(Not) Your Typical Prototype: a Gwen Stefani retrospective

Gwen StefaniA couple of months ago, Gwen Stefani scored her first number one album in the States with This Is What The Truth Feels Like, a fan-pleasing record that put her in the public eye once again. An argument could be made about chart positions not being that important in today’s music industry, but it was still quite an unlikely accomplishment for the American singer, whose solo career had remained stagnant for almost 10 years. There was no “Hollaback Girl” this time round but it’s not like she really needed one - This Is What The Truth Feels Like is arguably her strongest album to date, a solid pop record that reconciles Stefani’s roots with more contemporary sounds.

Gwen was a key figure in 2000s pop culture, but her stardom took off a decade before, when she was widely recognised as the ferocious front woman of ska pop act No Doubt. No Doubt’s story is one of progressive and well-deserved success - the band formed in 1986 but didn’t really become huge until 1995, right after the departure of main songwriter (and Gwen’s brother) Eric Stefani. That year, No Doubt released Tragic Kingdom, one of the biggest records of the decade and probably the band’s greatest effort. Tragic Kingdom is far from being your standard best-selling album - first of all, it embraces ska as its most noticeable influence, from the horn-filled “Spiderwebs” to the politically charged groove of “World Go ‘Round”. Ska music wasn’t particularly in vogue before Tragic Kingdom's release and an argument could be made about it being the last truly popular ska album, but No Doubt found the way to put the genre at the forefront of American and British charts.

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For a record that sold 16 million copies, Tragic Kingdom is weird. It’s an hour-long melting-pot of genres and cultures, conglomerating clichéd, cheesy ballads (let’s face it, “Don’t Speak” hasn’t aged that well) with experimental 6-minute pieces and powerful feminist manifestos. Boasting a complete departure from their ska influences, “Just A Girl” isn’t a prototypical No Doubt song. It’s probably Stefani’s most enduring statement as a female pop star, though. Its sardonic chorus was a breath of fresh air in a time when the male-dominated rock scene was in huge need of an update - Jagged Little Pill and “Just A Girl” were released within a couple of  months of each other, both now seen as eye-opening works that addressed issues largely ignored by mainstream rock culture. In one of the band’s most recognisable live performances, the song is stopped before its final chorus, the catchy guitar riff being repeated for minutes. Finally, Gwen faces the camera, lifts her middle finger and screams “fuck you, I’m a girl," provoking a resounding reaction from the crowd - it was the kind of thing that was lacking in a scene that was far more conventional than what its devotees were willing to admit. (If you’d like to delve deeper into the topic, Gayle Wald’s essay “Just A Girl? Rock Music, Feminism and the Cultural Construction of Female Youth” is particularly noteworthy).

No Doubt have been unfairly regarded as middle of the road since their beginnings - their obscure first two releases were largely dismissed at the time, while ska purists have always seen them as sell-outs and bandwagoners. But the truth is that they always were outsiders, never really fitting anywhere. At the time when Tragic Kingdom was released, few people knew that the band had already put out another album that year, an obscure self-release called The Beacon Street Collection that would eventually get re-released. The Beacon Street Collection shows the sound of a band experimenting outside their record contract and it is still used as a convincing answer to the unfair criticism directed at the band - after all, there aren’t many bands that have released a ska-metal tune (“Total Hate ’95”) and three generation-defining pop hits in the span of one year.

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The Beacon Street Collection isn’t the band’s only cult album, though. Tragic Kingdom’s follow-up Return of Saturn wasn’t exactly a success upon its release in 2000 but as many other commercial flops, it soon gained cult status. Inspired by Sylvia Plath’s captivating literary work, the album represented a huge step forward for Gwen, who for the first time wrote or co-wrote every song. It also veered away from the band’s ska roots, leaning towards a diverse mishmash of alternative rock and pop. “Magic’s In The Makeup” is only one of the many criminally underrated songs from this period, arguably the last time Gwen shined on her own until her surprising comeback this year.

After the hit and miss Rock Steady in 2001, No Doubt took a long hiatus, allowing Gwen to focus on her new solo career. Her first record Love. Angel. Music. Baby was a bigger deal than most No Doubt’s releases and catapulted Gwen into worldwide stardom in the mid-2000s. It may not have stood the test of time like her No Doubt material - “Hollaback Girl” sounds especially dated and wacky -, but songs like “What You Waiting For?” or “Cool” are definitely among her best work. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said about her second record The Sweet Escape and No Doubt’s comeback album Push and Shove, both of them tepidly received by critics and fans alike.

For an artist that has always been thrashed for her apparently unadventurous musical career, a closer look into Gwen Stefani’s work reveals that she has often taken more risks than what most of her critics assume. Gwen built an enduring musical legacy with No Doubt and challenged the dominant trends of rock music before embarking on a solo project that remains successful in 2016. After a decade of artistic unsteadiness, she is in a good spot now and even if she hasn’t shaken off that absurd “inoffensive” tag, her career hasn’t looked this good in a long time.

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