In the late ’90s, an 18-year-old Beth Ditto moved to Olympia, Washington, from Searcy, Arkansas, with her best friends. In less than a year they started the best punk band in town. When I first met them, they were all working as “Sandwich Artists” at the Subway across the street from the offices of Kill Rock Stars, where I worked at the time. I was a huge Gossip fan from the beginning, and remember telling the label to sign them before someone else did.
Watching Beth Ditto grow up to become an internationally known feminist icon and pop singer has been amazing. But I miss seeing her band play raucous basement punk, and I miss hanging out and shooting the shit. This interview gave us a good excuse to catch up. As a Beth Ditto fan, I couldn’t wait to talk to her about how she navigates the world as an uncompromising radical feminist working in the pop realm.
Where are you today?
I am in Portland, in my living room!
Oh that’s awesome I’m at The Capitol Theater (in Olympia) using a landline.
That is hilarious.
I know, right?
“Hi. Can I come over and use your landline?”
That’s like coming over to use somebody’s microwave.
So what do you wanna talk about?
I don’t know, I’m just excited and nervous – I’m like, “What is she gonna ask me?”
Well, I have to ask this question because I’m always very curious. Are there any stories behind the new songs that you’d like to share?
I wanted to make a really bitchy song – I don’t feel bad about it. It’s called “Get a Job.” When Olympia moved to Portland, all the same people were still roommates. There was one really rich kid who didn’t ever pay bills and never took care of anything. And it also gets at this idea that I’m like absolutely sick and tired of being called “Girl.” If something devastating happens and someone comes in and says, “I’m sorry girl”, I’m like “What? Are you kidding me? Seriously? I’m 31 years old.” Casually, like “Girl, that is hysterical“, that’s great, that’s sincere. But this is different.
So, “Get a Job” is about this one person who didn’t know what it was like to worry about money. They never had to live with that fear of poverty. Living with that worry is what the song’s about. I’m like, “You know what? You need to get a job. And pay your bills on time. It’s not fair what you’re doing. You’re my friend.” Explaining this to other people has been very hilarious.
Well, it’s interesting to hear your story, because that song works on other levels too. It could be about female economic empowerment. It could be about a woman who is getting divorced who has to get a job as a matter of survival, but also as a means to independence.
I like that take. The record was going to be called Get A Job, but I didn’t want it seem insensitive to people who couldn’t get a job. Coming from someone who is obviously really privileged – in what I’m doing, and on many levels, for many reasons – I just didn’t want it to seem insensitive.
A Joyful Noise is very descriptive of the album.
Thank you. That is from the Bible.
Can I ask you a feminist question?
Yeah. Make it hard.
Last night Spider and the Webs played a show in Olympia, so I asked if anyone had any questions for you. The basic thing that people on the street want to know from you is this: What is the difference between being a radical queer feminist in a punk band, and being a radical queer feminist in a pop group?
Oh wow. Well first of all, The Gossip turns 15 this year.
Thank you. As someone who is a feminist and who was influenced by radical feminism, not mainstream feminism, I’ve learned 1. You can’t live your life to please other people, and 2. There’s all different kinds of approaches. The beauty of punk feminism was that you never really had to explain yourself. We were lucky enough to come along when we did, obviously, because it was summer of ’99 and 2000 and – I don’t have to tell you this – but what y’all did for us [the decade before] – you have to keep that going, hoping that people pass it on and keep it alive. When I hear stories about Team Dresch going on tour and things like that, I’m like, “You know what? I didn’t ever have to deal with that,” because so many of the barriers had been broken down already. Kicking the barriers down must be really interesting.
And that’s the thing. Being a feminist in a pop band is really hard, honestly. Sometimes you feel extremely lonely. But sometimes you feel really good, because you’ve exposed people to things they’ve never thought about. Getting into arguments in interviews is like – sometimes being hated never felt so good, you know what I mean? You feel like you’re really doing something when you feel that resistance. To resist means that something is pushing back against you, and sometimes being a feminist in a punk band, I didn’t feel like there was resistance.
I feel really at home there, but I also feel like I’m explaining myself to my punk feminist friends who are like, “Well, how do you justify doing this or that?” And sometimes I’m like, “I did that for money.” I will tell you blatantly. I do not want to live in poverty. I do not want to do that. I do not want my friends to have to live in poverty. But I do find myself justifying things I did or making excuses and things to people who ask. And then there are people I can talk to about the pros and cons. For me, the most important thing is being able to live with myself. Like, going to bed and night and saying, “OK, does this feel good or bad? Is it worth it on my conscience? Is this gonna hurt people, or is this gonna help people?” Or even, “Is this gonna hurt me or is this gonna help me?”
Talking to you and knowing what you know – doing an interview with you can be harder, in a way, because I’m like, “What do you say, what do you not say?” Kill Rock Stars was so welcoming, and it felt so good and such a dream to me at first. But being on an independent label is being a part of the music industry, too, and that can be really hard in different ways. Being on Sony, they are all so afraid of you – which is really empowering, but in this other way. They wouldn’t dare cross what I say. But am I thinking the reason they are afraid of me is because I can’t believe that these people actually respect my opinion or my vision and ideas? So I’m thinking, are they doing this out of fear? That’s really interesting too. But it’s just a different set of rules.
I’m sure when you first started, at 18 years old, that was really difficult because a lot of people were so much older, and all that stuff (riot grrrl, queercore) had come first. So you were walking into a lot of history. I can see that being inspiring but also intimidating.
It was very intimidating. What I think is really interesting about being a part of a radical community with political thinking is how we are so quick to judge each other and be so harsh to each other. You have to accept that life is a learning process for everyone, and we’re all the same. We’re all the victims of the same system, and we are all trying to de-program ourselves.
Have you heard Elizabeth Martinez’s term to discuss infighting? “The Oppression Olympics,” where oppression become a contest. She is a Chicana writer and activist who was talking about barriers to coalition building within anti-racist struggle.
The Oppression Olympics! That is a really good term. I really cannot just believe, being a part of the pop world and realizing how honestly, genuinely, sincerely, people don’t know. They just don’t know! They just never thought about it! It’s mind-blowing. It’s just like when you talk to your grandma, and you’re like “Grandma, that’s not cool” and she’s like, “Well I didn’t even think of that!” Ding ding ding! Of course you didn’t! I would have never thought about either it if I wasn’t reading zines and discovering Gloria Steinem when I was like 12. I wouldn’t have thought about that kind of stuff. People are so quick to write other people off. But there has to be people who are willing to put up with other people’s bullshit, or I don’t think change is possible.
Where do you find that patience?
My family. Because I’ve seen them come so far with me. And knowing how I was raised with racism – just blatant racism. We’re not talking about things that are hard to see. We are talking about just blatant racism. And my mom was a person who was not a feminist, and not exposed to anything like that. She was pregnant by 15, came from an abusive situation with an absolutely crazy story – and then having the patience to just be kind and forgiving is mind-blowing. That is really inspiring. And to see them be like, “Oh my daughter, my niece is gayâ€¦”
To see that progress is incredible. And I know that it is possible, but you can’t do that when you’re screaming at people that they are stupid and backwards and wrong. There’s a time and a place for that, but there has to be a part where you are willing to listen and be heard. That’s really important. That’s where I get it from. I know that the most backward – for lack of a better word – people are not born that mean. They’re just not. The idea is just being a good person – it isn’t hard. Even if you’re not the nicest person or the warmest person. It’s not hard to just be a decent person.
I really like that you always name-check Divine as one of your style inspirations but I would like to hear you talk more in depth about that a little bit. What does Divine mean to you?
When I first heard of Divine, I was with my best friend Jerry. I was probably 15. Hairspray was always on TV, but it never registered that that was Divine. Then we watched Pink Flamingos and that wasâ€¦justâ€¦.(long pause) insane. Seriously? I was like what?! My brain was on fire. We were watching it and I remember trying be cool, but inside I was like “What. Is. Going. On?!” Especially the chicken scene, the butthole sceneâ€¦The end, where she eats real dog shit?! I remember thinking, “I don’t know why but that is the most amazing thing I have ever seen.” And that was the first time I ever understood art. It was the first time I ever really got it. It was amazing. I remember thinking, “I wanna look like that!”
But I was also obsessed with Mary Tyler Moore. I wanted to have Mary Tyler Moore’s hair from The Dick Van Dyke Show. You know the Huggy Bear song ["Blow Dry"] that goes “I’m the lady with the bouffant hair”? And also, Miss Piggy! A great feminist icon. She knew karate! Amazing. Where are the Miss Piggys now?
The next question is personal but it goes along with what we’ve been talking about. What would the grownup you tell the teenage you?
It’s such a hard question. Jerry and I were talking about this the other day, how we always saw the world through the same eyes that we see through now, but we’re grown. There’s so much fate involved. It would be hard to convince me, had I not met those three [Jerry, Gossip member Nathan Howdeshell and former Gossip member Kathy Mendonca] It’s hard to separate myself – the teenage me – from them. But you know what? You know what I would say to me? I would say, “Beth, Nathan is not as cool as you think he is.” [Hysterical laughter]
[Laughing] Oh my god!
Not in a mean way! You know, he’ll even tell you this, it’s not mean, I swear. When I met him I was 14 and he was 16. I was a nerd, but I was also obsessed with bouffants, I was obsessed with Gloria Steinem. You know, we didn’t have Sassy magazine, we didn’t have that kind of shit [in Arkansas] All we had were zines. That was it. And we were lucky that ‘zines made it there. Nathan was the reason why that happened and he really did hold court. I just thought he was the coolest thing ever. Jerry and Kathy too. Especially as a 14-year-old – Kathy was 17 and Nathan was 16 – they could drive, they would bring zines over, we could go record shopping, we could go to thrift stores. And all that was great, but Nathan was pretty protective of this little bubble that he had made. He was really defensive and would just make fun of you to your face. He was a mean boy, he was too cool. So I guess I would tell [the young me], “Beth you are just as cool as Nathan.”
You could abstract that to be about any guy that you look up to as a teen. Calvin Johnson was that guy for me. When we met I was 14 and he was 21. He had a radio show, he was in my favorite band and, from my point of view, he knew everyone and everything about independent music.
You wanted them to like you so bad, but they were such a hard nut to crack. But at the same time you are one and the same.
I’ve been writing a song this weekend and having a hard time. I know what I want to communicate – the song has a clear message – but I’m having a trouble with imagery and crafting a story around it. Which is something I think you’ve always been really good at – you make it seem effortless.
Thank you. Thanks Tobi, that is so sweet of you to say.
What’s your songwriting process?
Whatever is in your brain, any sentence, whatever your message is – it will come through. For me, I never think about what’s gonna happen – I don’t think about it, it just comes out. I never say, “I’m gonna write a song about this,” except for maybe on the first record. Whatever you are feeling, your subconscious is gonna come up with it.
Are there any songs you worked super hard on for this album or did they all write themselves?
There is one. [The song is "Linda Lovelace," which didn't make the final version of the record. – Ed.] It was actually about my dad. And I didn’t realize that until it was done, but I couldn’t get through it. My dad died that night. I remember thinking, “I hate taking music this seriously.” Which is another thing that comes up now that I’m older – I realize that not letting myself take things seriously was something I thought was a punk attitude: “You will not take songwriting seriously.” I don’t know where I got that. Maybe from Nathan? It was also sexism getting into my brain and not realizing it, but shutting that off by saying, “You know what? It’s OK to take things seriously.” That song about my dad, I couldn’t not take it seriously, because I couldn’t get through it without choking up. It’s the first time I’ve ever felt that way, where I was like, “You know what? I just can’t do this. I can’t write this song.”
How do you balance your work ethic and ambition with burn out? What do you do to take care of yourself?
Feminism. I swear to god. It is what keeps me focused and alive. My mom and my family keep me ambitious. I tell myself I’m so lucky to be my own boss, to have all these opportunities. To be able to take care of my mom is the biggest honor. Helping Rock & Roll Camp for Girls and being able to help different groups like that financially really inspires me. I come from a place of actual poverty. We are not talking lower-middle class, we are talking “Do you choose electricity or do you choose groceries?” Living like that from a very young age, I never want people to have to worry about that. And that always goes back to feminism for me, and empowerment. Every time I get burned out I’m just like, “I’m so lucky that I get to have all these experiences that have made me this way.” I’m really lucky that I was born at the time I was born and that I got to move to Olympia and actually meet you. That is a big fucking deal.
I hope you realize that, because it’s really fucking cool. Even in interviews, all the time, in interviews people are like, “Who changed your life?” and I’m like, “Fucking Tobi Vail,” and you are still doing really cool shit all the fucking time. It’s really inspiring!
What are some of the other musical influences of the new album?
On the new album? I was seriously obsessed with Paul Simon and Loretta Lynn. I was really obsessed with rhyme schemes. What I love about Loretta Lynn is that she can write the hokiest shit. “The Pill” is a hokey song, but it’s so important and so empowering. I was getting the idea that it’s OK to take myself seriously, and listening to Loretta Lynn, I was like, “Now see, that is someone who does not let [those thoughts] get into her brain.” You can tell she thought, “The first thing that came into my head is rhyming garbage with yardage and it works!” Actually, I have a question for you. When you write songs is it melody first or lyrics first?
I actually got this from Kurt Cobain – we were close friends for a short time when he was writing a ton of pop songs and listening to The Beatles a lot. The first thing I do is choose the singing style I’m going to use.
Yes, me too.
It’s definitely singing style and melody first, words second. Actually, I often come up with a list of song titles first.
But not lyrics first?
No, never. Singing style and melody come first. OK, so, we’ve been talking for a while and I don’t wanna take up too much more of your time but I would like to ask another question I got from people who were at the Spider and the Webs show in Olympia last night: What’s it like to be a fat activist in the world of high fashion?
It’s awesome. I’m gonna be honest, this is my thing. Like I told you before, it’s that thing with resistance – when you are discussing fat activism with Nomy Lamm, you feel sisterhood, but I need more. To me it’s another side of performing. That’s my personality. I’m such a ham, such an exhibitionist. Even my astrological chart says, “This is what you were born to do.” Also because I do have feminism and I do have radical context, things don’t hurt my feelings. Feminism has always been my filter. When someone says, “I hate this song,” that is a different thing than saying, “That fat bitch.” Being called a bitch doesn’t hurt my feelings. Being called fat doesn’t hurt my feelings. Things like that don’t hurt my feelings, because I come from a punk background.
Another thing: I feel way more at home in the fashion industry than I do in the music industry, because so many of those people also came from punk backgrounds, believe it or not. One of the most amazing people I’ve ever come into contact with is Vivienne Westwood. She is incredible. Talk about punk – she is so serious. The falling out between her and Malcolm McLaren? I am so obsessed with it, and I’m almost sure it has to do with something really awful.
Also the idea of “all these skinny models” – I don’t understand how people can talk about sex-worker activism and at the same time talk [negatively] about size zero. I know there’s a huge difference, there’s a huge income difference, there’s all of these things we are talking about – racism, sexism, classism. But on this basic level, women have so few options to make a substantial living without going to college, without having to climb some crazy fucking ladder. I am really glad I was exposed to it, because I’m not hating from the other side without knowing what’s going on. There’s a huge level of sisterhood that’s really incredible that I never would have seen had I not seen it firsthand.
I also learned that there’s a lot of skill to modeling. We’re not just talking about body size but actually what you’re giving. There’s a lot of knowledge about where to put your face and how to hold something – it’s really crazy. You start to see the actual talent that goes into what they do. You have to separate these things and then put them together and then you can decide what your feelings are about it.
I refuse to hate on models, because they are also women and they are also victim of the exact same body standard that I am. I refuse to hate people for being thin and I refuse to hate people for feeling the absolute pressure to be thin. If anybody knows how that feels I totally fucking get it.
It’s almost like being a journalist and getting to sneak into this secret world that you hear people talk about constantly, but they’ve never even seen. I always think about Gloria Steinem working at the Playboy bunny mansion and how awful, how amazing and bad ass that was. There were times when she was like, “Sometimes it was fun.” But she actually got to see what it was like, and the appeal, and why it was awful and why it was appealing. And I see that now.