“I have this attitude — I dare you to say no to me,” says potent leading lady Beth Ditto. Having just wrapped the Euro leg of Gossip’s tour Ditto is at home in Portland catching up on laundry and media interviews and readying herself for the band’s North American dates (now in full swing). “When it comes to music, clothes, art, censorship, whatever — I dare you to say no to me. I dare you.”
Bold and compelling, Ditto knows what she wants. And with the recent Columbia Records’ release of Gossip’s disco-punk dazzler Music for Men and Ditto’s clothing line Beth Ditto for Evans, everyone wants a piece of Ditto — particularly in Europe, where she’s been crowned superstar extraordinaire, paparazzi trailing her every move.
Is it weird?
“It’s really weird,” Ditto laughs. “It’s a lot to take in. The first time I saw paparazzi, I didn’t realize that’s what it was. I had no idea. It was like seeing snow for the first time. It was really strange. It never occurred to me that people would actually want to take a picture of me.”
The media’s obsession with her body borders on pathological. Ditto, however, is unfazed. “I’m not at all surprised that people are focused on my body. Of course they are. Because I’m a woman — women’s bodies always come up — and because I’m fat. It’s objectifying me in a completely different way, whether they think my body is ugly or cool or beautiful or whatever. Positive or negative, the conversation is the most important thing.”
It was Gossip’s 2006 disco-punk LP, Standing in the Way of Control, that propelled the band into the spotlight. That the Olympia-bred trio (with Brace Paine on guitar and bass and Hannah Blilie on drums) is poised as a major industry contender is incredible — and much-deserved. The disjunction, however, between queer punk and mainstream culture can be a tough gap to straddle. “In an interview earlier today someone asked, ‘What is it about playing to a gay audience that you like so much?’ And I was like, ‘It’s great! Just to know that you’re understood –—you don’t have to explain to them what transgendered means, you don’t have to explain to them what fat-positivity means.’ I mean, sometimes you do, but it’s more common knowledge. You don’t have to explain yourself.
“When I won international artist of the year for Glamour in the UK it was based on a lot of different things, my body being one of them, talking about fat politics. But not that long ago I did an interview with Glamour in the US and this woman had no inkling — and it’s not her fault, it’s a language that’s not accessible to everyone — but she had no inkling of an idea of what fat-positivity is. Her idea of fat-positivity was watching The Biggest Loser and thinking that the coaches are doing those people a big favour. And I was just like, ‘You have no scope of what my community and scene is about at all.’ And you know that feeling of having to explain yourself to people over and over again to only reveal at the end of a 30-minute interview that they had no idea what you were talking about nor did they really care to grasp it — it’s defeating sometimes.”
On the flip side, Ditto’s also feeling the tug from queer punk fans. Take, for example, her nude cover for Love magazine which was, in fact, tweaked to make Ditto bigger. “Yeah, I thought that was amazing,” says Ditto. “I also think it’s really amazing that people will say, ‘Oh, you were Photoshopped? Ugh.’ You know, I’m naked. What the fuck else do you want from me?” Ditto laughs. “It’s really interesting the way activists and your community want so much from you and then the mainstream wants this other thing from you — one is fighting the other and there’s just no way for either side to understand the other.
“You know, I’ve got my close friends, I’ve got my queer scene, I’ve got my fat scene. But sometimes I do feel like I’m looking around and it’s like I don’t have anyone to hold onto for this. I am out there and it is me.”
When the band hit the studio to record the infectious, glittering glory that’s Music for Men, Ditto, for the first time, began to take herself seriously as a songwriter, thanks in part to the support of industry heavyweight Rick Rubin (Johnny Cash, Public Enemy, Run DMC), who helmed the production. “It was incredible. He really nurtured our process. He knows that no one knows you more than you do. And he really helped us get to know ourselves, to be more comfortable with ourselves than we were.”
Was the process ever intimidating? “I have a problem actually,” Ditto laughs. “I’m not intimidated by people. That’s my problem. Grace Jones and Yoko Ono are the only two people I’ve ever met who actually made me feel speechless. Other than that I feel like at the end of the day we’re all just people. And without each other’s input, we’re not going to get anywhere if we’re working on a project together.”
Ditto, who’s never had a singing lesson in her life, chalks up the blistering brawn that’s her voice to growing up with six siblings. “I’ve always had a really loud voice. I had to be loud to be heard. It really is that natural. It’s so natural that I could never make it pretty, perfect. I could never sound like, I don’t know, Ella Fitzgerald. It’s not that pretty — it’s kind of just rough.
“But it’s mine. My voice was one of the only things that, growing up in Arkansas as this weirdo fat kid, people really noticed about me. They were always really nice to me about it, in a place that wasn’t always so nice.”