A critic gets locked out by Gwen Stefani

[23 April 2007]

By Ben Wener

The Orange County Register (MCT)

I’ve been banned by Gwen Stefani.

I’m not surprised. We have a history. Plus there’s the matter of a certain outraged column I wrote in December, just days before her rather lousy second solo album dropped.

But to explain how that happened, I need to take you behind the curtain of my job—and lead up to the Gwen saga with a similarly revealing story.

It’s called “How We Didn’t Shoot the Killers at Staples.” Perhaps you noticed the note attached to the 6-month-old photo that ran with last week’s review of that gig: “The group did not permit the Register to photograph its show Monday night.”

That’s not entirely true: The group’s people did not permit us to shoot, though I suspect the band had a say in the decision.

Here’s how this usually goes, for Gwen or the Killers or anyone: I ask publicists if we’re able to set up tickets and a photo pass to review a show. They say, “Sure” or “It’s tight, but we’ll get you in, don’t worry.”

I cannot emphasize this enough: There is no quid pro quo regarding this practice. Publicists are fools to think they will receive anything but coverage. Honest, quality coverage, I like to believe, but coverage whose scope and shape we alone determine.

Yet we must acquire credentials to properly cover such events—to report on them with no concern for the fallout that the facts or informed opinions we publish might bring. Sportswriters sit in press boxes; rock critics do this mechanical “can we set up tickets?” dance with publicists.

All we ask is access, and from people who 99 times out of 100 invite any sort of coverage. There is a kernel of truth to that old cliche: “There’s no such thing as bad publicity.” I’ve slammed Good Charlotte and Avril Lavigne countless times in the past five years, and Celine Dion and Kenny G twice as much before that.

Think it ever made a dent in their reputations? Nope.

That much of this routine you may have imagined. But then there are twists like the Killers situation—when we’re told the band wants to “try something different,” allow only a handpicked photographer to shoot, then supply the media with preapproved photos.

On one hand that doesn’t bother me. After all, we run publicity stills accompanying new albums all the time.

What’s different about a live event is just that—it’s a live event. What if during the first few songs—when photographers are allowed to shoot—Brandon Flowers decided to moon the crowd or bash a heckler with his microphone stand? Would the band-approved photographer be sure to give us shots of that and not just pics that make Brandon look fantastic? Probably not.

These are the things that you don’t realize go on.

Like getting banned by Gwen Stefani.

I found out I was on her enemies list a few weeks ago, when I tried to set up credentials for a free-lance writer to cover her show last weekend at Coors Amphitheatre in Chula Vista, Calif.

“There are hard feelings,” wrote back Stefani’s typically friendly publicist. “If you can find your way in, then you can do what you’d like. But unfortunately, we will not help you.”

They will not issue any credentials—not for her gig at Gibson Amphitheatre this week, nor either of her two dates at Irvine’s Verizon Wireless Amphitheater in June.

“Me specifically or the Register in general?” I asked.

“The Register.”

“But why?” you’re no doubt wondering. “What did you ever do to Gwen?”

All along we’ve had a love-hate critic-superstar relationship. Right around the time I started writing for the Register, my fellow Orange County natives in No Doubt began their ascent from well-liked local club rats to omnipresent, Grammy-winning hit-makers. It’s been my duty to report about and weigh in on their comings and goings ever since.

Their professional comings and goings, that is. I’ve been to Tony Kanal’s house in Hollywood, to interview him and Gwen just before “Rock Steady” came out. But they didn’t know me from Adam. At best a family member might have piped up before or after the chat: “Oh, he’s that crank who hates `Tragic Kingdom’ and trashed your Pond show.”

Actually, I don’t hate “Tragic Kingdom”—I always liked “Sunday Morning,” and “Don’t Speak” grew on me. But I did take Gwen and the gang to task in the late `90s for pandering to the lowest common denominator once they made it big.

The day that Pond review ran I watched them perform a free show at Cal State Fullerton. When it was over, while milling about looking for a quote, I stupidly approached KROQ’s Kevin & Bean—who, upon realizing who I was, hustled me over to face drummer Adrian Young.

“This is the guy who wrote that review,” Kevin said.

Adrian, capable of pounding me into the ground, merely crossed his arms, rolled his eyes and smiled.

“Everyone’s got an opinion.”

That’s all he said. Then, rising above concern for what a green hometown scribe had to say about his band, he shook my hand, told me to take care.

Oddly enough, my opinion of No Doubt eventually changed. I applauded them for maturing on “Return of Saturn”—Gwen especially, given the hard-bitten confession of “Simple Kind of Life.” And I fell head over heels for “Rock Steady,” a big jolt of fun that, coming three months after 9/11, couldn’t have been better timed.

I even liked Gwen’s first solo album for what it was—a perfectly plastic homage to a plastic pop era, the one in which we both came of age. But I could tell I had ruffled Gwen’s feathers when we spoke before the disc came out. It was the first time I took her to task for disingenuousness—for being ungodly rich yet still singing, “If I were a rich girl ...”

“What do you mean by that?” she snapped. I said the song could be seen as absurd, even untrue. She explained its lyrics were about when she was just an Orange County girl—ah, that troubling phrase!—dreaming of such wealth.

Fair enough.

But then came “The Sweet Escape”—specifically, the song “Orange County Girl,” in which Gwen, who now lives with husband Gavin Rossdale and son, Kingston, in London, had the gall to downplay her calculated popularity, her fame and fortune, and claim to be “just an Orange County girl living in an extraordinary world.”

I found the notion offensive.

“At this point,” I wrote, “sharing her time between L.A. and London while posting a reported $90 million via her clothing lines and selling 7 million copies of `Love.Angel.Music.Baby,’ she’s no more `just an Orange County girl’ than Best Buy is just a shack that sells Commodore 64s.”

To act as such—to still be drawing upon O.C. roots when you’ve largely left this place behind—is sickeningly phony. And to do about-faces regarding the future of No Doubt—this solo thing, initially just “a lark,” could easily eclipse her past—well, I found that frustrating on behalf of disgruntled fans everywhere fed up with her bland pop ways.

If you think I was harsh, you’re not alone; my wife and closest colleagues agree. “You got personal, dude,” Desert Jeff told me after rereading it.

How, exactly?

How about saying she could never play Marilyn Monroe, even if she hadn’t shed pregnancy weight? (To me that’s a physical truth: Gwen, who could pass as Jean Harlow in “The Aviator,” looks nothing like Marilyn.) How about pointing out that by the time No Doubt could conceivably reconvene, Gwen will be pushing 40 yet still trying to believably sing “Just a Girl”? (Funny: Saying something similar about Mick Jagger and “Satisfaction” never causes a stir.)

But let’s say the piece was flat-out harsh—a cruel review of a bad album. One, by the way, most every critic in America panned. Why single me out? Would Gwen’s people try to ban The New York Times or USA Today or Entertainment Weekly over a bad review? Of course not; they’re too powerful. Why, then, kick around the small fry? Why laughably attempt to lock me out?

As if that will stop me, or us. I’ve been locked out before—by another O.C.-related act, Korn, whose management team (The Firm), grew tired of routinely negative reviews and “barred” me from shows. So we bought tickets and albums for a time—and, staying honest all the while, sometimes I gave the group props; other times I detested its sets. Of course, once things turned toward the positive, suddenly all was fine between us and the Korn camp.

Frankly, I’ve never cared if I’m ever in Gwen’s good graces, just as she shouldn’t care what I think of her. I never had any ambition to review the Coors show; we simply bought a ticket for the freelancer to cover it. I have no plans to look up Gwen until her tour ends here in June.

At which time I intend to set aside this nonsense and survey the latest Stefani spectacle on its own terms, as any self-respecting critic would. Who knows? I may even enjoy it. It’s not like I’ve instantly loathed everything Gwen’s done.

Heaven forbid that it not be flattering, however, my advice to Ms. Stefani is not to read me, nor let any O.C. friends or family pass along my comments.

Or grow some thicker skin.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/article/a-critic-gets-locked-out-by-gwen-stefani/