by Rachel Reeves
No Doubt’s Tragic Kingdom was the second CD I ever bought. We were coming of age then, my friends and I, wearing our private-school skirts a little shorter than knee-length, and we loved No Doubt.
We’d answer each other in the band’s lyrics: “Sorry, I’m not home right now,” we’d sing-shout at each other, “I’m walkin’ in the spiderwebs, leave a message and I’ll caaaall you back.”
Stefani was, for us, what Blondie had been for her. She told Rolling Stone once that Blondie was the first female rock star who proved to her she didn’t have to be like the others, who she saw as either angry feminists or “folky girls.”
“She was sexy,” Stefani said, “and she wasn’t ashamed to be rocking out.”
Today, two and a half decades after Tragic Kingdom came out, Stefani is better known for her solo career – chances are you’ve heard “Hollaback Girl,” the first song to hit one million downloads, or at least its most resonant lyric, this shit is bananas, b-a-n-a-n-a-s – and her role as a judge on the popular TV show The Voice.
But to the Gwen Stefani generation, she’s still the girl in a bikini top, plaid pants, a spiky belt, and bright-red lipstick, sexy and not ashamed to be rocking out. She was an icon. When Stefani was recently interviewed on podcast Armchair Expert, the interviewer pointed out that she had a thing, a distinctive and memorable aesthetic, the way Prince had a thing. She was, in fact, recognized with a Fashion Icon award in the 2019 E! People’s Choice Awards.
"So to get to this point where I'm getting an award for fashion…it's kind of surreal and it just proves that if you just are true to who you are and just follow your own passion that weird things can happen,” Stefani said. “"I think writing the music has always been sort of like the therapy and like the necessity and it's so unbelievably healing and it's so rewarding. And to be able to put a visual to whatever that emotion is in the music has been kind of the reward, the cherry on top.”
Stefani grew up in Fullerton. In 1986, when she was a teenager, she started singing for No Doubt, her brother Eric and his friend’s band. “No way I would’ve found my way to this without my brother,” Gwen said on Armchair Expert. They practiced in the Stefanis’ grandparents’ house on Beacon Street, near Disneyland.
Eventually, the band’s bassist, Tony Kanal, whom Gwen started dating, encouraged her to try writing songs.
“And then I wrote one,” she said in that interview. “And I was like, holy shit. I feel like I might have lit a fire inside of my heart right now.” She took a semester off school to focus on booking gigs, and then that turned into a two-and-a-half-year tour.
Stefani would remain with the band for nearly 20 years, through three Grammy Awards, including for the popular tracks “Hey Baby” and “Underneath It All.”
pic by Jamie Nelson
Her solo career began in 2004, then earned her an American Music Award and two Billboard Music Awards. Her 2007 album, The Sweet Escape, was number three on Billboard’s year-end chart; her 2016 album, This Is What the Truth Feels Like, made number one on the Billboard 200. That year, she was the world’s tenth-highest-paid music personality.
Where No Doubt was known for its ska and new wave influences, Stefani’s solo projects veered more toward pop. Rolling Stone called the rock star the “queen of confessional pop,” in homage to her tendency to let it all out – her feelings about breakups, rejection, and longing to be a mom – in her music. The magazine referred to her as a “sex symbol who is actually a totally traditional love-smitten woman.” In some solo projects, she’s incorporated reggae and dancehall. She’s collaborated with a range of artists, from rappers to country music singers, including her now-husband Blake Shelton. Concert ticket outlet AXS describes her as a “powerhouse” vocalist with “incredible” range.
In 2020 and 2021, Stefani released two singles from a fifth studio album she’s been drip-feeding through her Instagram. She told Ryan Seacrest on On Air that it’s a full-circle project that returned her to the reggae and ska influences of her early career.
“I want to go back to the start,” she said, referring to the era in which my friends and I were obsessed with her, when No Doubt was topping every chart and we were all walking on spiderwebs.
Gwen Stefani plays Saturday May 6 at Beachlife Festival.