Stefani graduated from high school in 1987 and began attending Fullerton College before transferring to California State University. By this time, her elder, keyboard-playing brother Eric had started the embryonic first line-up of No Doubt. Influenced primarily by Jerry Dammers’ legendary 2-Tone imprint and its trailblazing releases by the likes of Madness and Dammers’ own band, The Specials, Eric Stefani had intended to mould No Doubt into a ska-pop band and, by 1986, had already drafted in the 17-year-old Gwen as a backing vocalist.
The fledgling band lived through several lean years and endured the premature death of original vocalist John Spence, in 1987. By ’88, though, Gwen Stefani had taken over as lead vocalist and, over the next 18 months, No Doubt’s classic line-up fell into place when bassist Tony Kanal, guitarist Tony Dumont and drummer Adrian Young all joined up full-time.
No Doubt built their reputation through old-fashioned grit and graft, playing all the essential LA venues, including Fender’s Grand Ballroom, The Roxy, and The Whisky A Go Go, and landing innumerable support slots with popular local acts including Fishbone, veteran ska-popsters The Untouchables and even a show in Long Beach with Red Hot Chili Peppers. Gwen Stefani’s charismatic onstage presence, the band’s ever-expanding set of infectious tunes, and their rabid live following inevitably brought No Doubt to the attention of the more vigilant record companies and, by 1990, they’d secured a deal with the newly established Universal Music affiliate label Interscope.
Stardom initially proved to be highly elusive. Though Interscope released the band’s self-titled debut in 1992, No Doubt’s bouncy, brass-enhanced ska-pop largely fell on deaf ears while grunge was in vogue. The album eventually clocked up a respectable 30,000 sales after the band toured throughout the US, but they eventually self-released their second LP, the punky, hard-edged The Beacon Street Collection early in 1995.
Against the odds, The Beacon Street Collection held its own in the marketplace, racking up 100,000 sales, its surprise success ensuring that Interscope financed No Doubt’s third LP, Tragic Kingdom, released in October 1995. An evergreen collection of hooky, Blondie-esque pop with the band’s trademark ska inflections joined by tinges of everything from reggae to flamenco, it catapulted No Doubt into the big league, spawning seven hit singles, including the band’s signature song ‘Don’t Speak’, which stayed at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 chart for 16 weeks.
Tragic Kingdom eventually sold 10 million copies in the US alone (earning the band a diamond certification) and, worldwide, it shifted a further six million. Its success came at a price, however, as a disillusioned Eric Stefani quit the band just prior to the album’s release, to work as an animator with the hit cartoon TV series The Simpsons. Sessions for the LP’s eventual follow-up, 2000’s darker and significantly less poppy Return Of Saturn, were protracted and, while the album did yield the US Top 40 hit ‘Simple Kind Of Life’, and the LP itself clibed to No.2 on the US Billboard 200, it only sold a relatively meagre 1.5 million copies in the US.
No Doubt’s popularity again surged with the release of 2001’s Rock Steady: a confident, upbeat affair taking in dub, Jamaican dancehall styles and jerky, Devo-esque keyboard textures. The album featured input from guests including ace Jamaican rhythm section Sly & Robbie and several renowned producers, among them Timbaland and The Cars’ Ric Ocasek. Though an expensive project, the LP paid dividends for the band, spawning four hit singles in the US and eventually selling over three million copies worldwide.
Interscope then issued the self-explanatory The Singles 1992-2003 in November 2003. Featuring one freshly recorded track – an emotive cover of Talk Talk’s ‘It’s My Life’, which earned the band a Grammy nomination in 2004 – this hit-stuffed anthology was another solid commercial success, earning double-platinum certifications in the US and Canada.
No Doubt toured the US with blink-182 in the early summer of 2004, before going on hiatus while Stefani kick-started her solo career with November 2004’s Love.Angel.Music.Baby. Though originally designed as a small-scale side project, the album became a full-blooded LP littered with superstar collaborators ranging from Linda Perry and Dr Dre to Nellee Hooper and even New Order on ‘The Real Thing’.
Deliberately conceived as a record that drew upon the prevalent musical styles of the 80s, such as new wave, hip-hop and electro-pop, Stefani freely admitted that the albums’s bright, glitzy pop sound was influenced by her teen heroes such as Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, The Cure, Depeche Mode and Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam. Its 12 tracks, however, included a quartet of big-selling 45s. The first, the funky, electro-pop flavoured Katy Perry collaboration, ‘What You Waiting For?’, openly discussed Stefani’s fear of embarking on a solo career, yet it climbed to No.47 on the US singles chart and went Top 10 in most other global territories. Second single, the Dr Dre-produced duet with rapper Eve, ‘Rich Girl’, made the UK and US Top 10s, while ‘Hollaback Girl’ became Stefani’s first US chart-topping single, and fourth single release, ‘Cool’, again went Top 20 on both sides of the Atlantic.
Love.Angel.Music.Baby. was both warmly received by the critics and a runaway commercial success, selling 309,000 copies in its first week and debuting at No.7 on America’s Billboard 200. It eventually went multi-platinum in the US and repeated this feat in the UK, Australia and Canada, prior to earning Stefani no less than five nominations at the 2006 Grammy Awards.
Stefani promoted the LP with the lengthy, 42-date Harajuku Lovers tour, which kicked off on 16 October 2005. The tour included several high-profile support acts – hip-hop outfit The Black Eyed Peas, rapper MIA and singer-songwriter Ciara – and it also spawned the long-form in-concert DVD, Harajuku Lovers Live: issued by Interscope in December 2006 to coincide with the release of Stefani’s second solo LP, The Sweet Escape.
After the release of L.A.M.B., Stefani had diversified into film, making her acting debut playing Jean Harlow in director Martin Scorsese’s 2004 movie The Aviator. She originally had no intention of making a second solo LP, but several unreleased tracks from the L.A.M.B. sessions were sitting in the can and – after some persuasion from ‘Hollaback Girl’ co-writer Pharrell Williams – Stefani recorded a bunch of new songs in Miami during 2005, two of which, ‘Wind It Up’ and ‘Orange County Girl’, received live premieres during her Harajuku Lovers tour.
The resulting album, The Sweet Escape, again found Stefani collaborating with an eclectic mix of contemporary artists, including Tim Rice-Oxley from English pop trio Keane, The Neptunes, and American rapper Aliaune ‘Akon’ Thiam. Arguably more contemporary and club-friendly than L.A.M.B., The Sweet Escape was nonetheless diverse; ranging from the Pharrell Williams-assisted ‘Wind It Up’ (which featured yodelling and interpolations from Rodgers & Hammerstein’s ‘The Lonely Goatherd’) to ‘Now That You Got It’ – a reggae-flavoured track with hip-hop beats and a staccato piano figure – and the ballad ‘4 In The Morning’, co-written with Stefani’s No Doubt bandmate Tony Kanal.
Though it didn’t quite replicate the stratospheric success of L.A.M.B., The Sweet Escape again made its presence felt in the charts. It debuted at No.3 on the US Billboard 200, selling 243,000 copies in its first week. It eventually went on to garner platinum certifications in the US and UK, and went double-platinum in Australia and Canada. Stefani also embarked on a world tour to promote the album during 1997, playing over 80 concerts. At one of her domestic shows in Irvine, California, she was joined by her No Doubt bandmates and performed five of their hits, including their cover of Talk Talk’s ‘It’s My Life.’
No Doubt had remained on hiatus while Stefani worked her solo career but, during 2008, the group began writing new songs, before touring the US in the summer of 2010 and recording an all-new LP’s worth of material during 2011. The album, Push And Shove, finally saw the light of day in September 2012 and, while it was greeted with mixed reviews, it was a mature and satisfying record with a clutch of infectious tunes such as ‘Gravity’, the Caribbean-flavoured first single ‘Settle Down’, and ‘Looking Hot’: a pounding, synth-driven number sporting a tongue-in-cheek lyric wherein the now 40-something Stefani pondered how much longer she could get away with wearing skin-tight clothes.
Push And Shove performed well commercially, debuting at an impressive No.3 on the US Billboard 200 and selling 115, 000 copies in its week of release. It also charted highly in the UK, where it debuted at No.16 and made the Top 10 in both Canada and Australia.
No Doubt again went on hiatus following Push And Shove but, in September 2014, Stefani told MTV News that she was working on a new solo LP, a No Doubt LP and collaborating with Pharrell Williams. Later the same year, Stefani duly released two new singles: the reggae-tinged, mid-tempo pop number ‘Baby Don’t Lie’ (co-written with OneRepublic’s Ryan Tedder) and a hip-hop track, ‘Spark The Fire’, culled from her studio sessions with Williams.
‘Spark The Fire’ has also been mooted as the title of Stefani’s long-awaited third studio album, but, at the time of writing, this remains unconfirmed. Stefani’s brand new single, ‘Used To Love You’, however, was released through Interscope in October 2015 and is being trailed as the first official taster from her forthcoming LP. An impressive return to the fray, it’s a defiant, emotionally scarred ballad featuring one of Stefani’s most passionate vocals to date, while its quality suggests she’ll continue to cast a long shadow over the global pop scene for the foreseeable future.
In the wake of Gwen Stefani's elevation to diva status in the early 2000s, it's easy to forget that for a brief moment at the start of the millennium it seemed that she and her band, No Doubt, were dangerously close to being pegged as yet another of the one-album alt-rock wonders of the '90s. Return of Saturn, their long-awaited 2000 follow-up to their blockbuster 1995 breakthrough Tragic Kingdom, failed to ignite any sparks at either retail or radio, despite receiving some strong reviews, and the group seemed on the verge of disappearing. Then, Gwen sang on Eve's "Let Me Blow Ya Mind" in 2001. The Dr. Dre-produced song was a brilliant single, driven by a G-funk groove and a sultry pop chorus delivered by Stefani, and it was an enormous hit, peaking at number two on the Billboard charts and winning a Grammy, while redefining Gwen's image in the process. No longer the cute SoCal ska-punk kid of Tragic Kingdom, she was a sexy, glamorous club queen, and No Doubt's next album, 2001's Rock Steady, not only reflected this extreme makeover, it benefited from it, since her new ghetto-fabulous persona turned the album into a big hit. A side effect of this was that Gwen now had a higher profile than her band, making a solo album somewhat inevitable. Since she always dominated No Doubt -- she was their face, voice, lyricist, and sex symbol, after all -- it's reasonable to ask whether vanity was the only reason she wanted to break out on her own, since it seemed to the outside observer that she helped set the musical course for the band.
A quick listen to Love.Angel.Music.Baby., her 2004 solo debut, reveals that this is not an album she could have made with the group -- it's too club-centric, too fashion-obsessed, too willfully weird to be a No Doubt album. Working with far too many collaborators -- including Dr. Dre, the Neptunes, Linda Perry, Dallas Austin, André 3000, Nellee Hooper, Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, and her No Doubt bandmate (and ex-boyfriend) Tony Kanal -- Stefani has created a garish, neon-colored, deliberately stylish solo album that's intermittently exciting and embarrassing. It covers far too much ground to be coherent, but a large part of its charm is to hear it careen from the thumping, minimal beats of the Neptunes-helmed "Hollaback Girl" to the sleek, new wave textures of the high school anthem-in-waiting "Cool" and back to the exhilarating freakazoid sex song "Bubble Pop Electric," featuring André 3000's alter ego Johnny Vulture. This is music that exists entirely on the surface -- so much so, that when André drops in Martin Luther King samples into the closer, "Long Way to Go," it's a jarring buzz kill -- and that's what's appealing about L.A.M.B., even if it is such a shallow celebration of fleeting style and outdated bling-bling culture, it can grate. This shallowness can result in intoxicating beats, hooks, and melodies, but also a fair share of embarrassments, from odes to "hydroponic love" and choruses built on either "That's my s*it" or "take a chance, you stupid ho" to the stumbling contributions from Linda Perry. But Stefani's dogged desire to cobble together her own patchwork style while adhering to both her new wave chick and urban goddess personas can be both fascinatingly odd (her weirdly homoerotic tribute to "Harajuku Girls") and irresistible. It's telling that the best moments on the album keep closest to her new wave roots (which include heavy electro synth beats and blips): no matter how hard she tries, she is not a cultural trailblazer like Madonna. Unlike Madge, she willingly adapts to her collaborators instead of forcing them to adapt to her, which means that L.A.M.B. truly does sound like the work of seven different producers instead of one strong-willed artist. Nevertheless, even if it doesn't work all the time -- and some of its best tracks still have moments that induce a withering cringe -- it's a glitzy, wild ride that's stranger and often more entertaining than nearly any other mainstream pop album of 2004.
Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Awkward and alluring in equal measures, Gwen Stefani's 2004 solo debut, Love.Angel.Music.Baby., did its job: it made Gwen a bigger star on her own than she was as the lead singer of No Doubt. With that established and her long-desired wish for a baby finally fulfilled, there was no rush for Gwen to get back to her regular gig, so she made another solo album, The Sweet Escape, which expanded on what really sold her debut: her tenuous connections to Californian club culture. There was always a sense of artifice behind the turn-of-the-century makeover that brought Gwen from a ska-punk sweetheart to a dance club queen, but that doesn't mean it didn't work at least on occasion, most spectacularly so on the gloriously dumb marching-band rap of "Hollaback Girl," the Neptunes production that turned L.A.M.B. into a blockbuster. There, as on her duet with Eve on "Let Me Blow Ya Mind," Gwen made the transition into a modern-day material girl with ease, but when she tried to shoehorn this ghetto-fabulous persona into her original new wave girl character, it felt forced, nowhere more so than on the Linda Perry written and produced "What You Waiting For." Gwen doesn't make that mistake again on The Sweet Escape -- by and large, she keeps these two sides of her personality separate, favoring the streets and nightclubs to the comfort of her new wave home. Just because she wants to run in the streets doesn't mean she belongs there; she continues to sound far more comfortable mining new wave pop, as only a child of the '80s could. As always, it's those celebrations of cool synths and stylish pop hooks that work the best for Stefani, whether she's approximating the chilliness of early-MTV new romantics on "Wonderful Life," mashing Prince and Madonna on "Fluorescent," or lying back on the coolly sensual "4 in the Morning."
Only once on the album is she able to bring this style and popcraft to a heavy dance track, and that's on the irresistible Akon-produced title track, driven by a giddy "wee-oh!" hook and supported by a nearly anthemic summertime chorus. Tellingly, the Neptunes, the architects of her best dance cuts on L.A.M.B., did not produce this track, but they do have a huge presence on The Sweet Escape, helming five of the 12 songs, all but one being tracks that weigh down the album considerably. The exception is "U Started It," a light and nifty evocation of mid-period Prince, with its lilting melody, silken harmonies, and pizzicato strings. It sounds effortless and effervescent, two words that do not apply to their other four productions, all skeletal, rhythm-heavy tracks that fail to click. Sometimes, they're merely leaden, as on the stumbling autobiographical rap "Orange County Girl"; sometimes, they're cloying and crass, as on the rather embarrassing "Yummy"; sometimes they have an interesting idea executed poorly, as on "Breakin' Up," a breakup song built on a dying cell phone metaphor that's interesting in theory but its stuttering, static rhythms and repetitive chorus are irritating in practice. Also interesting in theory is the truly bizarre lead single, "Wind It Up," where the Neptunes force fanfares and samples from The Sound of Music's "The Lonely Goatherd" into one of their typical minimalist tracks, over which Gwen spouts off clumsy material-minded lyrics touting her fashion line and her shape. Nothing in this track really works, but it's hard not to listen to it in wonder, since its unwieldy rhythms and rhymes capture everything that's currently wrong about Stefani.
From the stilted production to the fashion fetish, all the way down to her decision to rap on far too much of the album, all the dance-pop here seems like a pose, creating the impression that she's a glamour girl slumming on a weekend night -- something that her self-proclaimed Michelle Pfieffer in Scarface "coke whore" makeover showcased on the album's cover doesn't do much to dissuade. If the dance production on The Sweet Escape were better, these hipster affectations would be easier to forgive, but they're not: they're canned and bland, which only accentuates Stefani's stiffness. These misfires are so grand they overshadow the many good moments on The Sweet Escape, which are invariably those songs that stay true to her long-standing love of new wave pop (not coincidentally, these include every production from her No Doubt bandmate Tony Kanal). These are the moments that give The Sweet Escape its sweetness, and while they may require a little effort to dig out, they're worth the effort, since it proves that beneath the layers of bling, Gwen remains the SoCal sweetheart that has always been as spunky and likeable as she has been sexy.
Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine