No Doubt’s ‘Don’t Speak’ Anointed Gwen Stefani as Pop’s Queen of Messy Thrills

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For while she has been famous, Gwen Stefani has been everything at once. As the frontwoman of the pop-ska-punk group No Doubt, she was a daytime Debbie Harry, sporting bindis, adult braces, and concert capes of sweat. At concerts, she moved like Iggy Pop, her body as flexible and unpredictable as a spring. Once she went solo, she was a portrait of David LaChapelle come to life: a hyper-realistic singer and queen of pop who rapped over bananas alongside a group of Japanese back-up dancers. Her transformations were seamless, each one felt as natural as slipping on new skin. Perhaps because there was something underneath them that she remained constant: She wrote about heartbreak better than anyone else.

Twenty-five years ago next month, Stefani was cemented as the patron saint of pop tears. The single “Don’t Speak,” an angry but devastated mid-tempo ballad about losing your best friend and lover, also made No Doubt a late-’90s phenomenon. In her video, Stefani is three different versions of herself: an anarchic rock star on stage, a glamorous solo artist with diamonds around her neck and a band that resents her, and a wounded young woman whose only hope of recovery is spilling her blood. heart. . Released in the UK in February 1997, it topped the charts for three weeks, an instant classic.

Stefani’s biggest chart success, both as part of No Doubt and as a solo artist, never rose from the same emotional well again. Rather, it came from the more pure pop and mayhem acts of hers, like No Doubt’s dancehall jumble “Hey Baby” or the marching band’s “Hollaback Girl.” But buried beneath the bravado was Stefani’s confusion, much of which she turned into pop beauty.

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This, to tell the truth, started early. “Just a Girl”, released in the UK to little attention in 1996 but re-released and subsequently smashing in the wake of “Don’t Speak”, is best remembered as a sonic blank stare or sardonic kiss. to male condescension. Stefani is defiant and ready for battle, but watch the video to the end and you’ll see the patriarchy finally catch up with her. The runway doesn’t ascend to its end but instead shrinks, Stefani’s expression shifting from certainty to apprehension as she sings one last, suddenly desperate cry of “I’ve had it this far”. In that moment, she laid the groundwork for much of her best work: giving us an escapist fantasy, but not without glimpses of the most twisted truth.

Stefani’s best songs are tortured romances, reminiscent of all-consuming love affairs gone to seed. She writes them like the psychodramas they often are, where having your heart broken is, on some level, akin to being murdered. Her teenage romance with No Doubt bassist Tony Kanal fueled the 1996s. tragic kingdom, the album that sent the band into the stratosphere. Her on-and-off relationship with Bush leader Gavin Rossdale (they first got together in 1995, married in 2002, had three children, then divorced in 2016) underpins much of the rest of her work.

About tragic kingdomStefani nails the very specific misery of loving someone much more than they love you. “Don’t Speak” is about acknowledging that your partner has drifted apart, but practically begging them not to acknowledge it too. Other tracks sound like Stefani is coming out of pain, but with such bravado and performative defiance that it borders on denial.

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In interviews at the time, she would admit that the breakup between her and Kanal was complicated and much more difficult for her than it was for him. She often tried and restarted things, to no avail. “God gave me this gift of being able to live on a strange fantasy planet where Tony still loves me,” she said. Details magazine in 1996. “And I know he does, because he admitted it to me the other day… Sometimes I force him to make out with me. I get into his bunk and he says, ‘Let go of me!’

Perhaps because they dated so young and were bonded over the success of their band, Stefani and Kanal fostered a friendship from the ashes of their romance. “Cool” – a track from Stefani’s first solo album love angel music baby and honestly one of the best songs ever written, it unfolds like a fairy tale that somehow came true. Stefani sings about her disbelief that they are friends again and can hang out with her new partners without drama. “We used to think it was impossible,” she sings. “Now you call me by my new last name.” The video, directed by Stefani’s regular collaborator Sophie Muller, alternates in time, Stefani and her on-screen lover in the throes of young love, and then with Stefani meeting her new wife. There are still brief moments of longing or an aura of unexpressed feelings, because, as Stefani has always told us, nothing is that easy, but otherwise they are cordial. Like the song says, they’re great.

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Gwen Stefani in No Doubt’s ‘Simple Kind of Life’ video

(Interscope Records)

Her relationship with Rossdale had a less happy ending. The No Doubt follow-up to tragic kingdom2000s melancholy return to saturn, was written by Stefani in a state of depression. Before she and Rossdale got married, the couple would always break up and get back together, separated by infidelities, insecurities and conflicting tour dates. Stefani said last year that she can’t listen to the album today because it’s too loaded with “messages” that she wasn’t aware of at the time. It makes sense: return of saturn it goes beyond confession to a point of almost unbearable intimacy. “Simple Kind of Life” finds her yearning for motherhood and her stability with Rossdale, despite the fact that he seems to hold her down cruelly. In the track’s video, Stefani sits under a giant, flashing birth control device and sings guiltily and uneasily, “Sometimes I wish I were wrong.” In the other songs on the album, she deals with her own loathing of herself and how it manifests as jealousy and anger. “What a cute girl, I’m so jealous,” she sings in “Staring Problem.” “I wish I looked exactly like her/ What is it like to have that body?”

Stefani’s lyrics can be brutal and unforgiving, and she rarely writes in the form of a metaphor. That’s potentially why she always seems surprised in interviews when she’s told that they’ve touched people. However, her obvious lack of complexity is where her power lies. A song like the dramatic ballad “Early Winter”, from her 2006 album. the sweet escape – is striking because of how forceful it is. “I was always one of those who cry,” she confesses. “I was never one to lie / You lied to me all these years.” “Red Flag”, theme of his most recent album This is what the truth looks like, was written after she and Rossdale had finally broken up, and it has a scared vulnerability that feels real. “She makes me nervous that you don’t want me back,” she sings to a potential new partner. She just showed how Stefani specializes in unattractive emotions, or the ones we’re told to hide. However, by singing about them, she drains them of their shame.

In recent years, much has been made of Stefani’s marriage to singer Blake Shelton, a cheesy country music singer who has repeatedly dodged questions about his political leanings. Their relationship has coincided with a vaguely uncool pop culture era for Stefani herself: a Christmas album; judging USA competition series The voice; singles compared witheringly to advertisements in discount clothing stores. Bright and elegant, his latest production is not. But if we’re going to take Stefani not as an insanely radical pop star and more as one of music’s biggest recipients of angst, it’s the end she always deserved. She finally has the kind of simple life she’s wanted for more than two decades, a life devoid of the drama that fueled that transcendent music, but also brought her years of pain. If anyone deserves uncomplicated love with a man who adores her, she’s the woman who spent years pining for him so openly.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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