Music

The Essential Selection: An Interview with Beth Ditto

Robert Collins

Beth Ditto from Gossip unveils the music that made her the woman she is today, calls L.A. girl punks, Mika Miko, "the best thing ever", and describes her kinship with Missy Elliott.

Everyone knows Beth Ditto: frontwoman for Gossip and owner of a fiery voice, ultra-friendly down South manner and no compromise attitude. You probably know her standpoint on sexuality, weight issues, gender politics and George W. Bush. But how much do you really know about the art behind the artist? To really understand Beth Ditto, you need to get to grips with her music…

What’s the first music that made you want to sing?

When I was a little kid I wanted to be like Cyndi Lauper. She really made a huge impression on my life. She was on MTV a lot when it was still legal. It was banned in my county because it wasn’t Christian. I used to watch Cyndi Lauper and Boy George videos and be so intrigued. I thought Cyndi Lauper was my sister for a really long time. I met her recently. She’s a riot. She’s a genuine person. We talked about how music was so much better in the '80s in America. She came out at the same time as Madonna. For Cyndi Lauper it was starting a trend and for Madonna it was riding the coattails of a trend. I’m actually a Madonna fan. Let me rephrase that. I can appreciate Madonna. As a woman in the music industry, I have to appreciate Madonna. For Cyndi Lauper though, "She Bop" is a great song. And Girls Just Want to Have Fun was an amazing record.

What’s the first music you can remember buying?

The first single I ever bought was "18 and Life" by Skid Row. I’m the fourth of seven kids. I had two older brothers and one older sister, so there was a lot of music going on in my house. My oldest brother was really into hair metal and my other brother was really into David Bowie. My sister was really into pop music and rap. My mother was into Black Sabbath and Pink Floyd, and my father was into Kool and the Gang, Patsy Cline and Johnny Cash. "18 and Life" must have come from my oldest brother. He had a perm and wore MC Hammer pants. In Arkansas. Those '80s hair metal ballads are good songs. Do you know "Long Cold Winter" by Cinderella? Tom Keifer of Cinderella may have the most amazing voice ever.

It’s so clichéd, but I loved Otis Redding. I think I first heard him sing "Try a Little Tenderness" in Pretty in Pink. You know that movie? It just goes to show you, movies like that can really change people. I used to save my money and go to Wal-Mart. It was the only place you could buy CDs and I would end up buying compilations of old hits. In a way your creativity is only as good as your lack of resources. I would have never gotten into the things I got into or been the person that I am if I didn’t have to go without things or make do with the bare minimum. For me, anything that I could find that was subversive or different or old even was underground. But it did make for good listening.

What was the sound of your youth?

I loved Nirvana. I was 12 when that stuff was going on. I totally loved Pearl Jam. Stone Temple Pilots were ok. Bleach is my favourite. No. Incesticide is my favourite. When I got more into punk that album really spoke to me. The production is amazing, although I didn’t know that at the time. The artwork was pretty rad for that time too. It’s pretty dated now.

What were you into when you moved from Arkansas to Olympia?

I can tell you what was on my tape player. It was Elliot Smith and Missy Elliott. Missy Elliott Smith! Elliot Smith was really popular. Not pop culture popular. He was underground popular. He didn’t have any pop savvy at all. It was all clear, beautiful documents. I’m not one to love singer songwriters. Like, I do not give a shit about Bob Dylan. I appreciate him as a human being but I do not care about his songs in the least. When people speak about Bob Dylan, that’s how I feel about Elliot Smith. He was a genius. XO and Either/Or are great.

Missy Elliott’s Da Real World is lyrical genius. The line ‘Would you still be in love baby, if I cut your throat, cut the jokes’ is amazing. She is more musical than lyrical though. Sometimes it’s about feeling and not about lyrics. I’m the worst lyricist in the world. I’m horrible at it. With Missy Elliott I feel this kinship like, I totally understand what she’s doing. And Timbaland is in a world of his own. I’m obsessed with Timbaland. Him and Missy Elliott. The dynamic duo of all time. I remember being afraid to like hip-hop because everyone was so punk in Olympia. So I didn’t ever really talk about how much I loved them. I remember talking about it and sparking this big coming out that we were all big hip hop fans, all listening to it on our own.

What was the music you were listening to when you were forming Gossip?

I listened to a lot of Nirvana and Hole. I loved Skinned Teen, Raoul and the Need. I’d heard Bikini Kill and loved it, but there was this musical side of it that was missing to me. And then I heard the Need and it was like nothing I’d ever heard before or will hear again. Except for the Knife. Which is like electro Need. I got a spilt CD of Raoul and the Need when I was seventeen. And I was like, "This. Is. Amazing." It’s the first time I’d ever heard girls screaming. Not screaming out of anger. Screaming for fun.

Is there an artist that you wish you’d discovered earlier?

X-Ray Spex are a band that shaped by identity, but not until I was 19. People wanted Poly Styrene to be a darling but she was a punk, in every sense of the word. She recreated punk. Poly Styrene was so ahead of her time in the way she was talking about genetic engineering and identity. It’s gender politics. It’s ridiculous. The Clash are great, but they are overrated. If you want to talk about overrated, Sex Pistols! Hello!

What’s the sound of the future?

In the States Mika Miko is the best thing ever. If people knew what was good for them, they’d just listen to Mika Miko. They’re all girl punks from LA. They’re very Germs-influenced. The guitar is fucking genius. Everyone in that band is so good. And they’re all about 19. I’m 26 and it’s frightening. Gossip is becoming the band that people look up to like I looked up to Sleater-Kinney when I moved to Olympia. Not that they’re so old, but they’re so prestigious. It wasn’t even cool to listen to them, because everyone was listening to them. Now we’re the band the cool kids don’t listen to any more. You can’t be from Olympia and not be into Sleater-Kinney. Their best record? Call the Doctor. End of story.”

Music
Music

Billy Corgan Brainwashed Me: '90s Alternative Rock and the Introspective Abyss

Once in its thrall, these days I find the overriding message of '90s alt-rock especially naïve and even dangerous.

Music

Coronavirus Tunes: A Brief Playlist for Our Times of Self-Isolation

As coronavirus spreads throughout the world and many of us hunker down with online media, we offer eight songs that share our feeling of seclusion.

Music

Jennah Barry Offers Up a Warm, Sublime Collection of Memorable Tunes on 'Holiday'

Canadian indie folkster Jennah Barry returns with her long-awaited sophomore album, Holiday, which takes on a looser, more relaxed approach.

Music

Maria McKee Puts Down Her Electric Guitar and Picks up Dante on 'La Vita Nuova'

"Show Me Heaven" was another country. Maria McKee has moved to England, immersed herself in the Classics and turned away from the 21st century.

Music

PopMatters Seeks Music Critics and Essayists

If you're a smart, historically-minded music critic or essayist, let your voice be heard by the quality readership of PopMatters.

Music

Fotocrime's '80s-Inspired Rock Is Often Half-Baked

Fotocrime's South of Heaven is interesting mostly in that it's one of the most mediocre rock records I've heard in a long time.

Music

Salsa Band LPT Hints at the Genre's Future

LPT's debut album, Sin Parar, hits all the right notes for a contemporary salsa album.

Music

The Killers - "Caution" (Singles Going Steady)

The Killers go for the big hooks and singable anthems on "Caution", but opinion is sharply divided about the song's merits amongst our Singles Going Steady panel.

Books
Books

Phuc Tran's Existential Trip of a Memoir, 'Sigh, Gone'

Phuc Tran's smart, tough memoir, Sigh, Gone, might launch a broken down kid to read 150 great books—for free, at the local library.

Books

Classic Shōjo Today: Moto Hagio's 'The Poe Clan'

Moto Hagio's The Poe Clan manga series a gender-fluid melodrama marked by deep psychological trauma.

Books

John Pham's ​J​&K​​ - It's a Matter of Perspective

In J&K, John Pham explores perspectives in the psychological sense. Like Picasso, he views things from more than one angle.

Books

The American Robot: A Cultural History [By the Book]

In The American Robot, Dustin A. Abnet explores how robots have not only conceptually connected but literally embodied some of the most critical questions in modern culture, as seen in this excerpt from chapter 5 "Building the Slaves of Tomorrow", courtesy of University of Chicago Press.

Dustin A. Abnet
Film
Film

The Road to Murder in Love and War: Three Films from Claude Chabrol

The character's in Claude Chabrol's The Third Lover, Line of Demarcation, and The Champagne Murders are obsessively doubled and mirrored, reflecting and refracting their hunger for sex, love, money, and power.

Film

'Memento' Is the Movie of the Attention Economy

We are afraid of time, and so like Leonard in Memento, we kill it, compulsively and indiscriminately.

Film

What Lurks Beneath: 'Jaws' and Political Leadership in the Time of COVID-19

Boris Johnson admires the Mayor in Spielberg's Jaws. Remember him? He was the guy who wouldn't close the beaches -- and sacrifice that revenue source -- during a public crisis.

Film

'The Serpent's Egg' Marks One of Ingmar Bergman's Strangest Efforts

The Serpent's Egg bares many of the Bergman's trademark features – the suffocating auras of despair and an underdog's sense of triumph over tragedy – but falls short of a more intelligent rendering of human drama.

Recent
Music

The Killers - "Caution" (Singles Going Steady)

The Killers go for the big hooks and singable anthems on "Caution", but opinion is sharply divided about the song's merits amongst our Singles Going Steady panel.

Music

Lilly Hiatt - "Some Kind of Drug" (Singles Going Steady)

Lilly Hiatt sings about a different kind of love on "Some Kind of Drug". Hers is for a city and the impact gentrification has had its soul.

Music

There's Never Enough Time for Folk Music's James Elkington

The sometimes Wilco and Richard Thompson sideman, in-demand producer, and songwriter, James Elkington, muses on why it's taking longer than he expects to achieve more in a week than most of us get done in a lifetime.

Music

Billy Corgan Brainwashed Me: '90s Alternative Rock and the Introspective Abyss

Once in its thrall, these days I find the overriding message of '90s alt-rock especially naïve and even dangerous.

Books

Classic Shōjo Today: Moto Hagio's 'The Poe Clan'

Moto Hagio's The Poe Clan manga series a gender-fluid melodrama marked by deep psychological trauma.

Music

Salsa Band LPT Hints at the Genre's Future

LPT's debut album, Sin Parar, hits all the right notes for a contemporary salsa album.

Music

Jennah Barry Offers Up a Warm, Sublime Collection of Memorable Tunes on 'Holiday'

Canadian indie folkster Jennah Barry returns with her long-awaited sophomore album, Holiday, which takes on a looser, more relaxed approach.

Music

Fotocrime's '80s-Inspired Rock Is Often Half-Baked

Fotocrime's South of Heaven is interesting mostly in that it's one of the most mediocre rock records I've heard in a long time.

Music

Maria McKee Puts Down Her Electric Guitar and Picks up Dante on 'La Vita Nuova'

"Show Me Heaven" was another country. Maria McKee has moved to England, immersed herself in the Classics and turned away from the 21st century.

Books

Phuc Tran's Existential Trip of a Memoir, 'Sigh, Gone'

Phuc Tran's smart, tough memoir, Sigh, Gone, might launch a broken down kid to read 150 great books—for free, at the local library.

Music

Weeks Island's 'Droste' Is a New High Water Mark in Ambient Steel (EP stream) (premiere)

Lost Bayou Ramblers' Jonny Campos turns up as Weeks Island with Brian Eno/Cluster-inspired music straight from the bayou. Hear Droste in full ahead of its release on Friday.

Music

Ireland's Junk Drawer Share New Krautrock Meets Post-Punk Song, "Temporary Day" (premiere)

Junk Drawer's "Temporary Day" is a simple yet compelling video for a gripping song that shows why the band have earned such acclaim in their native Ireland.

Books

John Pham's ​J​&K​​ - It's a Matter of Perspective

In J&K, John Pham explores perspectives in the psychological sense. Like Picasso, he views things from more than one angle.

Music

Miranda Lambert - "Bluebird" (Singles Going Steady)

Miranda Lambert sings her blues the way an artist paints with them on her latest single, "Bluebird".

Music

'Stone Crush' Proves (Again) That Memphis Is Ground Zero for Soul and R&B

Stone Crush shines a light on the forgotten -- or never known -- artists that passed through the doors of Memphis' most storied studios in an attempt at just one fleeting moment of fame.

Music

Circles Around the Sun Shoot for the Stars on New Album

Jamrockers Circles Around the Sun's self-titled third album finds the band transcending darkness after losing their founder in 2019 to chart a groovy new course.

Music

Jazz's Kandace Springs Pays Tribute to 'The Women Who Raised Me'

Singer and pianist Kandace Springs tackles a dozen songs associated with her jazz vocal heroes, and the combination of simplicity and sincerity is winning.

Music

Coronavirus Tunes: A Brief Playlist for Our Times of Self-Isolation

As coronavirus spreads throughout the world and many of us hunker down with online media, we offer eight songs that share our feeling of seclusion.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews
Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.