Through the Looking Glass

After draining Lewis Carroll's liquor cabinet, the pop star made a matching "eat me" tag for her own neck: Gwen Stefani
Lorenzo Agius
Gwen Stefani
Love. Angel. Music. Baby.

From Leslie Gore to Avril, pop pseudo-feminism has always been okey-doke by me. And not just 'cause it preempts pop crypto-sexism; latent defiance translated into teenspeak doesn't have to be radical to be rad. But though I wasn't much ruffled in the mid-'90s when Alanis got the nod over Liz and Polly in the mainstreaming of alt-girldom, man, did No Doubt's "Just a Girl" bug the shit out of me. Securing day-glo independence through exaggerated vocal eccentricity--in theory, this She's So Unusual fan could get with that. Yet in Gwen Stefani's vocal contortions, I could hear the most heinous sin against pop: an inability to distinguish between the (good-maybe-essential) fake and the (bad-maybe-irredeemable) false.

If I wanted to be generous, I could now accept "Just a Girl" as an expression of genuine neurotica, the sound of a woman titillated by the self-hatred she feels when slipping back into crippling stereotypes. If I wanted to question my own motives, I could wonder about my persistent belief in the half-truth Debbie Harry whispered in Madonna's ear: that women could wriggle toward liberation by simultaneously parodying and celebrating glamorous artifice. If I wanted to relax, I could shrug and say that kewpie-pop gets way worse.

But I didn't feel generous back then, not when "Just a Girl" gave way to "Don't Speak," a rancid emoticonniption that'd make Celine Dion blush. I couldn't doubt myself, not when Stefani returned with a concept album about how her boyfriend wouldn't marry her. And now that superficiality fetishists have begun to deem the lass's solo disc Love. Angel. Music. Baby. (Interscope) the ideal polished meta-new-wave surface in which to adore their reflections, well, sorry if I seem a little tense.

Say what you want about Gwen's big dumb pop move--it isn't stupid. You don't sample the same Isleys tune that Biggie got big on without some degree of self-awareness. The track in question, "Luxurious," makes shorthand reference back to the entire tradition of conspicuous consumption bred from the mating of hip hop and R&B, from an outsider's perspective. After gliding through the verses with uncharacteristic grace, Stefani over-emphasizes "ch-ching" repeatedly, trying way too hard to fit in. Similarly, on "Rich Girl" she skitters along over J-Lo-grade beats she aspires to deserve, grateful for being allowed past the velvet rope, and chatters a Fiddler on the Roof quote to calm her nerves.

Throughout L.A.M.B., the music's expensively mega-brite ambition clashes with the self-consciously wobbly performances. On "Hollaback Girl," the Neptunes' lame grime simulacrum, Stefani strives unsuccessfully for the junior high cattiness that comes naturally to Fannypack and the boho archness that comes naturally to Chicks on Speed. Sure, she's apparently got enough star power to keep Pharrell off the mic, that's a plus, but how can she possibly leach all the fun from a chant of "This shit is bananas/B-A-N-A-N-A-S"?

This gap between surface sheen and vocal characterizations doesn't feel like some tritely sub-Kanye critique of the glamorous life. For one thing, the glitz of a genuinely hot dance track like the opening "What You Waiting For?" has way more depth than the feigned camp bitchiness of the singer. What's more, Stefani's "Take a chance, you stupid ho" sounds painfully self-directed, a symptom of a nagging unworthiness that generates in her two clashing impulses: a puppyish desire to accommodate and a spastic acting-out through inappropriate vocal tics. Rolling around in the backseat with André 3000 on "Bubble Pop Electric," she's uncomfortable, maybe justifiably, with the poodle-skirted '50s archetype she's adopted. So why does she keep corseting herself into these personae?

Well, the girl just wants to have fun, can't fault her for that. But Stefani merely captures what's alluring about the plush styles she covets, never what's enjoyable. The distance is most painfully acute on "Harajuku Girls," a bit of Orientalist fluff trading on a condescending commonplace that the garishness of American consumerism, drained of subtext by Japanese culture, achieves some kind of abstract purity. But try as she might to lose herself in translation, Stefani can only ogle "their wicked style" and dream of a pop life devoid of messy substance.

You could say that Stefani's discomfort with her roles illuminates their inherent artifice. But you could say that about any bad actress. All Love. Angel. Music. Baby. proves is that pop is hard, whether you're talking about manipulating the significance of surfaces, as on last year's Liz Phair, or maintaining the free-floating site of contradictions (virginal dominatrix as multimedia blow-up doll) we call Britney. As ever, Gwen's the girl who hollers "woo" just a little too forcefully in the club, who nervously makes sure her friends are looking before she makes out with some random boy, whose outfit feels just a little too perfect and arranged. Strident and submissive, she neither rebels against the feminine mystique nor basks in it. And as girlz mewl, boyz rool.

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