Every time The Gossip's Beth Ditto strips her 15-stone figure down to her underwear, she runs the risk of reducing herself to a novelty, or a freak show. You don't have to go far, in even allegedly liberal circles, to hear her band identified by the phrase "the fat bird", or to hear repulsion at the sight of her expressed.
Of course, this makes many points for her. Rock's margins are full of full-figured men, accepted for equally giant voices – the Pixies' Black Francis, Pere Ubu's David Thomas and all-time soul great Solomon Burke among them.
Ditto invites less sympathy, partly because, perhaps giddy with attention after an Arkansaw childhood in which she was despised as both fat and lesbian, she sometimes spouts wild nonsense, such as her sympathy for her country's high school shooters of fellow students. Again, though, compare this with the desperate willingness to say anything to please of almost every other current female artist, bar Amy Winehouse. Perhaps we've just forgotten what true punk provocation sounds like.
The best thing to do may anyway be to forget all of this. Because, on first hearing The Gossip's breakthrough fourth album, Standing In The Way Of Control, Ditto's figure and views were unknown. All I experienced was the electrifying jolt of a great soul record, graced by a tremendous singer. And that's what The Gossip return us to tonight.
"I only want what I deserve," Ditto is shrieking within minutes, having already insisted on "The rights invested in me," like a punk President. If George Bush ever had the nerve to wear her shocking pink, skin-tight jump suit, the world would be a better place. But when she follows this by saying, "If you take it, it's your choice... this is a queer song," we are firmly in the other America, the pop culture one which, beneath the governmental radar, remains a beacon of liberty.
The bass, drums and occasional off-stage synths of the rest of The Gossip power what is essentially an explosion of Phil Spector's Wall of Sound. Ditto is, of course, no circumscribed female figurehead for a man's vision, like most of Spector's singers, but a stormy representative of herself.
"Why are you afraid of fat girls?" she then asks. The rare sight, in modern rock, of someone ramming a difficult question down our throats unfortunately swamps the torch song subtlety of Ditto on record. The compensation is the incendiary, insurrectionary "Standing In The Way Of Control", mostly left to friends and fans to dance to and sing last night. Her band's funk playing remains perfectly understated, while Ditto chooses not to strip, or stage-dive. But the thrilled buzz of the sexually various, glamorous crowd in the street afterwards shows that she has already done enough.Reuse content