Gwen Stefani's debut solo album, Love. Angel. Music. Baby., opens with a melodramatic song on a pertinent topic: the difficulty of making a debut solo album. " What You Waiting For?," the album's first single, is a nutty internal monologue in which Stefani worries about leaving her day band, No Doubt, laments the short commercial shelf life of female singers, and generally waxes neurotic. "Naturally I'm worried if I do it alone," Stefani sings. "What if they say that I'm a climber?"
It's a bit odd to hear one of our most reliably garish hit-makers fretting about her credibility, especially while squeaking like a robot Lene Lovich over an electro-disco groove. But by the time a choir of multitracked Stefanis arrive to urge the singer to stop her whining and go for it ("You're still a superhot female/ You got your million dollar contract … Take a chance you stupid ho"), one thing is clear: This woman has a Madonna complex. The plan is not to make a nice little solo album before returning to the ska-punk circuit with No Doubt. "What You Waiting For?" is a warning shot fired in the direction of Beyoncé, Britney, and J. Lo—not to mention a certain Kabbalah Centre habitué. There's a new competitor in the global pop diva stakes.
This is a somewhat unlikely turn of events. When we first met Stefani in the mid-'90s, she was a punk chick in a belly shirt fronting an undeniably pop-savvy but frankly annoying band. She seemed destined to go down in history as a period curio—the beneficiary of the grunge-weary public's fleeting fancy for ska. Few were surprised when Return of Saturn (2000), No Doubt's follow-up to the megahit Tragic Kingdom (1995), was a commercial failure.
But then Stefani launched her rebranding campaign, an effort undertaken with such gangling good cheer—and, apparently, without the usual battery of professional stylists and other hired help—that it endeared her to the editors of Jane magazine and other tastemakers who normally cast a jaundiced eye on the careerist machinations of pop divas. First came a cameo singing the chorus on Eve's " Let Me Blow Ya Mind" (2001), a Grammy-winning hip-hop single produced by Dr. Dre, which gave the Orange County skate-betty a ghetto-fabulous makeover. She cashed in her newfound hip-hop credibility on the next No Doubt album, Rock Steady (2001), and the result was a sleek, beat-happy party record. Meanwhile, the glammed-up Stefani strolled down red carpets on two continents and launched her own fashion line, L.A.M.B., which is none-too-subtly plugged in the title of her new record. Later this month, Stefani will make her movie debut as Jean Harlow in Martin Scorsese's The Aviator. All of which leaves Stefani a hit solo album away from a place in the diva firmament.
By all rights, Love. Angel. Music. Baby. should be that album. Stefani has hired a bunch of big-name collaborators (Dr. Dre, the Neptunes, Outkast's Andre 3000, Eve, Nelle Hooper, two members of New Order, and pop-rock hack Linda Perry among others) and made the most gleefully overcooked pop record in recent memory. Love. Angel. Music. Baby. bombards listeners with party chants, vocoder-smudged vocals, superstar cameos, cheesy hip-hop samples—an exhaustive, exhausting grab bag of pop tricks, topped off by the manic presence of Stefani herself, who has always been a kind of one-woman musical shock-and-awe campaign. At a time when production minimalism rules the charts—when producers squeeze hit songs out of little more than a few percussive thumps and a snatch of melody—Stefani has gone in the opposite direction. This is pop maximalism: rococo 'n' roll.
The result is a mess—for the most part, a delightful mess. Critics have sniffed at Love. Music. Angel. Baby. for its promiscuous use of different producers and overall jumbled feel. But rappers regularly put out albums with a different producer on every track and get away with it. It's hard not to suspect that Stefani's critics are falling back on the canard that pop chanteuses are putty in the hands of producer-Svengalis—a charge that has dogged Madonna for two decades and seems particularly wrongheaded in the case of Stefani, who is so audibly in command of this ramshackle album. (Not just any broad could make tracks by Dr. Dre and the Neptunes, those masters of tidy funk, sound so discombobulated.)
As for the complaint that the album is a mess: Well, yes, but that's the point. Stefani's songs are deliberately cluttered and vulgar and swollen with pop clichés; it's an aesthetic of messiness, and to assail Love. Angel. Music. Baby. for being a mess is a bit like faulting Back in Black for being loud and raunchy. Stefani is out for a good time and willing to get there just about any old way—by turning a song from Fiddler on the Roof into a hyped-up bling anthem; by dragging out one of the most shopworn samples in the hip-hop canon, the Isley Brothers' "Between the Sheets"; by lifting a melody line, and the prom-night ambiance, of Madonna's "Crazy for You" and plopping them into her very own make-out ballad, " Cool." Several songs mimic '80s dance pop (it's the least pretentious, most irony-free '80s revivalism you'll ever hear), but no matter how uncannily "Crash" and " Serious" evoke the Top 40 circa 1986, Stefani's hyperactive, pitch-imperfect singing steers them away from pastiche to an altogether weirder place. Lisa Lisa never sounded this unhinged.
Of course, Stefani's speed-freak shtick is part of her musical inheritance. Spazzing out is de rigueur in the Southern California ska-punk scene, and it was Stefani's madcap charisma that won No Doubt millions of new fans when they first broke through to heavy MTV rotation in 1996. These days, Stefani has ditched the Doc Martens, but she's still a zany figure. It's part of what distinguishes her from the Beyoncés and Christinas of the world, but it may also keep her from ascending to their ranks.
There are all kinds of pop divas: tragic-romantic divas in the Piaf-Garland-Holiday mold, ice-bitch MTV divas like Madonna and her followers, even four-octave-range total nut-case divas like Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey. But there's never been a diva clown. Divadom is a deadly serious business. You have to march through your music videos with steely resolve. A certain humorlessness—about yourself and your music—is a prerequisite for the job. (There's a reason why Madonna is Madonna, and Cyndi Lauper is doing guest spots on Deborah Norville Tonight.) However infectious her record is, Gwen Stefani may not quite be able to summon the gravitas we demand of our Queens of Pop.
But Stefani brings something utterly distinctive to the table, namely a knack for writing the kind of idiosyncratic lyrics we associate more with underground rappers and indie rockers than multiplatinum pop stars. Love. Angel. Music. Baby. is very nearly a theme album about Harajuku girls, the wacky teenage fashion plates who parade through Tokyo's Harajuku shopping district wearing pink earmuffs, Minnie Mouse hairstyles, and skirts made out of neckties. Stefani has called these girls her muses, and they crop up everywhere, flanking the singer on her album cover, rescuing her from drowning in the "What You Waiting For?" video, and starring in several songs, notably " Harajuku Girls," the most extravagant piece of musical Orientalism this side of The Mikado. "Harajuku girls, I am your biggest fan," Stefani exults. "Your accessories are dead-on. ... Your underground culture, visual grammar, the language of your clothing is something to encounter." It's a deeply kooky lyric—in its own way, as whacked-out as Robyn Hitchcock's odes to insects and fish or Kool Keith's space-travel raps—and you can't help but admire the songwriter who has dared to set such a private obsession to an electro beat and imagine that it belongs on a blockbuster pop album. Stefani may never capture the zeitgeist like Madonna, or sing like Beyoncé, or move her fall line of track suits like J. Lo.—but she'd trounce them all in a poetry slam.