As you've most likely heard—or seen, via Beth Ditto's explosive nude cover shoot for NME—the once-scrappy Olympia-by-way-of-Arkansas punk band Gossip (the "the" is no more) are a big fat hit in the UK. For U.S. fans, it's tempting to credit this continental discrepancy to Brits' advanced pop smarts (theirs is the country that made Laurie Anderson's "O Superman" a top-10 hit, after all), but the facts behind Gossip's UK breakthrough are much flukier. A crucial component unbeknownst to most Americans: Skins, a sexed-up teen drama on the UK's Channel 4. The show's debut season was hyped with a series of TV ads featuring the title track of Gossip's 2006 album Standing in the Way of Control—not the gritty, stripped-down original version, but a heavily treated Soulwax remix, whose twitchy disco beat and attractively raging synths lit up countless blogs and dance floors on its circuitous route to British televisions, where it brought the clamor of Gossip into millions of UK living rooms.
What's not flukey at all is what Ditto made of the opportunity. Driven by the success of "Standing in the Way of Control," Ditto launched herself into the UK media as a ready-to-go superstar, making scores of television appearances, becoming a semiregular fixture in the British tabloids, sitting front row at Fashion Week with Kate Moss. Such fatuous undertakings were injected with wit and meaning thanks to Ditto's plainspoken ambitions as a politically aware, in-your-face lesbian of size whose vocal gifts were undeniable and whose ambition seemed unstoppable.
Back in the U.S., Gossip was just another indie band, albeit one with a fiercely devoted core group of fans. In September 2007, I saw Gossip open for Arcade Fire and LCD Soundsystem at the UW's Bank of America Arena, where the band closed their brief set with "Standing in the Way of Control." Earlier in the day, I'd watched YouTube footage of the band performing the song live in the UK, where it landed on the British crowds like "Smells Like Teen Spirit" in 1991. But for the majority of the UW crowd, it was just another song. The discrepancy was jarring. Gossip were good sports about it—the extensive UK touring had made them pros—but I couldn't help fantasizing about the day when things might be righted. All it would take was some dynamite remix fortuitously placed in a high-profile ad campaign for a TV show about sexy kids. (Gossip Girl? Jon & Kate Plus 8?)
Last year brought Gossip some stateside luck, as the band earned an incomparable American supporter in Rick Rubin, the legendary producer (and new co-head of Columbia Records) who's brought forth landmark releases from the Beastie Boys, Dixie Chicks, Johnny Cash, and Slayer. Rubin's latest credit: Music for Men, Gossip's just-released major-label debut. In a prerelease interview, Ditto told Rolling Stone how the famously Zen Rubin patiently engaged in "lesbian processing" to draw out the music that would become Music for Men, whose 12 Rubin-produced tracks would add up to Gossip's Major Statement. This is indeed the case, and the statement being made is this: Beth Ditto wants to be the biggest star in the world.
Considering what Ditto has to offer, this is a reasonable demand. What's surprising is what she's willing to sacrifice in pursuit of her goal. Musically, Music for Men offers more of the angular disco-punk that lit up Standing in the Way of Control, bashed out by guitarist Brace Paine and drummer Hannah Blilie and supplemented by well-placed synths and bongos and cowbells, and it all sounds awesome. But lyrically, Music for Men is a straight-up pop move. In place of explicitly political personal dramas, Men's lyrics traffic in mile-wide, pop-friendly clichés: "Dance like there's nobody looking," "We're guilty of love in the first degree," "I don't wanna play for keeps," "Good-bye to yesterday," "Love is a four-letter word." Also on leave: Ditto's celebrated scream, which is kept in check throughout the record. Ditto makes ample use of her other vocal flavors (cooing, belting, wailing), but audio sandpaper is off the menu.
What remains is a 12-song blast of a record that's not a progression, but a distillation: Here is the great racket of Gossip boiled down to radio-ready form, and if this strikes you as nothing more than a sellout, please direct your attention to the adamantly out, plus-sized lesbian doing the selling. Pop's never been a dirty thing to Gossip—see the band's live covers of Wham! and Aaliyah—and Ditto can do far more important work hollering in the pop arena than screeching to the converted in the underground. Here's hoping the little girls understand.