Fifteen years on, Sam Brooks looks at Gwen Stefani’s wet, weird, wild and wonderful debut album Love. Angel. Music. Baby.
The first thing we hear on Love. Angel. Music. Baby. – No Doubt frontwoman Gwen Stefani’s first album – is applause and cheering.
Then a piano. Then Stefani warbling, sweetly, mournfully, almost like a torch singer:
“What an amazing time. What a family. How did the years go by – now it’s only me.”
It’s an attention-grabbing way to start your first solo outing. Due to No Doubt’s tendency to shift genre (from ska to pop-rock to straight up dance), the only consistent factor to the band was Stefani’s distinctive warble. A great band yes, with some A-grade tunes (‘Don’t Speak’, ‘Underneath it All’, ‘Hella Good’) and one unimpeachably great album (the meditative Return of Saturn) but Stefani’s voice stood in for the band’s lack of aural consistency.
She was also, as frontwoman, quite literally pushed to the front of everything – she was the gorgeous, style-forward, and the ‘cool girl’ antidote to the solo bubblegum pop singers that dominated culture at the time (Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Mandy Moore), while also being safer than any of the rougher rock chicks at the time (Shirley Manson, Courtney Love, Alanis Morissette). Stefani was a selling point as much as she was an asset to the band: more an image than a personality, and more a distinctive vocalist than a great singer.
And then, with a crash, the keyboards came in.
In the space of a second, Stefani turns from frontwoman into popstar and there’s no going back. Which is, of course, what ‘What You Waiting For’ is about – the constant demands on Stefani to go solo and make her own path.
Fifteen years later, ‘What You Waiting For’ and the entirety of Love. Angel. Music. Baby sound both singular and untethered from both time and trend. ‘What You Waiting For’ is, for my money, one of the best pop songs of its decade. Songwriter Linda Perry pulls hook after electro-funk hook out of her bag of tricks, including a pre-chorus that comes out of absolutely nowhere, and a finale that pulls verse, pre-chorus and chorus together. It’s a titanic tune, and if this was the only good song on the album, it’d still be worth it.
But after ‘What You Waiting For’, you’ve got the three-hit-combo of ‘Rich Girl’, ‘Hollaback Girl’ and ‘Cool’. While these aren’t all-timers, they represent a breadth of sound and genre that most pop stars don’t ever get to do over their whole career, let alone the first four songs of their debut. In case you’re not keeping track or you’ve plain forgotten in the past fifteen years, there’s one song there that samples Fiddler on the Roof and is also a duet with Eve – one of that decade’s great and underrated MCs. The next is a top-tier Neptunes track that is both a riff on ‘Hey Mickey’ and a clap back to Courtney Love, of all people.
And the fourth is maybe the most beloved of these, and the track on here that sounds most like a No Doubt track, though I’d give you a dollar if you could pin down what your average No Doubt track sounds like.
‘Cool’ is probably one of the songs that’s held up best in the cultural memory since L.A.M.B.’s release. A key, maybe obvious, reason is that it fits in well on any playlist. Those first three songs are three foghorn announcements whereas ‘Cool’ is a gentle, mature lovelorn synth-pop ballad, and god knows, your music tastemakers love those.
Another obvious reason is that, well, it’s a very good song, and Stefani has never been on better form as a singer. Before Billie Eilish was even born, Stefani was distorting and distending her voice into squawks and yelps, and hearing her sing so earnestly and straightforward is a rare pleasure. She’d later return to this particular well with better results on The Sweet Escape’s ‘4 in the Morning’.
It’s worth re-emphasising how strange L.A.M.B was at the time, even if it seems a bit more normal now, in the wake of our mainstream popstars going weird and #authentic for cash. Remember, this is before Lady Gaga marshalled her monsters, before Katy Perry wink-kissed a girl, and when Beyonce was still the best-of-three in a girl group. Stefani was hardly the first woman to go solo from a band, but she was the first one to go properly solo in this era and dive in image first, music second. Stefani didn’t have a sound because she didn’t need one. She bent genre to meet her image: style-conscious, silly, and balancing the line between ‘girl next door’ and ‘not like those other girls’. She could very well be the woman that Gone Girl’s ‘cool girl’ monologue could be written about it.
The videos for these albums are as disparate as the sounds – Alice in Wonderland fantasia here, ‘Dirrty’-meets-Hook there, with a potentially problematic street cheerleading video to follow up. But the one consistent is Stefani being front-and-centre. She’s not necessarily any more central than she was in No Doubt imagery, but that’s because she was a point of difference: the only girl. The singer. Here, she holds front-and-centre because she’s a goddamned star.
The album only gets stranger when you dive past the singles. ‘Bubble Pop Electric’ is a fifth-gear fizz of electro-pop, the musical equivalent of pop rocks. ‘Luxurious’ is Fergie’s ‘Glamourous’ on downers, but bigger, lusher and more sensual. ‘Crash’, ‘Serious’ and ‘Danger Zone’ are another trio that go somewhat together – dense cuts of electronica pushed along by Stefani’s distinctive vocal riffs and patterns. ‘The Real Thing’ is the softest the album gets, and the most it ever sounds like The Return of Saturn. The less said about ‘Long Way To Go’ the better, given that it starts with the cringe lyric: “It’s beyond Martin Luther, upgrade computer.”
As well as these songs sounding like nothing else at the time, very few of them even sound like they belong on the same album. Stefani pulled collaborators as diverse as The Neptunes, Andre 3000 (as producer but also as his alter-ego Johnny Vulture), No Doubt bandmate Tony Kanal, Nellee Hooper, Dallas Austin, Dr. Dre and Linda Perry to create L.A.M.B. Again, that’s not so uncommon now – look at any Katy Perry album – but at the time it was weird. It wasn’t a coherent album with a message or sound.
In fact, the only solid statement the album appeared to have was: “Gwen Stefani is a popstar.”
You can’t talk about this album without talking about one of it’s more problematic – no, let’s be direct here – one of it’s more racist marketing angles: The Harajuku Girls, a reference to one of Tokyo’s most stylish districts. It was an entourage of Japanese girls named Love, Angel, Music and Baby who Stefani claimed to be figments of her imagination. They’re referenced in many of the songs, appear in every video for this album, and are the subject of the only bad song on the album – a plodding, pre-Iggy Azalea style rap devoted to them. The Harajuku Girls are regressive stereotypes. They’re voiceless and they’re reduced to props.
There’s no grey area here: it’s racist, it’s bad, and it’s the one black mark on the album’s name and on Stefani’s name. Stefani’s record with cultural appropriation has never been great – one of her most enduring images is, of course, of her wearing a bindi – and when offered the chance to apologize for the Harajuku Girls five years ago to Time magazine, she was unapologetic. “For me, everything that I did with the Harajuku Girls was just a pure compliment and being a fan.” I guess that’s the kind of blissful naivete you can have when you’re married to Blake Shelton, but for the rest of the world, especially her fans, it’s something that needs to be wrangled with whenever you go back and listen to Stefani’s albums, especially her first.
Strangely enough, it’s The Harajuku Girls that mark this as an album of its time more than anything else. The few common sounds of this album – the occasional funk, the dense electronica, the maximalist production – wouldn’t be out of place now, honestly. It’d be easy to overstate the impact of L.A.M.B and say that Stefani made it okay for female popstars of her level of fame to be weird, even if there’s no denying that you can draw a pretty clear and clean line from Stefani, Gwen to Germanotta.
If anything, what Stefani did was redefine and align herself as someone to be watched as much as listened to in a different way than she was as a frontwoman. This was Stefani not being the default focal point in a band of spotlight-shy dudes – this was Stefani claiming the centre. And there’s no doubt (had to do it, sorry) the album was a success at establishing her as a pop star, generating several hit singles, millions of sales and an album of the year Grammy nomination. Stefani has now been a solo artist for longer than No Doubt was an active band, and she’s weathered the cultural apathy storms that have blown down many of her contemporaries (whither Nelly Furtado?)
Fifteen years on, Love. Angel. Music. Baby isn’t an album that you’d necessarily listen to all the way through a lot – the impact dulls a bit after those first few songs – but it’s a reminder of when a debut by a major pop star could be an aural throw-paint-at-the-wall affair that was only held together by the charisma and presence of that pop star. It’s something that I miss in an age where cohesion and publicity have dulled the edges and weirder sides of our pop pioneers into projects for maximum streams and social engagement. And even if Stefani’s future efforts went both weirder (that damn weird Sound of Music hip-hop riff) and normal (the lush, lovely, listless This is What The Truth Feels Like), Love. Angel. Music. Baby stands as a sometimes problematic testament to when pop used to be truly, unashamedly weird.