Gwen Stefani’s career should’ve ended about fifteen different times by now. Not too many other beneficiaries of the mid-90s ska-pop boom are still around. The guy from Sugar Ray is hosting Extra. The guy from the Mighty Mighty Bosstones was a drive-time radio DJ in L.A. before he got fired earlier this year. According to Wikipedia, both Reel Big Fish and Goldfinger still exist; their recent achievements include getting dropped from their label and covering “99 Red Balloons” on the Eurotrip soundtrack, respectively. I have no idea what’s become of Save Ferris. And the girl from No Doubt has sold eight million copies of a schizophrenic teenpop solo album.
Of course, No Doubt was hardly ever a ska band; they just wore checkerboard pants and talked about Madness in interviews. Still, Stefani’s chameleon act is pretty stunning in retrospect. She can’t sing, but that’s never been much of a problem. Tragic Kingdom blew up on the strength of a feminist bubblepunk jam and blew up further from a terrible power ballad that egregiously jacked Aerosmith’s “Dream On.” No Doubt’s second big-label album flopped, and she married the guy from Bush, who has since become yet another alterna-rock casualty even if he did manage to score a role in Constantine. No Doubt managed to pull of the dubious discovering-dancehall move on Rock Steady, and Stefani’s big solo breakout came when she appeared on singles by Eve and Moby, both of whom have largely faded into pop-cult nonentity status. Her solo album and obligatory clothing line both had terrible names, and her clothes are ugly as all hell. Her solo singles are as follows: a heavily vocoderized Eurotechno cheese-blast (#47 US), an awkward but still pretty great repurposing of a mid-90s dancehall classic (#7 US), a deeply bizarre stomp-clap cheerleader chant with acoustic guitars and farting tubas shoehorned in (#1 US), a shivery bells-and-whistles new-wave prom-theme power-ballad (#13 US), a soft-focus new-romantic dancepop track with Slim Thug rapping on it #21 US), and a bleepy electro club-jam (#49 US). She’s released half of the songs from her album as singles and managed to turn all of them into at least minor hits. None of them have sounded much like each other, and the two that sound most like typical top-40 radio fodder are the only two that didn’t crack the top 40. “Hollaback Girl” is probably the weirdest #1 single in years, and it’s also the first song to hit #1 after Billboard decided to start counting iTunes downloads toward its totals. So that means it managed to climb to the top because people were actually buying it, not just because radio programmers thought they could use it to keep people from flipping channels. Stefani has managed to turn herself into a pop mainstay, the sort of teflon figure who can navigate shifting trends effortlessly and still maintain her preteen appeal after her 35th birthday. Boomer-rock is one thing, but top 40 radio just doesn’t allow for that kind of longevity; just watch Janet Jackson desperately thrash around as her record bricks hard enough to get Jermaine Dupri fired.
All that said, I can’t imagine Stefani is going to keep her winning streak going with her new single, a ghastly mess called “Wind It Up.” The Neptunes had something to do with the track; it’s got their spit-bubble “Drop It Like It’s Hot” drums and wobbly bass-noises and Pharrell’s hypeman mumbles. But it’s also got waves of off-center polka-march horns and sub-Fergie rapping and an utterly superfluous timbale break. And the hook is Gwen yodeling. It makes some sense that Stefani is using this nonsense as the leadoff single from her new album; it’s as deeply inexplicable in its own way as “Hollaback Girl” was, and it has chants and marching-band signifiers that sound vaguely similar if you listen hard enough. But Stefani managed to invest “Hollaback Girl” with a sort of goofily likable tough-chick swagger; it might’ve been pantomime, but at least it was something. “Wind It Up” takes all those elements and makes them as repulsive and otherworldly as possible. Everything about the song is unpleasant enough to make me doubt my own sanity. If this thing actually turns out to be a hit, it’s going to be a very, very long winter for some of us. I don’t take any pleasure whatsoever in announcing an immediate and visceral dislike for this song. Stefani mostly makes the type of frothy, vigorous, hooky dancepop that I’ve sort of made a career out of defending. In a lot of ways, she’s everything I want out of a pop-star right now: danceable, happily frivolous, open-hearted, experimental, expensively produced. But I can’t imagine how she convinced herself that anyone would ever want to hear her yodel.
The best part of the song is where Pharrell mutters, “She’s crazy, right?” Yes. Yes, she is.
Voice review: Amy Linden on Gwen Stefani’s Love.Angel.Music.Baby