The 2000s was an important time in popular music. There was so much quality and so much of it to choose from. Pop music could be anything, anything at all. And by anyone at all. Competition within the industry definitely existed, but overall, there was a lot more variety across the board, an abundance of artistic individuality, all combined with original, well-crafted compositions.
At that time, there was also ‘just a girl’ who exemplified the aforementioned characteristics. She also happened to be the lead singer of an already established ska/punk/rock band. If you know anything about me, you’ll know I was a huge fan while I was growing up. Yes, we’re talking about Gwen Stefani.
Most will know Stefani’s band No Doubt for hits like “Just a Girl”, “Underneath It All”, “Hella Good”, “Hey Baby” and of course, “Don’t Speak”, which spanned from the early 90s to the early 00s. They released five albums over that same period, followed in 2003 by the greatest hits album The Singles 1992–2003, which also featured a new single, covering Talk Talk’s “It’s My Life”. Soon after, the band announced that they were going on hiatus.
During her time away from No Doubt, Stefani embarked on a solo career under Interscope Records and began working on material. She went on to release two highly acclaimed and commercially successful albums, Love. Angel. Music. Baby. (2004) and The Sweet Escape (2006), which charted on the Billboard 200 at numbers 5 and 3, respectively, while the former was nominated for six Grammy Awards.
Stefani is currently preparing for her Las Vegas ‘Just a Girl’ residency at the Zappos Theatre at the Planet Hollywood resort and casino, which begins next week on June 27th. I thought the occasion was a great opportunity to look back on the Orange County girl’s, tasteful, textured and exceedingly elaborate debut.
What I love about this album, apart from of course how good it is, is that it’s kind of like an art scrapbook or collage. There are a lot of influences and I like that Stefani sounded like she was having fun. She has a colourful voice and a lively, playful way of singing anyway (which isn’t to everyone’s liking, I know), but you can tell that she relished the opportunity to bring together a lot of the music she loved growing up, but organised in her own quirky way.
A lot of Love. Angel. Music. Baby. is rich in the influence of 80s music, but the styles vary from pop, R&B and hip-hop to punk rock, new wave and electropop. Stefani pulled out all the stops to recruit collaborators, with production from The Neptunes, Dr. Dre, Dallas Austin, Andre 3000 and Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, and songwriting credits from Linda Perry and Kara DioGuardi, both of whom have worked extensively with Christina Aguilera.
The first four songs of the album were released as consecutive singles, starting with “What You Waiting For?” (prod. Nellee Hooper), the dance/electropop insight into Stefani’s thought process upon deciding to do a solo project. Opening with a solemn and wistful piano-accompanied ode to her band, panic and self-doubt set in amidst the “tick-tock”s and “what you waiting for”s, and the melody rollercoasters as she voices question after question. It truly sounds as if a bomb’s about to go off in her head.
Next was “Rich Girl”, produced by Dr. Dre and featuring Philadelphia-born rapper Eve. It could be seen as having quite a simple beat, but all the same it goes hard as an interpolation of “If I Were a Rich Man” from the musical Fiddler on the Roof. The bang of the piano on every 1 is amusing and there’s barely a part of the song that doesn’t contain any harmony. We approve of this. The collaboration is the second between Stefani and Eve, after the latter’s single “Let Me Blow Ya Mind” in 2001.
Then came the one that polarised opinion: “Hollaback Girl”. A lot of Gwen Stefani’s songs, including this one, confounded radio DJs I seem to remember (and the critics), which in hindsight annoys me. Just because there’s a part where she says that this sh*t is bananas and then proceeds to spell it out for us, does not mean that it’s senseless. If they had done their research, they would have found that Stefani (along with Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo) allegedly wrote the song as a retort to Courtney Love, who had referred to the singer as a cheerleader in a derogatory way. Hence, “I heard that you were talking sh*t, and you didn’t think that I would hear it”. Pretty genius if you ask me.
Produced by The Neptunes (Williams and Hugo), “Hollaback Girl” is fresh, irritating to some, with long blaring and harmonious trumpets, and, seeing as Gwen clarified that in high school she absolutely was not a cheerleader, it’s a damn good attempt at being one. What makes it even better is the fact that it’s dripping with irony.
After that was “Cool”, the synth-pop, new wave single produced by Dallas Austin. Lyrically, the song is about looking back on a past relationship and being glad that even though they are now with other people, they “know we’re cool”. Many suspect that it’s based on Stefani’s previous romantic relationship with bandmate Tony Kanal, and whether or not it’s true (it probably is…), it is a really beautiful, summery, chill anthem. Cool really is the only word to describe it.
I’ll pause here to again highlight the variety. All four of these songs so far are, stylistically, completely different! But they all excel in production, concept and performance (the same goes for the music videos). That is something that is seriously so hard to do (for anybody in one genre, let alone four!), and Gwen Stefani should get all the credit for pulling it off.
André 3000 of Outkast produced and featured on a couple of tracks, “Bubble Pop Electric” and “Long Way to Go”. The pair went from two youngsters singing about having some fun in the backseat on the former (with 3000 being credited as Johnny Vulture), to more serious matters on the latter, necessitating the inclusion of a snippet of Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech. On the busy, jazz/soul song, they defend an interracial love, insisting that “we’ve got a long way to go, we gotta get there quicker”.
There’s a lengthy list of songs that sample The Isley Brothers’ “Between the Sheets”, and Stefani had to get herself on it. Hooper and Kanal teamed up on production for “Luxurious”, which saw Stefani use myriad lavish metaphors to illustrate a “rich in love” relationship. Gold drips out of the speakers as you are enveloped in the tender, velvety sounds of a special, luxurious and love-filled lifestyle.
“Harajuku Girls”, produced by Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, is a display of inspiration by and an homage to the fashion style and culture from Harajuku in Japan. In the chorus she sings: “Harajuku girls, you got the wicked style, I like the way that you are, I am your biggest fan…” Sounds kinda creepy at times, but cooly captures the essence. I wasn’t always crazy about this song, but have grown to love it and appreciate the artistic idea behind it.
Stefani used her solo opportunity to move further into the world of fashion with her own label, L.A.M.B. (an acronym for the album), which was originally founded in 2003. During this period, she could be seen rolling with four of her own Harajuku girls, which you see on the album cover; she named them Love, Angel, Music and Baby and they appeared in her music videos, posed in her press photos and danced in her live performances, including those on the Harajuku Lovers Tour.
Kanal produced on two more occasions on “Crash”, a fun, speed-demon track about a love collision (yes, that is a euphemism), and “Serious” which demonstrates the only time it’s safe to be obssessed with someone: when you’re in a relationship with them.
There’s so much richness in the production on this record that complements the subject matter – “Danger Zone” (prod. Hooper, Austin) is the flipside to “Serious” in that it talks about the bad and the ugly when you hit an unexpected roadblock. The synths shriek and scream, as Gwen inconsolably and hysterically reacts to the dark secrets she learns from her partner.
It’s terrifyingly easy to flop commercially, underperform artistically and not deliver personally when a member of an already successful band ventures off to do a solo project, so you can understand Stefani’s turmoil in her debut solo single. She thought to herself: “what if they say that you’re a climber?”, “naturally I’m worried if I do it alone” and “take a chance ’cause you might grow”.
But she can without a doubt (no pun intended) rest easy with the knowledge that as a pop star, she excelled in every way possible. And no less, on her debut. Gwen Stefani is truly, for all her eccentricities, word-spelling and Japanese fetishes, iconic.
Girl, you got style.
For tickets and more information on the ‘Just a Girl’ Las Vegas residency, visit gwenstefani.com.
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