A few weeks ago I was interviewing (love a plug!) pop singer-songwriter Tei Shi about her recent EP Die 4 Ur Love. It’s a spiral of delusion and whirling excitement amongst sashaying melodies. During our conversation I asked if she had any specific inspirations—Die 4 Ur Love showcases a vivid, sometimes violent, sometimes whimsical kind of storytelling she was experimenting with. She explained that Love Angel Music Baby by Gwen Stefani was an album that she kept coming back to. After our chat, I’ve been overwhelmingly revisiting the album I blame for never being able to spell banana uncharismatically. I was struck by how Stefani’s lead single for her release “What You Waiting For,” most likely connected with Tei Shi because of her recent label struggles and the insanity the industry can conjure. Also, I had no idea that Andre 3000 had an alter ego named Johnny Vulture…Die 4 Ur Love has a great track titled “Johnny,” although I suspect the reference was more subconscious.
Love Angel Music Baby, the debut solo album from the punk singer famous for leading the 2 Tone/ska-punk group No Doubt, was a commercial success but castaway by critics. As a wee fourth-grader, I was bombarded with this album’s singles, which sounded like standouts from four different albums. I have no memory of listening to LAMB front to back, but its accompanying music videos are hard to forget—a blonde Stefani sitting in front of her ex-lover and new girlfriend, flashing back to a brunette Stefani intensely in love (oh the sexual tension!), Stefani and Pharrell taking over a drum line and a grocery store, Stefani and Eve becoming living Bratz dolls, and of course the Alice in Wonderland pipe dream.
It’s fascinating to me that Love Angel Music Baby didn’t take up larger real estate in cultural criticism. It’s a mess of an album, in the best and and worst ways, deploying critiques against a misogynistic consumerist machine that is the music industry and also sparking a conversation for asian appropriation, fetishism that was explained away as excessive fandom. But what does the Pitchfork review of the 2004 album open with? Some disturbing sexualization of children and emphasis on Stefani’s use of the bum flap. Granted, I’m not going to argue that this album is 100% brilliance, but I think a lot of the writing at the time missed the complexity (a lot of it bad) and bizarre playfulness of it.
LAMB has been called a concept album, which I think is a cleaner way of Stefani’s team wanting to tie her music to her high fashion brand that was forthcoming at the time. Sure, if we’re talking about luxury presented as over-priced leather bags or giant sunglasses, then the gaudiness of “Rich Girl” or “Luxurious” is perfect. The second single “Rich Girl” is a reggae and high-life influenced ode to carrying all the money in the world. While Gwen is promoting a solo album, she’s also advertising her new luxury brand of the same name LAMB. Knowing this, are we supposed to understand this album as the anthropomorphic sidepiece? “Rich Girls” flaunts a desire for owning “all the money in the world.” In a way this is also a fantasy of her own autonomy, without the losers trying to buy her love: “No man could test me, impress me/My cash flow would never ever end.”
With her rise as a music and fashion icon, the comment, “The record was a statement: the visuals, the Harajuku Girls. I had traveled the world, you know?” might have worked. Stefani had entered a new world of fame and power. This album was a way of exploring other genres she grew up with that wouldn’t necessarily work for No Doubt. But the Harajuku aspect of LAMB, in addition to the other appropriative images, read as narcissistic imperialism. She traveled to Japan only to try and transplant an entire culture into her album promotion and fashion line; it does nothing to help the initial influence, the culture of Harajuku, and allows for a watered-down, white-washed introduction for those who have never heard of it. In response, Stefani emphasizes that she’s a superfan and was trying to pay homage to the fashion neighborhood. Interestingly, the the eclectic fashion buzz of the city was fading in the early 2000s when Stefani was parading her stereotypical minstrel show.
Unfortunately, the Harajuku mess of LAMB is impossible to overlook, which makes it infuriating why most reviews of the time did not point it out. When reviews were published for the recent 15th year anniversary, most highlighted the Asian fetishism but were at a loss for words about the black and Lainx appropriation. LITERALLY THE ENTIRE “LUXURIOUS” VIDEO. An album that has a strong through-line of lavish affluence, coupled with heavy cultural appropriation, reveals how wealthy whiteness excuses cultural disrespect and contextual erasure. Again, Stefani probably didn’t have any malicious intentions, but it’s hard not to read it as grotesque. I’m left asking myself what the purpose is of such theft and how it benefits the communities she’s stolen from. What was her inner monologue?
And you know what the wildest thing about Love Angel Music Baby is? It ends with a song about interracial dating with a sample of Martin Luther King Jr. This brings to mind “Boys Will Be Boys” by Dua Lipa ending her recent album Future Nostalgia. I’m taken out of both albums when each closing song comes on. There’s a discrepancy between the dance nostalgia that each album experiment with only to be closed with a song steeped in social commentary. As the closing track, “Long Way To Go” is an unforgettable takeaway, assuming that Gwen Stefani wants the listener to be left with a longing for universal love and equity. But the song’s message becomes convoluted with lines like “upgrade computer” and imagining Picasso’s career if he only used one color, which is confusing since black and white are not colors but shades. The chorus still seems unsettling relevant. Maybe it would make more sense if “Bubble Pop Electric” and its 1950s theme were connected? Honestly, I have no fucking clue. Yet, knowing this song sits on album that was promoted with the parade with silenced Japanese dancers is bonkers to me. How can you object people and then preach about love in a world of racism. Gwen is furthering the racism that capitalism is rooted, that the music industry is rooted in.
The album is a soundtrack for an absurd and gluttonous early aughts. It’s both fever dream and delusion. LAMB is one hot mess. Media at the time was unable to wrestle with the bigger implications of this album. I’m sure most didn’t care considering the begrudged dislike of pop stars, especially when pop seems to sugarcoat a legendary punk singer. Most reviews focused on the luxurious list of producers, taking away from the autonomy and direction Stefani had on her own album. They’d rather trash pop than talk about the tokenism of Asian women or the bizarre Martin Luther King Jr. sample. It’s an incredibly wonky album, a hodgepodge of childhood imagery that spirals into the chaos and seduction with a heavy dose of love, and that’s why it’s easy to become enthralled in. LAMB is like a conspiracy theory where every other piece fits together, fooling us into thinking there’s maybe a small bit of logic, yet holds no rationale at all.
There’s definitely nostalgia that spills forth from Stefani’s first solo effort. The album’s first half deals with effervescent lust (“Bubble Pop Electric), bathing in affluence (“Luxurious”), and the ferociousness that most high schoolers wish they had when it came to bullies (“Hollaback Girl”). Even the seductive maturity of “Cool” has some daydreamy tincture to it. In her essay about the “Racist Pop Frankenstein,” Hazel Cills notes that the production is teary-eyed for previous decades. “It makes ‘Material Girl’ sound like Madonna was asking her boyfriend for a date to McDonalds—and this is where Stefani really shows what Love. Angel. Music. Baby. is about: pushing retro references to the extreme,” she writes. The lyrics hold-up alongside the rose-tinted view until we get to “The Real Thing.”
One of the joys of revisiting this album is the strange concoctions that Stefani and Andre 3000 manifested. The chorus of “Electric Bubble Pop” is pre-PC Music euphoria. The song’s story is based in a 1950s love affair, with Andre 3000 as Stefani’s Thunderbird-driving stud. It’s an oddity of horny nostalgia with Gwen honking during the chorus: “Drive-in Movie/ Drive in move me/ Drive in to me.” **scandalous wink** The adjacent track “Crash” illustrates more love for making love in cars, but it’s the ’80s hip-hop version. Honestly, this might have been a great album if Gwen stuck to portraying trysts in cars from different eras.
As the album sputters on, Stefani becomes more invested and exhausted by her romance. None of them are exceptionally complex. You can guess their tone based off the obvious titles: “The Real Thing,” “Danger Zone,” and “Serious.” The latter plays on the good ole trope of going sickly insane from love. It also serves us the grand line: “Cause this love is serious/We’re seriously onto something serious.” It’s very Perd Hapley.
Stefani’s strongest moments are when she’s battling herself or battling on behalf of herself. “What You Waiting For” actually sounds like a 35-year-old singer-songwriter coming to blows with the industry and her creative pause. “Take a chance you stupid hoe,” is such a ridiculous line that some might shrug it off without understanding the contradictory layers that make it genius. Is it the industry saying that to her? The one that focuses on her “sex chromosome” and pushes her to make more product on her million dollar contract. Or is it Stefani’s consciousness playfully pushing her to better herself. The endearment of the line will live on similarly to “It’s Britney, bitch.” It’s fierce. It’s fun. It’s that part of your subconscious that will have revel whether you succeed or fail. “You never know, it could be great,” the angel-devil on her shoulder hisses. “Take a chance ’cause you might grow,” she chimes as she finishes her negroni.
The other album highlight that had us all obsessing about phallic fruit was “Hollaback Girl.” The myth goes that it was inspired by a feud with Courtney Love who insulted her by calling Stefani a cheerleader. When Stefani was in the studio with Pharrell, they were brainstorming different high school cheers. In an old NME interview, she explained, “So I was, like, ‘OK, fuck you. You want me to be a cheerleader? Well, I will be one then. And I’ll rule the whole world, just you watch me.” I guess the cheerleader comment was an insult to her punk credibility. In Gwen’s retelling of its creation, Pharrell left the room so she could write most of the song. Although it does seem strange that another famous Neptunes-produced track, “Young’n” by Fabolous uses that same term.
Love Angel Music Baby may have a host of iconic producers and writers, but it proves that massive talent needs direction and curation, which the album lacks. Another profile on Stefani reframes the album’s concept: “Love the ’80s, but make them modern.” Although the winks to Prince, New Order, Salt-N-Pepa, and Madonna are all there, LAMB sort of makes the case for leaving the past in the past. What I’m left with is Stefani’s stress over time. Her fixation on high school (the ’80s) and her use of Alice in Wonderland are not necessarily in poor taste, but the nostalgia comes off cringe. Without the sugary bubble-gum artificial flavoring, it’s an awkward sticky mess. “I was falling down this hole and and plopping into this world, like ‘OK, go here next, do this next.’ It was very surreal,” Stefani explained. “I had the clock just ticking in my ears, like, ‘I need to get this shit outta me ‘cos I wanna do another No Doubt record, I wanna have a baby, I want to do all these things’ and I was, like, time is not on my side!” No matter what age, time is an all-consuming panic attack. Especially for a woman in an industry that disgustingly values youth, and sees talent with an expiration date, a window into her psyche is illustrative of the institutional problems that let her solo album explode on the charts and implode on itself.