Sunday, December 16

Soundbite: “Music for Men” Gossip

Admittedly, I’m no expert on feminism. I’ve never taken a women’s studies class, I’ve never seen the Vagina Monologues and, perhaps most damningly, I’m actually a man ““ or a boy, depending on whether or not your definition of adulthood includes doing your own laundry.

But my mother, besides washing my clothes, has taught me a few things about females, and has ranted more times than I can remember about the portrayal of women in today’s pop music. And, as usual, she has a point. For every self-respecting Norah Jones there are dozens of Pussycat Dolls, Katy Perry has successfully turned lesbianism into a marketing stunt, and Lady Gaga has redefined “women’s liberation” to mean not wearing pants.

All of which makes the popular emergence of the Gossip into something of a breakthrough ““ not the first of its kind, not the most important, but a breakthrough nonetheless.

A decade into the 21st century, it’s unfortunate that a band such as this is so unusual, but the Gossip are nothing if not exciting, and they’ve given us a cleverly titled, infectiously catchy manifesto.

“Music For Men” was actually made in large part by men; guitarist Brace Paine wrote the music and Rick Rubin produced, and their role in creating a terrific dance-rock album should not be understated. But what elevates this disc into rarefied air is the influence of the Gossip’s women.

Much has been said about the band’s singer, Beth Ditto, and frankly there’s a lot to say about her. Ditto is something of an iconic celebrity in the UK, where she’s made waves in the fashion world by getting top-tier designers to create clothes for her plus-size figure. She has also publicly championed both her body image and her sexual orientation, posing nude for the first cover of Love Magazine and taking the Gossip on the LGBT-celebrating True Colors Tour in 2007.

Throughout “Music For Men,” Ditto proves that she’s got the talent to back up all that attention. She sings with authority, showcasing the rare kind of voice that is both technically capable and full of character. Ditto’s lyrics are not extraordinary, but they distinctively touch on a range of romantic and sexual feelings, and they are clearly her own.

At times Ditto sounds vaguely like Grace Slick or Stevie Nicks, but, at least in spirit, she’s following more in the footsteps of Annie Lennox. She doesn’t quite have Lennox’s range or her allure, but Ditto is a similarly distinctive performer who stands defiantly in the face of pop tradition. And it would not be much of a stretch to draw connections between Paine and Dave Stewart, both of whom supplied their leading ladies with some well-crafted, highly danceable music.

The ties between the Gossip and Eurythmics don’t end there. Both bands have been averse to the use of an article in their name ““ there’s no “the” on the album cover ““ and maybe more intentionally, the cover photo, featuring a close-up of drummer Hannah Blilie looking nearly androgynous with a short haircut, which bears a resemblance to Lennox’s pose on the cover of “Touch.”

Blilie doesn’t have Ditto’s star power, but she gives a series of noteworthy performances on the album that make songs like “Heavy Cross” irresistibly propulsive. “Music For Men” sounds at times brash, at times soulful and on “Vertical Rhythm,” even a little ominous, but it is always satisfying and the range of attitudes suggests that the Gossip have more where this came from.

For the time being, though, “Music For Men” will have to play its part in the new feminist pop revolution. It’s not a statement album, or even a very controversial one, but that’s part of its effectiveness. Like many before them, the Gossip have issued an insistent reminder that the sex kitten image is not the only option for female pop stars. It couldn’t have come at a better time.

““ Alex Goodman

E-mail Goodman at [email protected]

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