The Sweet Escape Label: Interscope
No Doubt has always appeared to this writer as the Emperor that isn’t wearing any clothes; they’re successful, yes, but their popularity owes more to the cult of personality than it does to their work as a rock band. Call it Tommy Lee Syndrome. Everyone knows who he is, but only after Motley Crue disappeared from the pop charts. So is he famous because he’s in a rock band, or is he famous because he’s Tommy Lee? Chuck Klosterman wrote a huge piece about this in his book “Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs,” look into it.
Let’s apply those principles of celebrity to No Doubt singer Gwen Stefani for a minute; what is it, exactly, that makes people drop to their knees and worship her? No Doubt has had its moments – “Ex-Girlfriend,” “Simple Kind of Life” and “Hella Good” spring to mind – but she isn’t the greatest singer in the world, or even the prettiest front woman, for that matter. (The photo timeline of Stefani that appeared in a recent issue of “Entertainment Weekly” was a giant slide show on what not to wear, ever.) And yet, since she’s launched a career as a solo artist, Stefani has become some kind of Madonna-esque pop goddess, despite the fact that her stuff (brace yourselves, world) simply isn’t that good, and she seems content to chase trends rather than set them. “Hollaback Girl” may have been a #1 single, but if used in the right context, it would have the most devoted terrorist reaching for his suicide capsule within the first hour. There’s a certain cynicism to her work that cannot be ignored, and up until this point, it has been curiously overlooked. Look for that to change with her newest, The Sweet Escape, which is positively smothered in the kind of calculated image construction that even Madge would find galling.
Leadoff track and single “Wind It Up” is from the “if it ain’t broke” mode of record making. It consists of a drum line, a sample from “The Sound of Music” (oh, no she DI’INT just start yodeling), and a whole lotta sass from Stefani. To call it an actual song is a stretch. There are verses and choruses, but with the exception of a Nintendo-sounding keyboard, there is no melody; there is only attitude and samples of “The Lonely Goatherd” and a whole mess of drums. It’s like a modern-day equivalent of Toni Basil’s “Mickey,” meaning that in a couple years, the girls who once loved this song will soon be embarrassed by it. This song may be a hit, but it isn’t music.
And make no mistake, Stefani is all about the hit, not the song. Check out “Orange County Girl,” which might be the most flagrant violation of the “I’m just like you, only rich” cliché that you’re likely to find (see AOL’s list of the most redundant clichés in rock music). You might be humbled by the line, “I’m just an Orange County girl, living in an extraordinary world” (despite its use of the oldest rhyme in music history), but Stefani ultimately blows her cover. ”Still rolling cuz the sound of music / And nothing better than a great big huge hit,” she says, before bragging, “Flew down to meet P. make a hurricane in Miami / Workin’ with him, gonna get myself another Grammy.” Funny to think that there was once a time when people would rap things like, “Trick a chick in Miami / Terminator X packs the jams / Who gives a fuck about a goddamn Grammy?” Public Enemy, we miss your pride.
But “The Sound of Music,” isn’t the only thing that gets repeat shout-outs on The Sweet Escape. Stefani reaches P. Diddy levels of crassness in name-dropping her clothing line. It happens in “Wind It Up” (“They like the way that L.A.M.B. is going ‘cross my shirt”), and it happens again in “Yummy,” which is “Wind It Up” without the self-awareness (“L.A.M.B. in 3-D, worldwide across your TV,” “I know you’ve been waiting, but I’ve been off making babies”). It’s product placement, pure and simple. The latter song even has the line, “This sounds like disco Tetris.” Couldn’t agree more.
And yet, for as maddening as The Sweet Escape can be, there are some truly wondrous moments as well. It will surprise no one to learn that the beautiful piano ballad “Early Winter” was co-written with Keane’s Tim Rice-Oxley, and the change in style is a welcome sign that Stefani hasn’t completely lost her mind about what makes a good pop song. The other highlight is “U Started It,” a fantastic, string-driven ditty akin to “Simple Kind of Life” that stands as this album’s only song co-written by Pharrell Williams that actually has a song at its core. Jesus, Mary and Joseph, “P,” if you could have given Stefani songs like this all along, then why the hell didn’t you? Lastly, we have the Linda Perry-penned closer, “Wonderful Life.” It features backing vocals from Depeche Mode’s Martin Gore, not that even the most diehard Depeche fan will ever be able to recognize Gore underneath the layers of production. And pretense.
Gwen Stefani isn’t making music for the people. There is nothing here that the average music consumer can remotely relate to. If anything, The Sweet Escape is one long affirmation on how she’s a much better, much more important person than her listeners are. The only way she can top the crass commercialism that’s on display here is if she legally changed her name to L.A.M.B., and called her next album Buy My Shit. At this point, it cannot be ruled out as a possibility.