If Darius Rucker was the public’s antidote to tormented flannel wearers like Kurt Cobain, is Gwen Stefani the anti-Courtney Love? On the cover of their third album, Tragic Kingdom, the Anaheim, Calif., band No Doubt boldly presented their calling card: the leggy, bleached-blond Stefani in a red plastic miniskirt — Betty Grable for the mosh-pit set. The song that transformed the album into a top 10 sleeper hit is a chirpy, ska-tinged bopper called ”Just a Girl.” It’s hard to imagine Liz Phair or Veruca Salt singing such a coquettish phrase, unless with the utmost withering irony.
The musical reasons for the band’s success are as obvious as its cover art. The 14 songs on Tragic Kingdom are a virtual Cuisinart of the last two decades of pop: a hefty chunk of new-wave party bounce and Chili Peppers-style white-boy funk, with dashes of reggae, squealing hair-metal guitar, disco, ska-band horns, and Pat Benatar, whom Stefani occasionally resembles vocally. (”Excuse Me Mr.” takes in nearly all those styles in three minutes.) Rarely have a band called alternative sounded like such savvy, lounge-bred pros. The album’s next single, ”Don’t Speak,” is an old-fangled power ballad that will no doubt further expand their fan base.
Their videos, in which band members do such uncool things as merrily leap up and down, match the splashy, three-dimensional sound of the music. Martha Quinn could have easily introduced them on MTV circa 1984. Even with their splashy graphics, the image that lingers from the video is Stefani — in particular, her belly button, eyelashes, and fire-engine-red lipstick.
All of which is business as usual, except that female rock stars like Gwen Stefani aren’t supposed to exist anymore. In our newly progressive times, women play electric guitars and openly spew their feelings. Girls with guitars are so prevalent, in fact, that hearing one on the radio or seeing a woman-led band in a video is no longer startling — which, in itself, is progress. The ”angry woman” variation on this trend has been validated by the petulant whinings of Alanis Morissette and has led to the marketing of any number of disparate singer-songwriters — Tracy Bonham, Patti Rothberg, the Beth Hart Band — as her successor.
The rub is a major one — namely, few are buying any of those albums (except, of course, Morissette’s), and they are buying No Doubt’s. Is it because most of the Alanis-ettes haven’t made memorable music, or could it be that, as anti-progressive as it sounds, the general public still wants its female rockers to look and act like stars? With her pouty voice and glamour-girl looks, Stefani is more than happy to play the starlet. Her voice verging on a girlish hiccup, she can write mewling lines like ”I’m waiting for him to rescue me” (from ”Excuse Me Mr.”) that are worthy of the rescue-me blankness of Mariah Carey’s entire repertoire.
Beneath Stefani’s girls-still-wanna-have-fun image lies some spunk. In several songs, like the single ”Spiderwebs” and ”End It on This,” she acknowledges obsessions with losers and decides to break free. In ”Happy Now?” she rebuffs a man who ended their relationship and who wants back in: ”All by yourself/You have no one else,” she taunts, savoring the moment. ”Sixteen,” cowritten by Stefani and bassist Tony Kanal, is her song of solidarity with misunderstood teenage girls throughout the land. Courtney Love can sing about being ”the girl with the most cake,” but Stefani’s ”Why do they have to force us/Through this metamorphose” is blunter and less elliptical. And despite its title, ”Just a Girl” is meant as a sarcastic rebuke to the helpless-female cliche.
Still, the success of Tragic Kingdom appears to reaffirm one showbiz tenet: Sex still sells, even when it comes to women musicians. Maybe we don’t live in such progressive times after all. C+