“Been around the block before,” sings Gwen Stefani on the new No Doubt single. Without wishing to be rude, she isn’t lying. Though she’s clearly found the secret to eternal youth – something to do with Harajuku Girls, maybe? – she actually turns 43 today. Incredibly, she’s been doing her thing in various items of ska-print clothing since 1987.
Of course, it took No Doubt a while to get signed, and even longer to have a hit. Maybe she stuck with them at first because she fancied the bassist, but Gwen was always No Doubt’s secret weapon. Gwen had the pop smarts to make their ska-punk palatable. Gwen poured her break-up with that pesky bassist into the classic ‘Don’t Speak’. Gwen got the band working with trendy producers like The Neptunes and William Orbit – a recipe that produced their best album, 2002’s ‘Rock Steady’.
At this point, it was inevitable that Gwen would give the boys some time off. Her first solo album, ‘Love. Angel. Music. Baby.’, was greedy with the full-stops but generous with the tunes. And her hits were more interesting than rival pop confections. ‘What You Waiting For?’ was a panic attack set to an electro-stomping beat. ‘Hollaback Girl’ aimed a sly jibe at Courtney Love: Wanna call me a “cheerleader”? Fine, I’ll have a Number One with a song that’s got a cheerleader chant as a chorus. Hah!
Solo album two was patchier, though it did contain ‘Early Winter’, a ballad that could make a cyborg blub. But Gwen, being a good egg, was always getting back with her boys anyway. And so we come to ‘Push And Shove’, the brand new No Doubt album. It’s no game-changer, but there are some great moments. The title track mixes ska-punk and dubstep and somehow pulls it off. ‘Looking Hot’ seems like a typical “I’m a sexy pop chick” song, until you realise it’s driven by insecurity: “Better hurry, running out of time, I think about it a lot.”
Why is Gwen Stefani so special? Because she’s that rare thing, the indie kid who became a world-class popstar without selling out. One of her peers, Garbage’s Shirley Manson, acknowledged this recently, when she said: “I respect her tremendously. I think she’s navigated her career with unbelievable grace and skill.” So happy birthday, Gwen Stefani. Here’s to your next lap round the block.