The Gossip, The Point Oxford, sometime in August

There I am running rivers of sweat down my neck, down my chest, down my belly and through my shirt, and I’m dancing harder than I’ve ever danced to a rock band.The Gossip are playing. Here’s what they look like, because it’s important. Kathy the drummer and Nathan the guitarist are Indie Central Casting, so much that I’m not quite sure they’re real. Kathy is petite with one of those supersculpted Mod boygirl haircuts; Nathan is lanky with a shambly shaggy bowlcut and the thickest black glasses frames I’ve seen. Beth is short and fat, she’s dancing ten times more than anyone watching her, she’s twisting and pulling and whipping a microphone round the stage, she’s the lead singer in The Gossip and she’s maybe the most charismatic person I’ve seen in my tiny rock life.

I’m so sick of rock stars, though. Honestly. I’m tired of rail-thin angry guys and skinny cool guys and platinum pipecleaner pop girls. I’m bored of star quality, I’m bored of seeing men not have to think about the moves they’re making because those moves have been made a thousand times by a thousand men before. I hate how natural it comes to them now: don’t you think it shouldn’t be natural? And if these people were born to rock, doesn’t that just mean it was something their Daddies did? But The Gossip are different. Aren’t they?

There was a story in the Village Voice on The Gossip a month or two before I saw them. I read it and my friend read it and we got half-annoyed: it paired them with some other band and it said “These are fat women and they rock and are sexy, isn’t that great”. The article tried very hard not to seem patronizing and it didn’t succeed – I wondered if we were annoyed because it made such a thing about the women being fat and sexy, like it was a big deal. Or if we were annoyed because it made Beth’s being fat seem like the point of The Gossip. But now I’ve seen The Gossip I think I’m annoyed because Beth’s being fat is so much the point and the writer avoided that and pretended not to. The sex thing was a side-issue for me anyway: you can’t think about sex really when something as fast and bright and modern as The Gossip is happening. At one point Beth says “This is a slow one”, but it isn’t. Also, the hips of any band is the bass, and The Gossip don’t have one. But yeah OK Beth is sexy: and this is what her band sound like.They sound abstract, like their songs are blocked out – a beat from Kathy, these spaces of noise from Nathan which might have chords in them (try standing still long enough to tell), hollering from Beth punctuated by these cries of “Uh-huh!” and “Awlright” which are kind of indie rock shorthand for ‘the blues’ so The Gossip get called a blues band. On record maybe they are, and live they are too, but on record they’re just, you know, the blooz and live they’re this midpoint between Muddy Waters and Yves Klein. Because there’s no bass, there’s no elasticity or let-up in the rhythms, but those rhythms still manage to be more wide-ranging than any other indie band I’ve seen lately. The drums start most songs and the songs go on for as long as it takes you to work out how to move best to each new beat. It’s the same each time, but just different enough for you to forget the last song and live in this one.

I keep thinking how great they look, though, and how the abstraction carries over into the way they move, too. It’s such a tiny stage and The Gossip use it so well: Nathan darts and lunges from right to left and Beth jumps and jogs back and forward and Kathy just hammers at the drums. There’s no talk and hardly any eye-contact between them – they each make their own sound and their own moves and it fits together. Sometimes the fit seems tight, sometimes it just seems coincidental. What it never feels is forced or false.

So The Gossip are a lot more than a fat woman who rocks. But. Up there on the middle of the stage is Beth, who is fat, and a woman, and rocking. Now what animates The Gossip is politics – identity politics, liberation politics, the politics of Otherness. The snips of lyric or dedication I can hear testify to that – shouting for revolution, “This is for the queer girls!”. Beth is a girl, and queer, and she makes music about that. In itself that’s not a new script, but this old Smiths fan would never deny the power of hearing music that represents. (Even though maybe it should be her and you and I choosing what music represents each of us, not being told what does by a singer).

In the few interviews I’ve read, The Gossip talk a lot about identity, and community, and what makes them exciting – more exciting than ‘just’ a political punk band – is how those ideas play out in what they do, in ways they’re not quite in control of. The way Beth looks and sings are big parts of this. She doesn’t make ‘fatness’ a central issue of her politics, I don ‘t think, but let’s face it, it’s still striking to see a fat woman in an indie context. At the very least it’s a visual shorthand for otherness in a scene – The Gossip come out of Olympia – which seems to the outside eye a little homogenous. Beth is dressed in absolutely typical indie-rocker uniform – black striped top, black bob, plain skirt – and so are half the audience, and the difference is they look androgyne and drab and she just doesn’t, and so maybe you start thinking that this wonderful indie rock community isn’t so tolerant after all, or why don’t we see more people like Beth Ditto kicking hell out of a stage?

Here’s another tension. Kathy and Nathan are Olympia natives, says a band profile I’m reading the day after the gig, but Beth isn’t, she’s Southern, which even a Brit like me can see comes out in what she does. The last song The Gossip play gets into a call-and-response game – she whispers “Revolution!” and we whisper “Revolution!” and she screams it and we scream it, and then the lights go up suddenly ’cause the gig’s overrun and we’re all looking at each other, dripping, trying to work out just what happened. Beth is using soul tricks, blues tricks, on us: we’ve been jumping to her band’s electric modern noise and then she hits us with tradition. Two days later I hear her sing karaoke – “Son of A Preacher Man” – in a London pub, and it’s a perfect tears-and-velvet Southern soul delivery. No icon-breaking here.

Blues and soul are traditions where big women with big lungs fit right in, and where queer punk girls don’t. Olympia indie rock loves it if you say you’re a queer punker, but with their shaking blues moves and soul respect The Gossip break open that script too. How does community work? What does identity mean? The Gossip give you the thrill of the simple you-go-punk-girl answer and let you dance to it – but when you get home you find they’ve left you clues to tougher answers.