Hot Gossip 

How White County, Ark., thanks to way-larger-than-Kate Moss singer Beth Ditto, has punked the world.

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This is a story of a band born out of prejudice and will. Less grand things, too: church singing, boredom, riot grrrl feminism, outspokenness. It starts in Arkansas, but takes place mostly abroad, though Arkansas is never too far in the distance, even in Paris. The arc our heroes traverse is so unlikely — from poor and repressed to famous and naked — that, glossing over the particulars, it reads like a cliché movie treatment, tweaked just enough to be sold as new. Here's the pitch: “wish-fulfillment goes punk.”

At the center stands Beth Ditto, a 29-year-old Judsonia native. Ditto is many things, but at the crux of her fame, she's an overweight, outspoken lesbian with a voice like a hurricane.

A little more than three weeks ago, she and her band Gossip appeared on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” to celebrate the release of “Music for Men,” the group's fourth studio album and first on a major label. Unlike its late-night peers, “Kimmel” uses half a dozen cameras to film its musical guests. Viewers get off-kilter angles, pans, zooms. But save for a few moments of Gossip's performance, Ditto remained the focus.

And why not? She was the strangest sight to hit late night TV since Andy Kaufman started wrestling. Barely five feet tall and just north of 200 lbs., she looked somehow petite and voluptuous at once, with one bare, square shoulder peaking out of an asymmetrical dress, round breasts and hips and legs like triangles descending to the point of four-inch heels. Her hair, dyed safety-orange, appeared to have been curled and then shocked upwards (a look that required her hairdresser to fly in from London earlier that day). That, coupled with bleached eyebrows and Japanese-style cat-eye-shadow, suggested a drag queen paying tribute to Vivienne Westwood.

Gossip, which was known as The Gossip until 2006, is a band rooted in punk. Its early albums sound exhilaratingly lo-fi — “punk damaged,” founding member and Searcy native Nathan Howdeshell described them recently — full of deranged blues notes, pummeled drums and hollering. But on “Kimmel,” the only glimpse of that past was aesthetic: Howdeshell wore a vintage Sonic Youth shirt. Otherwise, the band's performance signaled the latest phase of what's been a long evolution. Howdeshell played a clucking, rhythmic guitar figure. Drummer Hannah Blilie maintained a disco beat metronomically. And Ditto flexed her dynamics, starting with a coo, building to soul-inflected pop and climaxing with a diva wail like something out of “Tosca” by way of the Pentecostal Church. Somewhere Grace Slick sulked.


"I've been really surprised about what's been happening lately,” Ditto said over the phone a few hours before her “Kimmel” performance. She could've been talking about any number of things ? that she'd recently unveiled a clothing line in the British retail store Evans, that she and pop starlet Katy Perry were involved in a protracted war of words over the song “I Kissed a Girl,” that Gossip had played the ultra-exclusive Fendi party at Paris Fashion Week, that the band had been asked to record the theme song to “The Simpsons” for the show's 20th anniversary. But she was focused on Rick Rubin, the bearded music guru who co-founded Def Jam and coached Johnny Cash into his late-in-life creative frenzy. Two years ago, in a New York Times Magazine cover story, he called Gossip the best live band he'd seen in five years, and last year, he produced the sessions for “Music for Men” at Shangri-La Studios, a legendary Malibu recording space built to spec for Bob Dylan and the Band in the early '70s.



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