Gossip Returns to the Queer Music World They Helped Create With ‘Real Power’

In the mid-aughts, no band was more emblematic of the expansive creativity and joyful rage of the growing indie underground than Gossip. What first began as a queer, lo-fi punk experiment of three childhood friends from Arkansas quickly blossomed into a powerful genre-bending mainstay in the indie-pop scene.

Combining soul and 1960s girl group vocal stylings with the thumping bass of disco and funk on top of their DIY sensibility, Gossip put out one LP after another from 2003 to 2012, each suggesting they would never run out of ways to get us on the dance floor. When their official split was announced by lead singer Beth Ditto in 2016, it felt like the end of an era, like it was possible that all of the gains made by queer artists in both the mainstream and indie spaces might experience a bit of a stall. And they did, at least for a little while.

Now, almost 10 years later, we’re finally seeing the results of what bands like Gossip helped kickstart. Queer musicians are popular in nearly every genre, with some even gaining the attention of the biggest names in music and music production. When Gossip announced their new album at the end of last year, it felt as if the creative universe was realigning itself and letting some of our original heroes come share in the glory of it all.

The evolution of Real Power, the band’s new release, is almost as interesting as the album itself. Trying to record a follow up to her debut solo album, Fake Sugar, Ditto escaped to Rick Rubin’s studio in Hawaii hoping inspiration would hit. The years prior were filled with ups and downs for Ditto, including a familial loss, a divorce, and the estrangement of her friendship with Gossip guitarist Nathan Howdeshell. But she just didn’t feel like she was getting it right, so she decided to reconnect with Howdeshell and invite him to come to the studio to help her finish the album. She also extended an invitation to Gossip drummer, Hannah Billie, and by the time they were in the swing of writing and producing the album, it didn’t feel like a solo effort anymore.

It’s important to note this in the context of the album because this fact — the joy in getting to know one another as musicians and friends again and of making music together — is the undertone of the album. Real Power isn’t so much a return to form as it is a relearning how to be with each other as creative collaborators again. The results of those efforts are not only a testament to the playful chemistry the band has always had but also a fascinating shift in direction for them. Where their most well-known albums, Standing in the Way of Control and Music for Men, had their gaze focused more outward towards the social and political realities of the time they were released, Real Power, for the most part, is focused more inward towards the personal struggles they’ve experienced since they stopped recording together.

The album’s title track, “Real Power” — a nod to The Stooges’s classic ode to sex, drugs, and rock and roll, “Raw Power” — is the most overtly political track on the record, subverting its namesake’s themes to discuss the power of direct action. Written in the summer of 2020, when people were taking to the streets to join mass Black Lives Matter protests as the pandemic raged on, Ditto’s signature vocals soar over the glam rock rhythm to create a kind of hymn about the empowerment of that moment: “Energy is high, it’s getting real / Head is in the clouds, I’m moving mountains / Do you feel what I feel?” While not nearly as explosive as you’d expect a Gossip track like this to be, the lyrics, rhythm, and Ditto’s voice merge to create a fitting celebration of standing with and for your community.

The rest of the album dips in and out of the themes that were prevalent in their lives during production. With that same disco-tinged punk rock discernment we’re used to along with the twang of country and the pulsation of dub, Ditto and crew probe the depths of their feelings on the heartbreak of divorce, the pain of loss and the difficulty of grief, and the struggles of being isolated from the people you love. Unlike their previous endeavors, these songs are softer and pack less of a punch. You can still get out on the dance floor, but they don’t want you to flail around like you used to. This is most obvious on songs like “Turn the Card Slowly,” where the bassline steadily moves the song forward, and “Don’t Be Afraid,” the prodding percussion and glinting keys of which you could easily imagine guiding you and a partner to a gentle dance floor embrace. Each of the songs seemingly chronicle Ditto’s break up, but in different ways. The former lamenting the dissolution of dreams they had together, while the latter is a facetious tell-off that has Ditto reminding her ex that she’s glad they’re both moving on.

“Tell Me Something” and “Give It Up For Love” are the most reminiscent of their trademark songs, both bouncing and bounding with the exact kind of in-your-face heavy pop energy you’d expect on a Gossip album. Only this time, the bumping slap bass of “Give It Up For Love” and the smooth groove of the synths on “Tell Me Something” aren’t in service of the fight for a better world, but in bringing Ditto and her bandmates more clarity on their own emotions. The downtempo country-pop rhythm and jaunty snapping on “Peace and Quiet” and the combination of lulling guitar and dulcet synths of “Light It Up” help showcase the breadth of talent shared between Howdeshell and Billie. Their compositions here help elevate tracks’ lyrics and shine next to, not behind, Ditto’s always-stunning vocals.

The album’s stand outs, “Crazy Again” and “Tough,” are sonic departures from the rest, while still feeling true to the project as a whole. “Crazy Again” explores the possibility of falling for someone you were crushing on before. The shimmering synths move quickly through the rhythm as the pounding bassline leads us to a whimsical explosion of guitar and percussion in the chorus. Ditto sings, “And I might go crazy / Crazy over you” and she carries that “you” until you can feel it in your bones.”Tough” is more stripped down, with just a crisp, downbeat guitar melody and quietly snappy synth beat, but it sticks out because of the subject matter. This is the only song on the album that addresses the experience of breaking up with a friend and learning to love them again. Ditto’s soft vocals here open the song with “You need a change, so make a change / We’ll figure out something” then brings us to the chorus, “We ain’t so tough / We all need someone,” to help us reflect on the promise and possibility of reconnection and attempting to understand our loved ones on a deeper level.

By the time you reach the end of the album, it feels like you’ve witnessed Ditto and her bandmates choose each other all over again. After the years of estrangement and personal turmoil, you can feel every single second of the album oozing with genuine enthusiasm for the contents and compositions of the tracks and the love and respect they so obviously share.

I imagine a lot of fans will be surprised by the tone and spirit of this album and where they want us to go with them, but I don’t think that’s cause for alarm. Gossip is back. They’re just a little different now.

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Stef Rubino

Stef Rubino is a writer, community organizer, and student of abolition from Ft. Lauderdale, FL. They teach Literature and writing to high schoolers and to people who are currently incarcerated, and they’re the fat half of the arts and culture podcast Fat Guy, Jacked Guy. You can find them on Twitter (unfortunately).

Stef has written 86 articles for us.

2 Comments

  1. I impulse bought the pink vinyl edition of the record based mostly on vibes, i’m a fan of painted covers and the packaging looked cool and it was such a treat.

    Also it sounds good even on my dad’s record player from East Germany from the late 80’s.

    With the lyrics booklet’s graphic design and the cover and the old record player, the whole experience is kind of time traveling and becoming the cool lesbian punk I never actually was in my teens :))

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