Disturbing but true: Listen to rock radio these days and you’ll hear a woman’s voice only if it belongs to Gwen Stefani or Evanescence‘s Amy Lee. Lee sure sold a lot of records in the past few years, but Stefani is the only true female rock star left on radio or MTV. “She’s toured from when she was eighteen years old playing small clubs, to playing small theaters, then amphitheaters and then arenas,” says Iovine. “She is the only woman on pop radio right now who has toured with that vigor, and she’s the only one who could as easily tour with U2, Green Day and OutKast.”
Almost ten years after “Just a Girl” hit airwaves, Stefani has an instantly recognizable voice, an inimitable sense of style and an impact on popular culture on par with Madonna‘s.”There will never be anyone else quite like her,” says Garbage singer Shirley Manson, who has known Stefani since the mid-Nineties and toured with No Doubt in 2002. “She’s got an extraordinary mixture of the elements that make a great pop star and the elements that make a great rock star. She’s like the perfect Trojan horse: She seems very benign and wholesome, but underneath lurks an incredible toughness and powerful directness. Nobody can copy her, because she’s this uniquely extraordinary contradiction.”
Indeed, Stefani is one of the only Nineties stars who has managed to hold the attention of the ever-churning teen audience. Her solo debut, Love, Angel, Music, Baby, sold half a million copies in its first two weeks. She recently scored a pair of Grammy nominations: one for “What You Waiting For?” and one with No Doubt for their cover of Talk Talk’s “It’s My Life.” (If she wins both, her Grammy collection will expand to five.) In December, she made her big-screen debut — albeit in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it role — playing Jean Harlow in Martin Scorsese’s Howard Hughes biopic, The Aviator. And last night, she went to the holiday party for her clothing line, which is preparing its fourth collection for fall 2005.
Love, Angel, Music, Baby is the kind of Eighties-style electro dance album that Stefani grew up on in Orange County, California. It’s so Eighties, in fact, that members of New Order are the backing band on “The Real Thing,” alongside collaborations with OutKast’s André 3000, Dr. Dre and Eve, the Neptunes, Dallas Austin and Linda Perry. “Right now in my life, I’m all about trying things I’ve never done,” Stefani says. “I’m a woman and I’m thirty-five. I don’t have that much time left to do this kind of pop record. Let’s be real about it.”
The idea for the album, she says, came to her one morning during No Doubt’s Rock Steady tour two years ago. She heard one of her favorite dance tracks from the Eighties, Club Nouveau’s “Why You Treat Me So Bad,” turned to Kanal over breakfast and said, “I want to do that song.” It was Kanal, after all, who had introduced her to that kind of music when the two were teenage sweethearts, before she turned him onto ska, before No Doubt had a record deal.
“I was super ska girl when I met Tony,” she says. “I wore only black and white and these hoop earrings. Tony went to Anaheim High School, which is the big cholo school. He came over here from England at eleven. He has Indian parents, and he was the first-born, so he didn’t have any influences. He thought he was Prince. Because I had a crush on him, he turned me on to Prince and Lisa Lisa and Debbie Deb, and that stuff has always had a special place in my heart.”
When No Doubt got to the end of the tour in late 2002, everyone in the band was ready for a break. Stefani had just married Rossdale, Kanal “had his first real girlfriend,” guitarist Tom Dumont was engaged, and drummer Adrian Young’s wife had given birth to their first baby. “Everything started changing,” Stefani explains. “All those years we were only committed to each other, but then we grew up. You could tell certain people in the band needed a break.”
The night before she is scheduled to perform at the 2004 Billboard Music Awards, Stefani sits on the couch in a Las Vegas hotel room looking like Alice in Wonderland on casual Friday. Her hair is held off her face with a thick velvet headband, and she’s dressed in a black sweater, jeans and white sweat socks. A keyboard with colored tape marking specific keys sits next to the couch so that Stefani can rehearse the intro to “What You Waiting For?” in her spare time. She starts by showing me a big white blister on her thumb that she got after one of the candles in her hotel room tipped over and spilled hot wax on her. “I can’t stop playing with it,” she squeaks.