No one plays the pop game better than Gwen Stefani. Since the turn of the 90s, the world has been wrapped up in the star’s mysterious art show; one that pulls back the curtain to reveal a new surprise each time we think we’ve got it all figured out. She’s been a punk princess, an adoring pin-up queen and a fully-fledged rock star all at the same time, and her name is synonymous with some of the most iconic music and fashion moments of the last two decades.
In honour of her 50th birthday we take a look at Gwen Stefani’s magical evolution and understand that underneath all the glitz and glam, the superstar has always been ‘just a girl’.
Two decades ago, Gwen Stefani’s career officially began with her co-founded ska band No Doubt. It took the band two albums to finally break into the spotlight, going against the popular grunge scene and cementing their roots in reggae, punk and new-wave rock and pop. Their third album, Tragic Kingdom, introduced the world to massive hits ‘Just A Girl,’ ‘Don’t Speak’ and ‘Spiderwebs’ and simultaneously introduced the rock star that was Gwen Stefani.
Creating a well-emulated look of Dickies, crop tops, space buns and bindis, Gwen quickly became an icon. Her unique style brought No Doubt to life and created a mass audience of Gwen adorers and wannabes. Their live shows became a hub of intense hysteria and a platform for Gwen to try on new characters as often as clothes. She’d strut around the stage, contorting her body and playing the angsty rock chick, then she’d flick a switch as soon as she walked off and go back to being her traditional, girly self. It was this untouchable mystique that made Gwen Stefani as alluring as she was, and perhaps no indication of this was better than the video for ‘Don’t Speak’ which showed the perfect contrast of Gwen floating around in rehearsal in a polka-dot dress versus clips of her rocking out on stage showing off her rock hard abs in a yellow crop top.
After the release of No Doubt’s Tragic Kingdom, it became pretty clear that Gwen was destined to become a star. She began branching out on her own and appeared on Moby’s ‘South Side’ and Eve’s ‘Let Me Blow Ya Mind.’ But it wasn’t until a few years later in 2004, after No Doubt officially went on hiatus, that Gwen released her debut solo album Love. Angel. Music. Baby. Taking inspiration from her favourite 80s beats and artists, L.A.M.B became Gwen’s chance to delve deeper into her girly side and steer more into pop. The album produced a string of hits including ‘What You Waiting For?,’ her cover of ‘Rich Girl,’ ‘Cool,’ ‘Crash’ and the iconic ‘Hollaback Girl.’
By this point, Gwen was well into her thirties but somehow still managed to hold the allure of a quirky teenager. The feisty ‘Hollaback Girl’ was written from a comment Courtney Love made about Gwen being a cheerleader, a high school drama tale that Gwen well and truly steered into. But of course, this was all part of the show. While the star pranced around in her iconic crop and baggy pants duo insisting she wasn’t to be messed with, she also opened herself up vulnerably on other tracks from the album. The opening ‘What You Waiting For?’ seems entertaining but really touches on Gwen’s biological clock counting down to have children, and the stunning ‘Cool’ opens up about a past relationship and again shows us the ‘real Gwen’ in the accompanying video; a hopeless romantic who longed to live her fairytale life.
L.A.M.B also introduced the ‘Harajuku Girls,’ four Japanese-American women who appeared as Gwen’s backup dancers and entourage. Inspired by Gwen’s love of Tokyo style and fashion and named after each word from her debut album, the Harajuku girls went on to become one of the most consistent pieces of art in Gwen’s career. Accompanying Gwen on tour and every promo opportunity, the four girls defined a new look for the superstar that would later spark a debate about culture appreciation vs appropriation – but for Gwen it was all about creating the best performance.
Gwen had planned to return to No Doubt after L.A.M.B but decided to create another album for all the excess songs she had left over. Enter The Sweet Escape. The 2006 album further proved Gwen’s success as a solo superstar with hits ‘The Sweet Escape’ featuring Akon,’ ‘Wind It Up’ and ‘4 in the Morning’ and helped to solidify her position as an art pop icon. Providing more earworm beats and emotionally raw lyrics that saw the star continue to chase her fairytale, The Sweet Escape was a slightly more grown-up Gwen with all her theatrics (Harajuku girls included) still intact.
The single ‘4 in the Morning’ joined the trilogy of heartbreak alongside ‘Don’t Speak’ and ‘Cool,’ all touching on themes of a broken love that Gwen just really, really wanted to work. It became clear then that whatever relationship it was, be it present or one of the past, the whole true love thing was something Gwen was desperately chasing. This became the clear distinctive line of separating Gwen Stefani the popstar from Gwen Stefani the girl. Where everything else became one big show, these preciously intimate songs were very real.
From there Gwen took a slight hiatus – ten years in fact. But between the release of The Sweet Escape in 2006 and This Is What the Truth Feels Like in 2016, a new No Doubt record was created. Reuniting with one another, the band dropped Push and Shove in 2012 and made it seem as though they had never left. Their classic reggae and punk rock style had matured with them and Gwen successfully threw herself back into the character she had been over a decade ago. The hit track ‘Settle Down’ threw a wave of nostalgia with the accompanying music video, showing Gwen dressed head-to-toe in a version of one of her classic 90s outfits and her iconic pulled-back hairdo, stomping around and dancing as if she had never stopped touring with No Doubt. But before the world got too comfy with the reappearance of the band, Gwen managed to sneak in her fellow Harajuku girls into the video to remind us all that she was still curating her own show.
The future of No Doubt became unclear as the band took another hiatus, leaving Push and Shove to be their last album to date. Gwen finally released another solo album This Is What the Truth Feels Like in 2016, after her recent divorce and newfound love with country star Blake Shelton gave her inspiration. The incredibly introspective and honest album catered to Gwen’s romantic self and played more like an open diary than an art project, and even saw the disappearance of the Harajuku girls from the music videos. While still keeping her delectable 80s pop hooks with hit singles ‘Make Me Like You,’ ‘Misery,’ and ‘Used to Love You,’ Gwen’s lyrics were coming from a real confessional place that we had only seen glimpses of in previous records.
‘Used to Love You’ joined the heartbroken club and even had the same themes of sorrow and longing looks towards the camera that ‘Don’t Speak,’ ‘Cool’ and ‘4 in the Morning’ had seen. The album had the perfect mix of break-up and oh-so-newly-in-love songs all tied up in one little neat bow, providing hope to not only us but also to Gwen that she just might’ve found what she had always been searching for. If anything, This Is What the Truth Feels Like showed the star in her most content and natural state. It might’ve taken a couple decades, but Gwen Stefani is finally living out her fairytale after all.