Happy Birthday, Gwen Stefani — You're Our Patron Saint Of Powerful Pop Stars

Photo: MediaPunch/REX USA.
When Ellie Lawrence took the stage during the second night of blind auditions on this season of The Voice, she was a ball of nerves. She didn’t doubt her singing talents — a raspy, emotional, rock voice that absolutely slayed Ella Eyre’s version of “We Don’t Have to Take Our Clothes Off” (originally recorded by Jermaine Stewart in 1986). And, she didn’t have to worry too much about how her bright aqua hair or love of punk rock make her an outcast in the small, North Georgia town where she lives. She was freaking the hell out because she was about to sing for her idol, the woman who inspired her to be an individual in a town of sames: Gwen Stefani.

Nearly every female artist who steps on stage during The Voice auditions this year lets out a similar squeal of glee when Stefani speaks, whether she turns her chair around for them or not. They are starstruck, humbled, and reduced to giggles when Stefani shares kind words (she’s always kind), as if echoing a line from Stefani’s own “Harajuku Girls,” in which Japanese fashionistas, whom Stefani cites as inspiration, utter in total amazement, “Gwen Stefani, you like me?”

Stefani should be used to this kind of hero worship by now. When she emerged as the front woman for No Doubt nearly 30 years ago — bearing her washboard abs and her soul — she was a music-industry outlier. She was one of the lone women to front a rock band in the age of grunge and Lilith Fair. Her voice, a nasal-based hiccup that could also belt out the high notes, was unlike anything we’d heard before, and it was as odd as it was addictive.

And then there were the things that voice was singing about. Stefani sourced her own heartache, insecurity, and yearning for love to create some of the most memorable songs of the 1990s and 2000s: “Bathwater,” “Don’t Speak,” “Ex-Girlfriend,” “Happy Now?,” “Marry Me,” “Simple Kind of Life,” all painfully confessional anthems from a woman’s point of view. Wannabes may squeal for her, but any young, contemporary female artist who pours her emotions out in song owes a debt to Stefani. She gave No Doubt its biggest hit of all time when she detailed the still-fresh wounds of her breakup with bassist Tony Kanal on 1996’s “Don’t Speak” — and then performed it on stage time and again with him playing right behind her.

This month marks many milestones for Stefani. On October 3, she turns 46. October 10 marks the 20th anniversary of Tragic Kingdom, the album that made No Doubt an international sensation and Stefani a superstar. She’s back in the studio right now, working on her third solo album — after giving birth to a third son, splitting with husband Gavin Rossdale, and signing with The Voice as a coach for a second time. There are also rumors of a No Doubt reunion in the works, to which we say, "Yesplease!"

Any young, contemporary female artist who pours her emotions out in song owes a debt to Stefani.

As the lead singer of No Doubt and as a solo artist, Stefani has sold more than 30 million albums worldwide. Her clothing lines, L.A.M.B. and Harajuku Lovers, have made her a fashion magnate. Oddly enough, Stefani’s global-dominating success happened sort of by accident.

When she was just 17, living in Anaheim, CA, a nondescript suburb of Southern California mostly made up of business parks, strip malls, and Disneyland, she joined her brother’s band as a backup singer. When the group’s lead singer, John Spence, committed suicide in 1987, she stepped up to the microphone. Then her brother, Eric Stefani, the songwriter and former ringleader, quit the band. At that moment, there was no longer a shadow holding her back. She stepped forward, center stage, smack-dab in the spotlight.
Photo: REX USA.
When No Doubt started playing around clubs in Southern California in the early 1990s, they didn’t quite fit in. This was when Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder were the pastors of popular music. Female singers at the time went in the opposite direction, with folksy singer-songwriters like Sarah McLachlan and Tracy Chapman ruling the charts. Where did this petite platinum-blonde singing ska-pop-rock music fit in?

But, Stefani’s individuality, in all its contradictions, has always been her calling card — and her biggest asset. She’s tough and sweet, aggressive and demure, punk and princess. She is as comfortable inciting a mosh pit as she is moping over heartache. Her style is whatever the hell she wants it to be in that moment, from blue-haired anime cartoon character to glamorous Old Hollywood screen queen to militant, combat-styled sexpot to…whatever she has in store next. Just by being herself, Stefani is a role model to anyone who embraces her own weirdness. Cue: squealing blue-haired girls everywhere.

The runaway success of Tragic Kingdom was as much about the band’s unique music, which drew from reggae, punk, rock, and horns-heavy ska, as it was about the message. With songs like “Just a Girl,” that message was unmistakably one of a woman airing her frustrations to the world.

“Just a Girl” became the soundtrack to female empowerment in the 1990s, bridging the gap between riot girrl activist feminism and the feminism-light of the Spice Girls’ “girl power.” Amy Heckerling recognized Stefani’s force when the director chose “Just a Girl” as the song Cher and Dionne groove to in her iconic film Clueless, which came out the same year as Tragic Kingdom. The song also gave women permission to be unabashedly feminine and badass at the same time. When performing “Just a Girl” on stage, Stefani — dolled up in red lipstick, heavy eyeliner, elaborate hair constructions, and baring her midriff — jumped off speaker towers, pumped her fists, and unleashed her full range of rock-goddess bravado. A satirical commentary on the pressures and restrictions inherent in being a woman, this is the song that caused so many of those mosh pits.

There was no doubt that Gwen Stefani was more than just a girl.
Photo: REX USA.
Soon, artists cloying for a hit song began to enlist Stefani. She helped make Moby’s “South Side” the centerpiece to his hit solo album, Play, in 2000. And when she joined Eve for “Let Me Blow Ya Mind” the following year, Stefani won her first Grammy Award for Best Rap/Sung Collaboration.

When Stefani ventured into solo territory, everyone was convinced that she’d be a success — everyone except the singer herself. She got writer’s block and a strong case of nerves working on what became Love.Angel.Music.Baby.

"I think every record No Doubt's made had its own challenges. But this one, for me, was the hardest,” Stefani told MTV News in 2007. “When you've never really written with other people, you're exposing yourself, taking your clothes off, saying, 'All right, here we go, this is me, this is you.' It's humiliating and intimidating.”

On the opening track, “What You Waiting For?,” Stefani mulls over this insecurity:

"Naturally I’m worried if I do it alone / Who really cares ‘cause it’s your life / You never know, it could be great."

Then she nods at the sexism still plaguing the music industry:

"Your moment will run out / ‘cause of your sex chromosome / I know it’s so messed up how our society all thinks."

Finally, she gives herself a self-motivational bitch slap:

"Take a chance you stupid ho."

The song sets to music the internal monologue so many women have with themselves, quite possibly on a daily basis: Can I do it? Should I do it? Will anyone even care?… Fuck it, let’s go.
Photo: REX USA.

While the album and its follow up, The Sweet Escape, received mixed reviews, Stefani delved even deeper into her inner psyche for her subsequent solo work, again drawing on her personal life to pen confessional hits such as “Cool” and “4 in the Morning,” which respectively deal with staying friends with an ex-lover and the fear and vulnerability of being in love.

Stefani wasn’t the first, of course, to set her journal entries to music. Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours (which details the hot-mess relationship drama going on within the band) was the biggest seller in the band’s history. Carole King wrote her record-breaking Tapestry with her ex-husband, and mined the irony. Love and heartbreak have been bankable since human beings started writing lyrics. But, without Stefani taking it one step further, giving honest details about her ex-beaus and setting those feelings to a sick beat — always with a new twist — would modern pop-rock artists like Avril Lavigne or Taylor Swift have the kinds of platforms that made them stars? In part because of Stefani, pop songs full of strongly felt, female feelings have become the most valuable currency in popular culture.

Stefani isn’t finished yet. As she wraps up her new solo record and teases us with songs like “Spark the Fire” (which co-writer Pharrell Williams calls a “feminist anthem”), she clearly has more to say about her life as just a (mega-superstar) girl in this world. She recently told TIME magazine that she’s projecting a “don’t mess with my vibe” attitude in her new music. “I’m going to be up here, don’t bring me down.”

Girl, we wouldn’t dream of it. In fact, can we come up there, too?

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