I believe that Gwen Stefani’s act is actually an improvement on Madonna’s. She melds Madonna’s cool confidence with a sweetness and mastery of physiognomy to rival Rita Hayworth or Marilyn Monroe, while her deep vibrato saves her act from anything approaching saccharine. Although her career stalled after 2007, her first two eras form the bridge between Madonna and the next generation of stars including Fergie and Nelly Furtado (explored below), Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Kesha, The Pussycat Dolls and even parts of Rihanna, while the nineties’ punkish Stefani of No Doubt laid the ground for P!nk, Avril Lavigne and Paramore. Like Debbie Harry, a proto-Madonna whose influence on pop music continued for decades, Stefani’s influence is more than evident a decade after her own career dwindled.
The sometimes abrasive Stefani of No Doubt was cast away with her transmutation into pristine pop star in Love. Angel. Music. Baby. (2004-6), an idiosyncratic, wonderfully superficial era. Pop was her new home, and in the “What You Waiting For?” video she resolves her writer’s block by discovering the futuristic, fashion-conscious whimsy that now defines her solo career. The rococo “Rich Girl” video, directed by David LaChapelle, amalgamates harajuku and pirates, while the satisfyingly silly “Hollaback Girl” has echoes in 2007’s “Girlfriend” by Avril Lavigne and 2014’s “Fancy” by Iggy Azalea. The “Cool” video set in Lake Como showcases Stefani at her most Monroe-esque, a look that would inspire Christina Aguilera’s Back to Basics era the following year. While Stefani’s eye is certainly sharper than her ear, “Bubble Pop Electric” and “Harajuku Girls” are real gems from her debut album, and from her sophomore the amusing “Yummy” deserves a listen.
From the beginning of The Sweet Escape era (2006-8) there were worrying signs of the exhaustion of her ideas. “Wind it Up” is a chaotic first single which fails to justify its yodelling silliness with a joyful-enough melody. Visually the era is as stylish as the last, except there’s an airlessness in the videos produced by their overreliance on gold. Thankfully “The Sweet Escape” is a perfect pop song which marks an exquisite end to one of the most fascinating yet short lived pop acts, and here the gold works well, in one of that year’s best music videos. Since 2007 Stefani has prioritised her personal life, returning briefly with the slow, confessional This Is What the Truth Feels Like in 2016. Only “Misery” is on par with her earlier work, yet wasn’t chosen for her comeback single – in any case, it was always unlikely that Stefani would find a fresh plinth in 2016’s crowded pop world.
The careers of Stefani’s acolytes Nelly Furtado and Fergie offer a similar warning against premature hiatuses. They enjoyed enormous success with Loose and The Duchess (both 2006-7) but their later efforts in 2012 and 2017 (respectively) made no dent whatsoever on the charts. I think their successful eras are reasonable contributions to pop, though I can’t say I think that much of Furtado’s Loose – certainly slick and sultry, the era seems tiresome now we have Rihanna’s Good Girl Gone Bad to compare it to. Fergie’s persona skirts arrogance but remains likeable due to moments of softness and the playfully exaggerated nature of her boasts – my favourite songs of hers are the summery “Clumsy” and the fun “Fergalicious” with its Willy-Wonka inspired video that Katy Perry’s “California Gurls” owes much to. A member of the Black Eyed Peas, Fergie struggled to balance her commitments as both her solo and her group’s success grew. She ultimately remained loyal to the group; Beyoncé’s vehement departure from Destiny’s Child shows the need for artists to commit to one main outlet for their creativity, or else their ventures will be addled by anxiety and doubt. Neither Fergie’s solo career nor the group’s later albums were quite as strong as they could have been, and while that wasn’t quite the case for Gwen Stefani, one can’t help but wonder how much more developed her output would be if she’d departed from No Doubt a little sooner.