Exclusive! Stefani *Saves* America

Dec 22, 2004 at 12:00 am

Don’t speak — I know just what you’re thinking. Because one way or another, she’s the one we’ve all been waiting for. At long last, Love.Angel.Music.Baby marks Gwen Stefani’s acceptance of her solo platinum tiara and the title of America’s truest pop star. She deserves the throne on the album’s cover, the blinging scepter in her hand. For more than 10 years Gwen’s been a faithful band member, a powerfully expressive singer and crazy diamond blend of role model and sex symbol. But with LAMB she’s integrated her personae, tapped the right people, and copped the best trends to conjure a blonde and ambitious reinvention of self. It’s pretty great at parties too. Luscious, kicky, modern and a little bit risky, LAMB adds the role of pop music savior to Stefani’s already lengthy résumé. She’s like an American Björk, only not as frightening to infants and forest creatures.

The early ’00s brought new adventures for No Doubt, the band with the street cred diva in their midst. Stefani’s work with Moby on “South Side” glowed cool and bluish-green, like the lights of a city tunnel in motion. And as the chorus songbird on Eve’s smash single “Let Me Blow Ya Mind,” she was aligned with an MC who was both tough and lovely. Still, it was No Doubt’s 2001 effort Rock Steady that set up Gwen’s current pop jones. Working with a cross-section of crafty producers, No Doubt fit its longstanding reggae and new wave influences into a hip-hop and dance context, and launched a genre-shredding statement of 21st century pop. Naturally the band’s vocalist was the sexy/thoughtful interpreter, stomping boldly at the disco (“Hella Good”) and getting dancehall loopy with Sly & Robbie and Bounty Killer (“Hey Baby”), but also lending a sighing honesty to the gentle reggae sway of “Underneath it All.”

Rock Steady was a huge hit for No Doubt, but it also rekindled the clamor for a Stefani solo outing. And why not? In 2002 and 2003, American Idol winners were regularly trading Taco Bell headsets for (switched off) microphones at the Super Bowl, and basic cable starlets clogged record store shelves with competing, yet identical product. Why couldn’t the everyday music fan have a charismatic and truly talented artist to believe in? One who could point to 10-plus years of musical experience, instead of alternate reality piecework as a Fly Girl, child actor or the sibling of a C-lister?

You think you’ve got it, but got it just don’t get it till there’s nothing at all. And that’s why Outkast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below is so important to this equation. Big Boi and Andre 3000’s dualistic masterpiece slammed tradition-minded hip hop into glittering Sun Ra flights of fancy, and put sensuality and flirting back into sexualized party music. “Hey Ya!” morphed into an unstoppable force, and even grandmothers smiled when “The Way You Move” came on the radio. This was stuff made by musicians — by artists — without care for niche. Digital dissemination and a frazzled culture’s constricted attention span made boldness and immediacy valuable. Not only did Outkast recognize this, they managed to make a hit out of a double-album.

Like Rock Steady, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below helped animate the plastic and the empty. So it’s not surprising to find Andre 3000 collaborating with Gwen Stefani on LAMB, her own take on furiously in-the-now pop. The album doesn’t really have a “Hey Ya!” But it does have Andre’s cocksure Johnny Vulture bedding Gwen’s hot ’n’ bothered high schooler on the crackling and naughty Grease sound track update “Bubble Pop Electric,” and rarely leaves a moment or surface untouched by creativity, beats, blips or some edge culture-inspired gimmickry. (Check the tribute to Tokyo’s trendiest kids on “Harajuku Girls.”) Dr Dre, New Order, Eve, Wendy and Lisa — the contributors are varied, carefully selected and often very expensive. And with their help Stefani approximates Exposé-style ’80s dance-pop (“Crash”), reinterprets “Bizarre Love Triangle” (“Real Thing”) and cribs from Fiddler on the Roof on the dancehall funk of Dr Dre’s “Rich Girl.” The idea here isn’t simply to fill the dance floor, though the florescent pound of “What You Waiting For?” and the Neptunes-crafted, “Milkshake”-baiting sass of “Hollaback Girl” certainly will. No, with Love.Angel.Music.Baby, Stefani is using her veteran eyes, keen ears and the modern diva status she’s finally, fully accepted to plant some unabashed audacity into the bland pop landscape. Right this way, your highness.

Johnny Loftus writes about music for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].