When she first found success in the mid 90s as the extremely photogenic lead of the ska band No Doubt, Gwen Stefani epitomized the Gen-Y southern California girl. More than just a gorgeous face for the album and magazine covers, over the course of four No Doubt albums she repeatedly proved herself as a rock/R&B singer with the vocal range, free styling ability, and outlandish stage presence to propel that group to huge success. I remember listening to Tragic Kingdom while growing up, and especially watching the legendary “Don’t Speak” video when MTV and VH1 played it seemingly every hour on the hour in the year of its release, 1996.
After the huge radio and TV success of Tragic Kingdom propelled No Doubt to the top of the pop/rock game by the close of the century, the band followed up with the less admired but lovably funky Return of Saturn in 2000. The video for its leading single “Ex-girlfriend” debuted Gwen’s new pink hair color, a look that was far more successful on Gwen then it was on her Top 40 stablemate, the too-literal Pink. Thanks to my dear friend Bobby (who is the ultimate source for all things Gwen) I later learned that the song’s lyrics “you say you’re gonna burn before you mellow / I’ll be the one to burn you” are a direct shot at her and boyfriend Gavin Rossdale’s tumultuous relationship.
Within two years of releasing Return of Saturn, No Doubt followed up with the wildly popular Rock Steady. The production of this dance pop/reggae fusion album was assisted by the Neptunes, finding inspiration from global dancehall musical styles and giving the it a worldwide appeal. Around the same time, Gwen began to capitalize on the established success of her band in order to break off and guest star on tracks with artists like Moby and Eve, the latter of which lead to the amazing “Let Me Blow Ya Mind”:
With the success of these guest spots, it was clear that Gwen was about to graduate from No Doubt into her own solo career. In 2004, Love. Angel. Music. Baby. was released, again featuring production assistance from some of the biggest names in R&B (Neptunes, Andre 3000, Dallas Austin) but also finding inspiration from new wave acts like New Order and Depeche Mode. Spawning six singles and inspiring a new generation of devotees, L.A.M.B. also marked the start of Gwen’s career as fashion designer and her newfound obsessions with eastern culture, epitomized by the Harajuku Girls. I will forever associate the song “What You Waiting For?” with my freshman year at Northeastern, with its incessant beat and parabolic vocals inspiring countless impromptu dance parties in the dorms.
The Sweet Escape followed at the end of 2006, with the leading single “Wind it Up” sampling The Sound of Music and further proving Gwen’s willingness to take risks with her music. The album’s titular track, with its Akon guest spot and earwig “wee-oooh” backup, was the definitive song of summer 2007. Besides these summery singles, my other favorite from TSE is the recently rediscovered cold weather jam, “Early Winter”:
In the years since her last album, Gwen has been busy raising a family with Gavin and re-joining No Doubt – which she never officially left – for a nationwide tour in 2009. Proving that you can go solo and return to the roots that made you a star, Gwen and the rest of No Doubt have reportedly been in production on their sixth studio album since May. This post is just a glimpse of Gwen’s musical trajectory thus far, and I excitedly await the results of her return to No Doubt and any future solo projects.