crazy and dreaming of how dreamy it would be to be with stephen malkmus. then after the show we saw that malkmus had been there the whole time and i asked him to take the calendar downstairs to brace. later when i saw the gossip at bottom of the hill i asked him if he got the calendar and he said it was hanging on his bedroom door.

Robert said...

Thank you so much for writing this post. I too have been following the gossip since "thats not what i heard" and have been obsessed with/blown away by Beth Ditto since then.

You're right: she's everything a 20-something queer punk should be. She's gracious, funny, and real. And you're also right about the new album. It's not a sell-out in any way, even if it's more polished.

Beth Ditto for President 2012.