This Is the Voice

In the summer of 2004, I found myself emceeing for a touring ironic pro-war hardcore band. My orders were simple. Before each set I was to find an empty stairwell, slip into my Uncle Sam costume, charge onstage, and denounce the audience's atheism, doping, free-love depravity and general dearth of patriotism. It wasn't always an easy gig. In Berkeley and San Francisco, groping drunks blocked my way, astonished that they'd finally found the entire United States of America in one easy-to-manhandle persona. “You,” they would hiss, tugging at my fake whiskers. “You fucked up big time coming to THISH [sic] show!

In Sacramento, it appeared we'd found our crowd. People weathered my zingers with good humor. The ironic pro-war hardcore band received polite laughter at their ironic appeals to invade Syria, Iran, North Korea and France. The audience appeared to be in on the joke, which made the night's moment of disconnect that much more jarring. The ironic pro-war band introduced an ironic pro-life song—”You DO know it's murder, right?!”—and a terrible silence enveloped the crowd. Too late, I thought of writing SATIRE on a cardboard sign and holding it aloft. It struck me that I had simply not noticed the many large, angry, shaved-headed ladies in attendance. The feeling of impending skinhead brutality recalled the worst of the last century's CBGB matinees.

The Gossip headlined. This was their audience, and when the band took the stage all was well. In person as on record, singer Beth Ditto is the star of the show; she could have followed a botched cockfight and still made for an enjoyable evening. I have seen Ditto's voice compared to that of Etta James, Janis Joplin, Peggy Lee, Bessie Smith and Ann Wilson. The voice is sultry, brash. It implores that we cease doing its owner wrong. For those of us who have dabbled in live vocals, the Voice is a source of gnawing jealousy. When combined with her stage persona—pro-queer, pro-fat, all swagger—the Voice is a freakish superpower.

I've read praise of Ditto as a backhanded swipe at her band mates. That is not implied here. Their sound, labeled “blues-punk” by those lacking firmer reference points, would feel manufactured in the hands of a lesser group. The band's tours with the White Stripes and Sleater-Kinney seem evidence not so much of luck as meritocracy. The band's much-mentioned move from small-town Arkansas to Olympia, Washington, would be viewed as opportunism if not for the raw talent of all three members—Ditto, guitarist Brace Paine and drummer Kathy Mendonca (since replaced by Shoplifting's Hannah Blilie).

Olympia bequeathed to the Gossip a chronic problem of female-fronted bands; critics (mostly male) assigning motives and omitting or distorting politics. Most Gossip reviews I have read dissect the band's lyrics to the point of unfunny bummerdom. Yes: divorced from their songs, Ditto's sentiments can come off as cornball. Without the emotional muscle of music, whose lyrics do look good on paper? And I've heard an equal amount of grumbling from friends (mostly female) that the band's words are “pedestrian” and “redundant.” This is the bane of the talented band: unfair expectations from both directions. It is this writer's opinion that only one critique holds up: for a band with such a fat-positive message, the Gossip sure has a thin sound. The addition of a guitarist, bassist, keyboardist or sax lady would all be wonderful things.

Writing the words “fat-positive” is another unfunny bummer. The phrase makes me feel the way I did that night in Sacramento, after the show, loitering in my patriotic Halloween duds and unsure who I had and had not offended. It's great that “fat” is making the same verbal trek to polite conversation as “queer.” As a hetero white dude who occasionally dresses up as our nation's father, I can work with either confusing bit of semantics. But I've seen the band play twice now, and both times I felt like a creepy intruder. They are the kind of band that can change the life of a 16-year-old, that can bestow confidence upon the insecure. Where does that leave those of us who have way too much confidence?


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