A Quick to the Holyland, Part 2
The night before their Tel Aviv concert, Gwen Stefani stays in her room, writing in her journal about how she doesn't have any self-control. And then she turns on the Holy Land TV and discovers the seer and savior of our vicious, uncertain times talking about the very same thing. "It inspired me," she says later. Oprah, that is.
The day after their Tel Aviv concert, No Doubt visit the Dead Sea, guarded by a man carrying a small Uzi. The men of the band float on top of the sea; Gwen refuses, blaming "one of those real premenstrual headaches." At the Dead Sea gift shop, she buys a present for her boyfriend. Some glycerine soap. Afterward we drive into Jerusalem and visit the holiest sites of Judaism and Christianity. Leaving the Wailing Wall, Gwen is asked for her autograph. On the Mount of Olives, they all, except for Tom, ride a camel. Gwen is wearing a strange outfit for a day off around one of the world's principal military hot spots and religious hubs: a camouflage-pattern jacket and, beneath it, a light-blue top that repeats two motifs over and over – a brown cartoon teddy bear and the red-ink phrase FUCK OFF! (These are gifts from her boyfriend: "He's like my stylist now. He hates the way I dress. Well, he didn't like it when I had my yellow vinyl bondage pants.") When she is on the camel, three middle-aged men chat with her, their banter a lazy mixture of flirtation and condescension, then one of them hollers: "Where did you get that stupid outfit?" When she dismounts, she spots something on the Mount of Olives sidewalk. She points it out to Tony. A used condom. He videos it.
The night of their Tel Aviv concert, there is no stage set, just a few microphone stands festooned with flowers. They play most of Tragic Kingdom, a couple of older songs, a snatch of the Specials' "Ghost Town." No Doubt's next single, "Sunday Morning," which erupts delightfully from its opening harmonies into a thumping combination of Motown and pop cheese, is especially spirited. (Anyone who can stand onstage in 1997 proudly performing a song with woah-oah backing vocals – keen aficionados of this harshly neglected form will already be thinking of Kim Wilde's "Kids in America" – deserves your careful consideration.) The greatest moment of both pop bazoom and Stefani-star theater comes during "Just a Girl." These are the words Gwen wrote in 1994 about being surrounded by boys. The phrase "just a girl" made her laugh, and she asked her friends and her sister for everyday examples of the way girls were patronized.The recorded version works through simple, sustained sarcasm – I'm just a girl, all pretty and petite/So don't let me have any rights – but onstage the song explodes. Halfway through, she asks for the boys – just the boys – to sing along with her. Then she gives them their line: I'm just a girl! And they sing it. Funny. Cute. Next she asks for the girls. Or as she puts it, scrunching up her body and voice in an imitation of insecure femininity, "What about all the sweet, cute, little girls? Sweet, little, tiny, sweet girls. You want to sing?" And she gives them their line: Fuck you, I'm a girl!
As she leads them back into the song's center with the lines "I'm just a girl in the world 'cause that's all that . . . " – her voice begins to erupt – " . . . you'll let me be," the theater explodes. This is not sophisticated, gender-liberating art, but as pop music it is rousing and potent.
When "Just a Girl" was becoming No Doubt's first hit, they played a show at the Costa Mesa, Calif., Virgin Megastore. Gwen drove there with her mother. "Are you going to say those curse words onstage?" her mother asked. She'd invited some relatives down.
Gwen had been thinking about it already. "I wasn't planning on it," she said, "but you never know what's going to happen." But when she was onstage, the whole thing welled up inside her – her mother not wanting her to do it because she's a girl and it would be inappropriate . . . and as if anyone could have stopped her then . . . Oh, my God.
"Fuck you, I'm a girl! Fuck you, I'm a girl!"
And it felt so great.
Gwen's mom was so mad. She didn't speak to her daughter for a week, not even when Gwen left to go on tour, in tears at the airport.
But Gwen Stefani still sings the song, and she still sings it the way she wants.
The Unfairness of Life, etc.
The problems that failure brings at least have the advantage of familiarity; most of us have a lifetime in their company. The problems of success are less expected, especially as they trip you at a time when you expect to be floating on the cushion of your own achievement and happiness.
The principal problem in the land of No Doubt is simple to state and nearly impossible to resolve: Four people have fought together to make all this happen; most of the time it is only one of them who is feted and fawned over and praised. In Tel Aviv I watch the other members seethe as they line up together and a photographer comes closer and closer until, quite obviously, only Gwen is within his viewfinder. In London, after Gwen has lost her voice, I hear them explode as it is explained that if Gwen doesn't attend their press and radio interviews, nobody will be happy. ("Has it got to the point," Tom rages, "where we mean nothing? Yes or no? If Gwen doesn't speak, we mean nothing?")
The reasons for this are simple and complicated, good and bad. She is the singer. She writes many of the lyrics. She is a girl. She is blond. She is . . . head down, eyes up. And so people photograph the four of them and crop three of them out. People talk to the four of them and print only what she says. (Me, too, to a degree. I talk to each band member at great length, but as soon as I start writing, it is her voice that shouts the loudest.) "I understand it intellectually," says Tom, who seems the most entertained by all this but who also is fairly unashamed of the discomfort it causes him. "But I just feel like I'm second-class, I'm shit compared to her. I feel I'm just a lesser person, I don't look as good, and I'm not as bitchin' as she is in everyone else's eyes. I think a certain part of me – the reason I wanted to be a rock star when I was a kid, I thought that would be a way for people to like me. And now that I get here, I'm not getting the payoff that I was always expecting."
"Nobody understands what it's like, and I do understand," says Gwen. "And they probably think I don't understand." It makes her feel guilty. She's got a lot of what she wanted, but because of all this, she can't always enjoy it. And every time someone singles her out or snubs them, or wants to put her and only her on a magazine cover, it causes a little more damage.
Faced with this, No Doubt did something rather interesting and brave. They made a video about it. It was Tom's suggestion. He said to the video's director, Sophie Muller, that although he knew "Don't Speak" was about Gwen and Tony's split, he'd always felt it could also be about the band's breakup. Maybe that should be the video. "I said, 'Are you sure?'" says Muller, who loved the idea. "They were, 'We need a bit of therapy at the moment – let's do it.'" The result highlights situations in which Gwen gets all the attention and the others get increasingly pissed. "We weren't in a situation where we really had to act," says Tony. Acting out the problem didn't solve it, of course, but maybe it united them against it and made them laugh. No Doubt's personal tour-pass laminates in Israel are moody photos of each band member from the "Don't Speak" video. "I tried to get the ones," says Gwen smiling, "where we hate each other."
Ironically, the night before the video shoot, two members – Tom and Gwen – came close to walking out of the group. They had a late-night band meeting by the pool at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel.
This is Tom's version: They had just canceled shows because Gwen's voice had given out. "I said, 'I think we should cancel everything; you should stay home, you should heal and get better.' It ticked her off, and finally she said, 'Well, I'm gonna do whatever I want, and if you don't like it, you can just quit the band.'" It hurt him a lot. He nearly said, "Yeah, and I do quit." So nearly. But then he thought, "I'm never gonna quit. Especially if someone tells me to." He remembers it well.
This is Gwen's version: She had been in Los Angeles all day, preparing for the video. She'd driven back to Orange County and then – much too tired – had driven back to Los Angeles for the band meeting. She had nearly fallen asleep time and time again on the freeway. And all they wanted to talk about was whether it was her face or the band's on the cover of a magazine. Didn't they get it? She'd nearly died on that freeway. She was so angry. She remembers it well.
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