Bellowed out from the mighty diaphragm of singer Beth Ditto to the chugging riffs of gawky garage guitarist Nathan Howdeshell, Gossip’s Standing in the Way of Control was impossible to avoid in the UK in 2006 and 2007, a Top Ten hit that drew a line in the sand across which The Man had better not even think about stepping.
But whilst the song’s message may have felt universal, embraced in Britain and across Europe as a song of courage for the underdog, its origin was specific to a queer, atheist woman escaping from the conservative, religious American South and continuing to fight for the rights of those she left behind.
“The song was partly sparked by the Federal Marriage Amendment, a proposal by the George W Bush administration to outlaw same-sex marriage,” Ditto explained to Dave Simpson from The Guardian in 2019. “At the time, my very best friend – who was queer like me – was having a brutally hard time. He lived in Olympia, which was three hours from where I was in Portland. We’d talk on the phone and he’d open up and was very vulnerable. The world felt like it was turning upside down and he was having trouble existing. The amendment was the final straw, so I wrote the song for him to know how much I loved him – and to tell the administration to fuck off.”
The refrains “we will live our lives” and “survive the only way that you know” underline just how little the LGBTQ community has been demanding for the last 50 years or more – the freedom to simply be themselves, without prejudice or segregation. The title is a statement of resistance but the overall sentiment is warmer; it’s a song about strength through community and resilience: “It’s part not giving in / And part trusting your friends”.
For a time, Beth Ditto was flavour of the month. Seldom described without a phrase like “larger than life”, she featured in magazines and on television, became unlikely chums with Kate Moss and launched her own plus-size clothing range, her exuberant personality sucked dry by the media, exploited – arguably – for her willingness to confront prejudice head-on by taking off her clothes in public and flaunting her obesity.
“I’ve always suspected the fashion mags of featuring her so they can pat themselves on the back for achieving their fat and lesbian quotas, then go back to size-zero sex kittens for the other 11 months of the year,” Tim Walker wrote in The Independent back in 2009. “Were I a real cynic, I might even suspect some of her fellow celebrities of befriending her for similar reasons. Having now met her, however, if only for one hungover hour, I know there are far better reasons to be her pal – such as, for example, her cleverness, funniness, sweetness and/or joy.”
“You don’t pigeonhole yourself, people pigeonhole you,” she told Genevieve Koski from AV Club when asked if Gossip were a queer act “People won’t just let music be music, people who need to put a name on something or to critique something. And I’m not saying that whole shit with, ‘Man, labels are labels,’ because I don’t really agree with that either. It’s interesting how people always ask the band that question when they should be asking the media that question.”
Not so long ago, Ditto considered retiring her most famous song. “I was like, ‘Am I gonna feel like it means anything? Does it feel relevant anymore?’,” she told Nick Levine from Vice in 2017. “That song is so special to me and I didn’t want to cheapen it.” But then a list of world leaders, by their unashamed disdain for disenfranchised minorities, appeared to be signalling that the time was definitely right. “Trump. Brexit. What’s her name… old shithead Theresa May? Marine Le Pen and France’s elections. Those things”.
By 2016 Gossip had split, seemingly irrevocably, when guitarist Nathan Howdeshell became a born-again Christian and moved back to Arkansas. But three years later, they were touring again. How could they ever reform when one of the duo had apparently embraced the conservative, God-fearing values that represent the antithesis of the other?
“We keep it very surface level,” she admitted to The Independent’s Roisin O’Connor in 2019. “It’s an old friendship, and people change and evolve. I think I was having a lot of anxiety about the idea of being around him and getting back together. He was getting married while I was getting divorced, which felt weird. But he is who he is, and we’ve always had different interests and some that overlap.”
“Arkansas is definitely a point of contention, she told Andrew Williams from Metro last year as The Gossip went on tour to celebrate ten years since the release of Music for Men. “I love my family, and there are good people there, but as a whole I feel really fucked over by that place. I feel chased out. Not by people with torches and pitchforks — but I feel it’s somewhere I could never thrive or belong.”