Friday, December 4, 2009

Beth Ditto: Rock and Vogue Personified

In this post, I salute Beth Ditto, lead singer of the soulful punk trio The Gossip and the most unlikely rising star of the fashion industry. Beth is an overweight lesbian from Arkansas who doesn't shave her armpits or wear deodorant, who often strips down to her underwear onstage, is a fierce supporter of feminism and DIY and has intimidating vocal chops.

The Gossip, a favorite band of mine, has received little recognition in the US (they're more successful in the UK) until tabloids and gossip bloggers got a look at Ditto: her experimental appearance is both shocking and intriguing. Basically, she declares herself a lover of fashion, REAL fashion, and at the same time denies the "rules" of the game: she's not interested in losing weight, she wears tight clothes that show off her form and likes to clash rather than blend in.

This video from a profile elaborates upon Ditto's unique rise to fame in the fashion and music world.

The reasons I admire Ditto are pointed out in this video. She fully appreciates the power and beauty of dressing oneself for fashion, that fashion is art, that the industry may be stereotyped as "shallow" but that doesn't make a lover of fashion so. I love that she isn't shamed because she doesn't fit the size 2 sample but IN FACT was mentored by super skinny supermodel Kate Moss and allowed to design her very line of clothing for British plus size boutique Evans. The clothes are outrageous and fun and punk and flashy and sexy. But they truly stand out because there are few outlets that allow women of a larger size wear such things.

Now she has become the rock star of "plus-sized fashion" a term that practically didn't exist, until now. She poses for magazine covers, flaunts her naked body and is chummy with the epically famous Chanel designer Karl Lagerfeld (left).

I truly admire Beth Ditto for her role in the fashion world because her genuine love of style and dressing for expression and fearlessness of fitting in has turned the industry's eyes on her; seemingly, body acceptance and a broader view of what can be in vogue and beautiful might be subject to change because of her.

When The Gossip was invited to play in Paris at Fashion Week for label Fendi, she was followed by another queer feminist, jouranlist Michelle Tea, who covered the experience for The Believer.
Tea writes:
"Even though I have been here all week, knowing that every moment was leading to this, watching Beth accosted by photographers and flattered by designers, I still cannot get over how this little band that I have known for so long, this indie queer feminist punk band, is the absolute star of the Fendi show. The reality is staggering. In many ways it shouldn't be a surprise — less-talented, less-interesting, less-charismatic artists get famous all the time. They just tend not to be so outspokenly queer, so flamboyantly fat, so poor in their roots, so disconnected from the music industry, with no secret dad producer or mom publicist. The Gossip got to this lit-up stage in Paris through the force of their own dogged dedication to their DIY garage-rock band. It makes my eyes fill with fucking tears."

I salute Beth Ditto and The Gossip -- true heros of fashion and rock music.

Beyond her role in fashion, Beth Ditto is just one cool bitch. She publicly bashed singer Katy Perry for her insanely popular song "I Kissed A Girl," which Ditto calls a "boner dyke anthem" for "straight girls who like to turn guys on by making out or like faking gay," among other valid disses.

And finally, but most importantly, The Gossip is a fuckin' rad band, in which Ditto sings with intense soul. The three-piece band is stripped down and garage-style, bassy, funky, danceable and lyrically divine.

I'm really happy for The Gossip and Beth Ditto. Enjoy the video for their song "Jealous Girls."

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Branching Out: Punk's Assorted Sub-Genres: 4


ORIGINS:USA, West Coast, Late '70s
MEANING: Goth punk, sometimes called deathpunk, has its roots in early rock and roll from the 1950s and '60s, where some horror-themed acts romanticized death and monsters for novelty. Other influences were '70s camp acts like as Alice Cooper and KISS, whose quasi-evil personas were all part of the fun.

Horror movies (from the terrible ones to the best) were another direct influence, where bands drew from the spooky, epic and daunting power and themes the films possessed. Other influences were voodooism, Christianity, and surrealism. When it emerged in the late '70s as a legitimate punk offshoot, those who favored the dark and evil side of punk rock found a niche in Los Angeles, where the majority of the scene grew, and in New York where a smaller portion developed.

Goth punk has a very distinctive sound when compared to its other sube-genre brethren. Guitar chords were simple but echoey, with an emphasis on the bass and repetitive drumming. A spooky atmosphere was created with scratchy guitars and/or sinister synth sounds.

While the instruments' main purpose was to create eerie atmosphere, the singers (usually with gnarly voices) were left to create lyrics of diverse subject matter: some are lonesome, creepy and sad, while others were upbeat and tongue-in-cheek about cannibalism, murder and alien invasion.

Varied. Some bands, like LA's The Flesh Eaters, were merely black-clad and deviant-looking; others, like
Christian Death, above, took on a gothic, burlesque look with pale made-up faces and elements of lingerie. New York's The Cramps took musical cues from the early '60s rockabilly genre, and their look combined elements of 1960s kitsch and the kinky styles of bondage culture, seen below.

Basically, these bands aimed to look creepy, offbeat and wicked.

STARS: My pick for the biggest star in the goth punk genre are the self-proclaimed "horror punks" known as the Misfits. Musically, their early songs were short bursts of fury led by lead singer Glenn Danzig and his trademark howl. Song material was lifted straight out of B-rated horror films and even the Kennedy assassination.

They are iconic for their Fiend skull logo
, the "demon lock" hairstyle, and their constantly changing line-up since Danzig left the band in 1983. As the band re-formed, the musical style changed from furious punk jams to more lyrical and melodic rock -- all while keeping death and horror as their hallmark ethos.

How evil are the Misfits? Hell, these guys were once arrested for allegedly robbing the grave of a voodoo mistress in New Orleans, only to skip their court date to perform in Florida. I love this band, needless to say, and I saw them recently (with only one surviving original member) and they are as hard, fast, and evil as ever.

I couldn't find a video of the band actually performing that wasn't piss-poor quality, so here's a fan video with their horrific track "Last Caress" off their debut album
Static Age, aka the ONLY ALBUM THAT MATTERS.

Branching Out: Punk's Assorted Sub-Genres: 3


ORIGINS: United Kingdom, 1970s

Here we have what one could call the opposite of the art punks. Oi! punks were white working class fucks who were actually pissed (about not getting paid, being hassled by the police, unemployment, running out of booze), and were none too pleased with the "trendy university people using long words, trying to be artistic...and losing touch” in the words of Steve Kent, guitarist for Oi! punk band The Business.

The term "Oi!" is Cockney slang for "hey," and summarizes the meaning behind the movement: "Hey, stop talking, let's get fucked up."

SOUND: The sound of Oi! punk laid the format for most general "hardcore" punk music. It consists of ferocious drumming and explosive three-chord guitar riffs, often repetitive and varying slightly from song to song. Musicianship was NOT a major consideration for Oi! punks. Vocals were often shouted and usually hard to to discern to the untrained ear. It's common to hear a "shout and shout back" theme in their songs, in which the vocalist(s) are echoed by their audience or set up the crowd
for a response.

This is all part and parcel to the equality of the low-class nature of Oi! musicians and their fans. Oi! shows also set the standard that hardcore punks have adopted, where the stage is not elevated in the performance space so that the crowd and band are on the same (proverbial) level.

An Oi! punk's style is essential to their scene.
Note: There is some confusion and misinformation when it comes to "Oi!" punks and "Skinhead/Nazi" punks. Their looks are similar and some bands fall into both categories, but it is important to note that not all Oi! bands and fans are skinheads, Nazi's or sympathizers. It happens to be that the source of the Oi! movement also has roots in the skinhead/Nazi punk movement. While there are similarities, it's important to not lump them all in the same racist category, as many Oi! punks are strongly against racism or bigotry.

Many Oi! punks wore their hair short, mohawked or shaved completely. Tight jeans or camouflage pants were worn, sometimes bleach splattered and worn with suspenders. Oi! punks favored plain white shirts or band t shirts, bomber jackers, plain
vests and lots of tattoo ink. Footwear was almost solely high boots, from 14 to 20 eyes. The look presented unification among its (pretty much all male)members, a disregard for anything "fancy" and allowed the freedom to dive into a mosh pit without restraint.

STARS: There were many notable acts of the Oi! scene, from the beginning to recent days. Of the original crop, there were Cockney Rejects, Angelic Upstarts and the 4-Skins. A second wave brought bands like The Business, Cocksparrer, Peter and the Test Tube Babies and others.

Here's a video by the 4-Skins, one of the most popular bands in the scene and the one with the best name.

Branching Out: Punk's Assorted Sub-Genres: 2



Art punk was born from the minds of art school students, flavored with experimentation and the spirit of the avant-garde. Their performances were visually artistic and their audial projections were poetic, meaningful or otherwise crazy as hell.

From the spoken word musings of Patti Smith, to bands like Wire and The Ex who incorporated jazz, noise and ethnic sounds into their music, to the start/stop beats and irregular rhythms of Fugazi and the Talking Heads' whimsical, esoteric lyrics and various multimedia projects, to the countless other acts of similar and different veins, art punk is a diverse musical set.

Basically, as free as art itself can be, art punks absorbed the themes and theories of their artistic beliefs and fused them into their raging, rebellious sound.

Can you guess that art punks not only took their fashion sense as seriously as their music, but are as hard to categorize as a singular trend? Since the sounds and styles of art punk acts varied, their fashions were just as poignant.

One example: The Talking Heads (formed at RISD and once called "The Artistcs," legit), see image at top, were known to wear suits and trousers in a dazzling orgy of colors and prints. While not a reliable source, my ex-boyfriend and rabid Talking Heads fan told me he heard lead guitarist and vocalist David Byrne talk about trying to purposely make his head look small in contrast to his body by wearing super oversized suits. Why? It's art, baby.

As much as I'd like to delve into specifics of art punk fashion, it's hard enough to classify the genre (due to cross-over categorization) and the looks of each act vary in terms of the dramatic, the deliberate, the non-existent and beyond).

"The Only Band That Matters," The Clash, from England are my choice as the prototypical art punk performers. Straight from the source in England the the 1970s, the Clash fused sounds from around the world and posed passionate political statements in their lyrics, best exemplified by managing to get everyone dance on their track "Rock the Casabah" while sneaking in lyrics on the Iranian clampdown on imports of Western music. Without hatred or a contrived look, the Clash influenced thousands, broke the mold and made punk rock into art.

I'll also throw in a local act of whom I've had the pleasure to see and meet, Rhode Island's [The Viennagram]. Chock full of art, burlesque and kitchy influence, the Viennagram are a band that rattle the senses with visual and audible mayhem. Check them out at or just watch this video to get the idea