Listener by Chloe WoidaThe Listener

The Fat Front Man

By Chloe Woida

Beth Dittowas a fat and socially awkward kid in high school, simultaneously too smart for my own good and hopelessly na├»ve. I was also a singer of some renown amongst my peers, having somehow miraculously maneuvered myself into the position of singing in front of the whole school during one fortuitous lunchtime concert. At the very best of times these two aspects of myself seemed to pretty much cancel each other out, allowing me a kind of social neutrality.  I may have even understood, at the time, that I was part of a tradition of marginalized people who cultivated their musical prowess as a means by which to barter for safety and status—or on a more fundamental level, for the simple permission to participate in society as a non-pariah.

I don't sing much anymore, though I periodically think about trying to ferret out some apropos opportunity to do so. But I'm also nowhere near as socially flighty and hunted as I used to be, and I'm in a position to be a bit more thoughtful about the kinds of bids and bargains people make to earn  rights that should be theirs anyway. Fat musical icons fascinate me, particularly when they take their musical bids for acceptance and connection to their limits by becoming that most visible of musical figures, the front man. Examples who come to mind, love them or hate them, include Mama Cass, Ella Fitzgerald, Meat Loaf, B.B. King, Debora Iyall of Romeo Void, Aretha Franklin, David Thomas of Pere Ubu, John Popper of Blues Traveler, and recently Adele and our most righteous fat front woman, Beth Ditto.

So much of fat existence involves questions of visibility, of being seen or being public. The abuse that fat people receive in public often takes the form of a question, "Why are you inflicting the sight of yourself upon me?" This pattern is repeated in demands that fat people in the public eye remove themselves from view, as in the recent experience of Wisconsin news anchor Jennifer Livingston. So to get on stage, to sing, to dance, to move one's body unselfconsciously under bright lights, and to be more visible and exposed than anyone else in the room is therefore quite a remarkable thing for a fat person to do. Perhaps this very tension, inherent in circumstances of fat performance, is what makes these performances so fascinating. An exhilarated feeling of Saturnalia is engendered, a world gone topsy-turvy where the slaves are suddenly masters for the duration of a song or a set.

Perhaps my own fat has oiled up the lenses through which I view the situation, and this kind of subversive glee is a minority response. I doubt all 40 million copies of Meat Loaf's Bat out of Hell (1978) were purchased by fat people or their allies,"obesity epidemic" or no. But it's entirely possible the fans would argue that their love of the music is neither in spite of nor because of the singer's size. They might insist that they are "fat-deaf."  In such a framework, it is through a connection with their own particular audience that these artists acquire a get-out-of-fat-free card.

Under the glow of their fan's adulation, by merit of music's curious transcendental qualities, their fat disappears. Some similar optics must be at work when well-meaning friends or acquaintances tell me "I don't see you as fat!" To me this kind of statement is akin to telling a black person, "I don't see you as black!," which is to say, problematic at best. But it also suggests something about the instability of perception when it comes to fat, the intermittent quality of the threshold for passing.

Fat in this configuration is somehow attached intrinsically to a calculation of social worth. Because these friends and acquaintances value me, they want me to know that they have written off the social debt incurred by my fat. If debt forgiveness is at play on a larger, more collective and public scale with artists like Ella Fitzgerald or Adele, then it is by merit of their musical service that they are able to simply be artists rather than "fat artists."

Then again, at least one online bio of Meat Loaf seems determined to remind us of the nature of the corpus musicus, referring to its subject throughout as a "massive musician," a "bulky balladeer," a "swollen songster." The author persists with such relish in his inclusion of these alliterative little bijoux, and yet never implies that fat detracts from his subject's skill or legitimacy as an artist. This is a significant pattern in discourse about fat musicians. Rhetorically, acknowledgment of fat serves to underscore and reinforce expressions of appreciation of musical talent. Bringing up an artist's fat in a matter-of-fact way has the effect of implying that their musical talent is so profound and undeniable that we are willing to accept and dismiss the fat as an irrelevant given. In this case the debt has been paid back and then some.

It took me a long time to come to terms with my fat. During those years of struggle, it would never have occurred to me to appreciate a musical artist for their fat; I could only love them in spite of it as I assumed everyone else did. Only now am I able to embrace Beth Ditto's fat as much as I do her talent. I'm able to face fat and start to interrogate our culture's weird, abusive, love-hate relationship to it. Fat front men fascinate me as I embark on this new phase of my emotional and intellectual life because they stand so fearlessly on the edge of the stage, under such bright unblinking lights, and yet our vision of them flickers. Their fat comes in and out of focus as a visible, perceivable attribute, suddenly significant, just as suddenly neutralized and beside the point. The dynamic reveals a great deal about bodies and perception, but also serves to remind us of the unique and unpredictable power of music and our love of it.

Chloe Woida is a freelance writer living and working in the San Francisco Bay area.