Looking Back at Love. Angel. Music. Baby., Gwen Stefani's Racist Pop Frankenstein, Ten Years Later
The album is simultaneously a racist mess, a lyrical car crash, and a treasure chest containing champagne kisses.
Love. Angel. Music. Baby. isn't exactly one of the greatest albums of all time. When the record came out, it received a mixed bag of reviews. The multiple moments of cultural appropriation surrounding the music and press campaign upset pretty much everyone. Today, we probably view the album even more harshly. I mean, I bet you probably hate Gwen Stefani—and why not, she's given you a million reasons to despise her. But, for girls and gay boys my age who heard "Hollaback Girl" for the first time when we were in middle or high school, Love. Angel. Music. Baby. was massive. It served as an important intersection between feminism, pop, rap, and Juicy Couture tracksuit-style capitalism and should be seen as a significant record. Even ten years later, the album continues to fulfill my desire for new wave nostalgia, pop hits, and pure, irresistible camp. I love this record, and I don't care what you say.
Gwen Stefani released this, her first solo album, ten years ago. I still remember holding the CD in my hands on the day it came out in 2004. Looking at its warped David LaChapelle-ian cover, I knew this was the work of a pop singer, not the plastic pop punk No Doubt lead singer I had grown up idolizing, but an honest-to-goodness pop singer. What I didn't know was how often I would revisit the record over the past decade, its sickly sweet dance songs growing more palatable with each listen until I fully understood Stefani's smart—and admittedly problematic—retro engineering.
Stefani recorded the album during No Doubt's early-2000s hiatus. Repeated listens of Club Nouveau's 1986 song "Why You Treat Me So Bad" inspired her to create a record built around 80s dance music, but her finished album touches on a host of different genres—perhaps too many—from disco to new wave.
Although Stefani enlisted an impressive arrangement of contributors—Slim Thug, Andre 3000, and Linda Perry—she really wanted to craft a "silly dance record." But the album's first single, "What You Waiting For?" is anything but silly. Perry reportedly wrenched the song out of Stefani during painful writing sessions. On the song, she wrestles with herself regarding her ability to achieve and maintain success in music, life, and womanhood. "Naturally I'm worried if I do it alone," she sings. "Who really cares 'cause it's your life."
With references to the fact that her "moment will run out 'cause of [her] sex chromosome," and misogynist utterances a la "take a chance you stupid whore," Stefani stares the industry she's up against straight in the eyes and refuses to back down. Where is this track from Cher? From Britney Spears? After "What You Waiting For?" we didn't hear a 30-something pop star's balanced, feminist call-out until Beyonce's self-titled 2013 record—and even then Beyonce's laundry list of problems spans a whole album, not just one blow-out track.
Unlike Beyonce, Stefani isn't assured enough to make her "hot bitch" presence the album's core. With a few exceptions, like "Hollaback Girl," Stefani spends the rest of the album inhabiting the rote role of the lowly wide-eyed dreamer who can only imagine success. She sings a cover of Louchie Lou & Michie One's 1993 song "Rich Girl," which in itself is a re-working of "If I Were a Rich Man" from the musical Fiddler on the Roof. Ten years later, I still feel awkward hearing the lyrics come out of a wealthy white star's mouth, even though the song is a cover.
Today's pop stars know they're hot shit, and their fans despise stars pretending to be underdogs. Listeners want female pop performers who own their status: fancy Iggy Azalea, boss-ass bitch Nicki Minaj, and flawless Beyonce. In 2014, pop stars never yearn for designer clothes—they're already wearing them. When she released Love. Angel. Music. Baby., Stefani was literally making designer clothes for her label, L.A.M.B., a.k.a. Love. Angel. Music. Baby. Stefani name-drops her brand frequently on the album, and several critics latched onto this in their reviews to critique the record's validity. David Browne at Entertainment Weekly compared it to "one of those au courant retail magazines that resembles a catalog more than an old-fashioned collection of, say, articles." And Nick Sylvester at Pitchfork wrote, "Gwen Stefani should stick to making bum flaps."
These critics fail to realize that Stefani littering her album with "make me rich!" references aligns her music with gluttonous 80s reference points a la the Flying Lizards' "Money" or Robert Hazard's laughable "Escalator of Life." Take, for example, Stefani's "Luxurious," a deeply gaudy ode to Egyptian cotton, first-class flights, and champagne kisses. At one point, the singer objectifies her "mister" by referring to him as both a treasure chest and a limousine. During the refrain, she sings, "cha-ching, cha-ching." The song sounds bizarre because of the way Stefani lays down our extremely basic desires, and the track becomes almost comical thanks to the corny clutter of glittering synths and wind chimes. It makes "Material Girl" sound like Madonna was asking her boyfriend for a date to McDonalds—and this is where Stefani really shows what Love. Angel. Music. Baby. is about: pushing retro references to the extreme.
Stefani's horny sex ballad "Crash" sounds like what you'd get if you put Nu Shooz's anxious "I Can't Wait" and Sylvester's "Do You Wanna Funk" into a blender complete with, you guessed it, a sexually-charged car metaphor that compares driving a car to having sex with Stefani. The song even includes Stefani instructing you how to drive correctly, her voice dashing off in a chopped laugh like Alison Moyet's famous giggle in Yaz's "Situation."
Similarly, the song "Serious" starts off with an orchestral intro before diving into a Prince-ready bumping drum beat and ambient synth. The track's centered around Stefani's manic love, her proclamations intercut with breathy, vaudeville "Oohs" and "Yeahs." You hear, "I think I'm coming down with something / I know it's gonna need your medicine" and can't help think of Carol Douglas's anxieties on her much more level-headed "Doctor's Orders."
Every second of the album sounds like a broken 1980s-era soundboard, but the album's bubblegum sound and materialism aren't bad things—if anything, the ridiculous deconstruction of Stefani's favorite dance genres is what makes Stefani's record so damn good. And on every single one of these maximalist tracks, Stefani's powerful and chameleon-like vocals never get lost in the pop chaos she builds around herself.
But even with her retreat into postmodern pop, there are glaring problems—problems that are still very much alive in 2014. Not all of Love. Angel. Music. Baby. stands the test of time; its more controversial influences didn't get past anyone when it was released. Many of the aesthetic references, for example, hinged on Stefani's fetishistic obsession with street girls from the Harajuku district of Tokyo, which is known for its Lolita-esque fashions. At press appearances, silent Harajuku sidekicks—who were aptly nicknamed Love, Angel, Music, and Baby—accompanied the star. The press campaign was so controversial, Margaret Cho even wrote a scathing takedown of Stefani's Harajuku accessorizing, calling it a minstrel show. Although no musicians had the gall to hire actual Japanese women as props, Asian fetishism and appropriation was rampant in 80s rock, from Siouxsie and the Banshees' "slanted eyes" referencing "Hong Kong Garden" to hits like The Vapors' "Turning Japanese" and Styx's' "Mr. Roboto."
Stefani, of course, didn't limit her cultural appropriation to Japan. In the video for "Luxurious," she surrounds herself with Latina women while she gets her nails done at a salon, and during "Long Way to Go," a duet with Andre 3000 and the album's most embarrassing track, she samples Martin Luther King Jr. soundbites in a cringing attempt at post-racial politics.
If Stefani created these songs and videos today, she would break the internet in the worst way. In 2014, cultural appropriation is practically a household term for at least the majority of the culturally aware. Stefani's behavior, of course, wasn't surprising, considering No Doubt's previous album, Rock Steady, had unapologetically appropriated Jamaican dancehall music, but the reception of Love. Angel. Music. Baby. should have been a major red flag for future stars like Sky Ferreira, Avril Lavigne, Miley Cyrus, or even Nicki Minaj, who has dressed up like a geisha Stefani-style. Like Cyrus, Stefani can play miffed high schoolers, as she does in the "Hollaback Girl" video, but she can't slip into Japanese or Latina culture like another music video costume.
Love. Angel. Music. Baby. is simultaneously a racist mess, a lyrical car crash, and a treasure chest containing champagne kisses. Stefani operates as both an offensive appropriator and a lovable star-crossed lover who wants money, clothes, and sex that hits her like a car crash. She leaves us with an addictive album that's a true Frankenstein pop monster, one that is blatantly uninterested in being intelligent and openly recognizes its influences.
" You can try not to like this album, you can try real hard; but it will at least be your guilty pleasure," she told MTV about the record back in 2004. "It's like the ABCs — you can't get them out of your brain. I wasn't trying to go for an art record or a deep record. I just wanted to make you feel good for a moment and forget everything else."
What keeps me going back to Love. Angel. Music. Baby. time and time again is how, in all of its racism and spliced-up electronica madness, Stefani inadvertently made a classic. You can call it silly, you can call it bad, but you can't deny that Stefani aced her retro hodgepodge. It's a "problematic fav," but it's difficult to not sing along to Stefani's kitschy new wave homage.
"Heaven knows what will come next, so emotional, you're so complex," Gwen Stefani croons on "The Real Thing," as echoes of a ripped-off New Order beat play in the background. "A roller coaster built to crash, but I still love to have you around."
Right back at you, Love. Angel. Music. Baby.
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