Can't Keep a Good Hollaback Girl Down: The 15th Anniversary of 'Love Angel Music Baby'
Gwen Stefani's solo debut transcends a cynical reading even in 2020, remaining a crown jewel in the formative pop sounds of the 2000s and beyond -- with a few concessions.
Love Angel Music Baby (15th Anniversary Edition)
Interscope / UMG Recordings
22 November 2019
When I was eight years old, a regular babysitter of mine had to have a talk with my parents about how much I asked her to watch the "Hollaback Girl" music video with me. It was generally between 15 and 20 times in a row, no breaks. I was completely transfixed by the whole thing -- not only the video, but by Gwen Stefani herself. Her look had remained rather consistent throughout her time as the frontwoman of No Doubt, whose greatest hits album had also been a source of torture in my household.
Suddenly, the punk-lite mall rat who had hypnotized me by slinking around in so many garages through the 2000s was now a kaleidoscopic vision of fashionable femininity. Although to some, her new work was a proper Frankenstein's monster of culturally sensitive visual language. The style palette for the Love Angel Music Baby era was a bizarre amalgamation of Harajuku fashion, chola-inspired makeup, and general comfort with white-girl-in-the-hood imagery mostly intended to reflect the fashion line that Stefani launched in tandem with the album. For better or for worse, every iconic hip-hop sample and faux-shamisen is utilized in the name of such earnest fun that a vast majority of Stefani's solo debut manages to transcend a cynical reading even in 2020. It remains a crown jewel in the formative pop sounds of the 2000s and beyond -- with a few concessions.
Maybe this reveals a bias, but at age eight, none of that mattered much to me. It was just a perfect record, one of the first I ever bought on CD myself. From the beginning, it just felt different: stranger, riskier, more personal. It was planted firmly in a commercial pop world, alongside the Britneys and P!nks I admired from a shy distance, but married to a slyly subversive edge that endeared me so much to No Doubt, who clung to ska even though it couldn't be more maligned. Love Angel Music Baby is stuffed full of songs that don't mind inspiring similar hatred in its first-time listeners, employing a mind-boggling Fiddler on the Roof sample on one of its biggest singles. "Hollaback Girl" is essentially a tuneless hook delivered in a conceptually dubious white girl rap/shout. I've always found a great deal of glee in how angry it seems to make certain people.
"Hollaback Girl", inspired by a Courtney Love interview wherein she disparagingly likens Stefani to a cheerleader, remains as confounding and brilliant as it was in 2005. It's one of those rare songs that's tough to imagine being written; far easier to imagine that it just sort of entered the world fully formed, stupid and immaculate. Its cultural staying power is hard to understate. It would be easier to count the number of Americans who don't use the song's bridge when writing the word "bananas". But whether you find a 36-year-old Stefani imploring her haters to meet her at the bleachers (no principal or student teachers to boot) horrific or not, the song has wings by being a flawless technical success. Gwen's hyped-up kinetic performance, the song's infectious horn breakdown, and one of the most iconic percussion arrangements of all-time looping throughout. It's a recipe for an instant classic. (Though to this day, I'll still argue for the superiority of the clean version and it's cheeky "This my shhh!" chorus.)
The lead single "What You Waiting For" is ingenious in the opposite way. It's an urgent electro cut co-penned by 4 Non Blondes' Linda Perry, the exact kind of pop song you release when you have something to prove to your legions of rockist fans, who took umbrage with No Doubt's guitar-based radio hits. This song and its Alice in Wonderland cosplay video are what acid-trip pop dreams are made of, laced with gonzo vocal trills, whimpers and shouts that wouldn't be hard to detect in Kesha or Fergie a few years down the line. Gwen's delivery is pristine, cartoonishly girly on the verses, springing to thrashing, aggressive life for the chorus. The lyrics seem to have sprung forth from someone in another universe than whoever masterminded "Hollaback". A radio single working in the lines "Born to blossom, bloom to perish / Your moment will run out 'cause of your sex chromosome" alongside a "Take a chance you stupid hoe" refrain, remains akin to nothing.
These signature songs remain the most appreciated of Stefani's career. Still, as I've gotten older and kept the album in rotation, I've found appreciating value in Love Angel Music Baby's deep cuts. Though the vast majority of production is dedicated to 1980s nostalgia sounds, the sonic vision of her collaborators (The Neptunes, Andre 3000, Dr. Dre) move a lot of those familiar bells and whistles into the future, wittingly or not immortalizing new pop aesthetics that would be so cherished by future pop scholars like Charli XCX, Kim Petras, and Slayyyter.
Though it's not hard to find a line between the bratty talk-rap on the album's over-caffeinated centerpiece "Bubble Pop Electric" and Charli's later bangers, and "Crash" swerves through time from Salt N Pepa to dirty pop-rap shaman Ayesha Erotica and back again, the exact schizophrenic approach to production on Love Angel Music Baby is practically incomparable. On "Bubble Pop", Stefani's harmonies are impossibly lush and close. Ear-grabbing production quirks transcend gimmickiness by being honestly felt homage, from the orchestra hits on "Crash", to the dramatic string arrangement on "Serious", to the irresistible synthpop chintz of "Cool".
It's 1980s inspired, sure, but too chaotic and unhinged, its pupils too dilated. The twisted hip-hop influence and flagrantly winking nostalgia makes the record anything but Flashdance, its lyrics firmly planted in its respective present. This was the sound of the decade, in which the line between innovation and pastiche became blurrier than ever. It's taken 15 years for many critics at the dawn of poptimism to take stock of this. I sometimes feel smug that by growing up alongside it, maybe I always knew.
Disappointingly, this exact timeliness proves to be a double-edged sword across the album, revealing its infamous racial blind spots, including but not limited to a rather pointedly fetishistic orientalism. "Rich Girl", one of the album's core Dr. Dre bangers that interpolates Fiddler on the Roof's "If I Were a Rich Man", dedicates itself to a love-over-money theme found elsewhere on the record. Stefani delivers some lines worth quoting in full.
"I'd get me four Harajuku girls, too / Inspire me and they'd come to my rescue / I'd dress them wicked / I'd give them names / Love, angel, music, baby / Hurry up and come and save me." It's an obvious attempt to pull the otherwise unrelated "Rich Girl" into the world of the rest of the album, which is similarly preoccupied with young Japanese women. It stands out like a sore thumb on a song about all the things money can buy -- criminally poor optics at best.
So deep runs this obsession that an entire song, "Harajuku Girls", is dedicated to the young female fashion icons Stefani promoted the album alongside. I have a soft spot in my heart for the pure, bold-faced ridiculousness of this song, constructed as a strange, slinky call-and-response between Gwen and the girls. It benefits from its frivolity but suffers from a few moments of cringe. Witness, the way Gwen harmonizes on Yohji Yamamoto's name with cartoonish kobushi ornamentation, and how she delivers the second verse like some perverted Mommy Warbucks trying to coax the Harajuku Girls into a contract. The embellishments are peppered throughout as the producers decided a line was missing something "Japanesey".
Stefani has since gone on record defending the track specifically, claiming it a celebration of the joyous free dialogue between Eastern and Western cultures, how style mutates across borders. Fair enough, but on the 15th Anniversary of an album otherwise noted for its continued hold on the genre, it's worth a raised eyebrow. Elsewhere, on the puzzling ode to interracial dating "Long Way to Go", Gwen's skin is likened to snow and Andre 3000's to asphalt in the name of spouting profundities like "Beauty is beauty whether it's black or white / Yellow or green, you know what I mean." This sort of racial faux pas is a testament to the stage of discussion we've advanced to since two presidents ago. But it certainly distracts from Love Angel Music Baby's strengths to fresh ears -- those better songs whose light-hearted pretense afford forgiveness for lyrics below the gold standard.
The 15th-anniversary album offers practically nothing in the way of new content outside of a crisp remaster, but simply framing the record in a 2020 context illuminates the gradually growing goodwill toward it over the last decade and a half. The hooks on this record still sound viable for the pop auteurs of today, the visuals still beloved, the Gwen we've since lost to The Voice and the Trolls movie immortalized in her purest form.
What Love Angel Music Baby achieved back then was what is now essential to the making of great pop. The record celebrates hated styles (even if that takes inventing some new ones to hate in the process); cracking open a genre convention and adding dynamite, imbuing it with new energy. It's also not being afraid to sound, well, dumb. Though the first "Uh huh!" of "Hollaback Girl" still activates my family's fight or flight response, I'm happy to have been indoctrinated on the rules of great pop by such a gloriously scatterbrained seminal work. This was the beginning of something: pop that hollers back, pop that trudges forth.