Rock singers going solo is time-honored tradition, but when Gwen Stefani embarked on her debut album, Love.Angel.Music.Baby., she would effectively launch an empire. From her early days with No Doubt, Stefani had always come off as an accessible and approachable rock star, but now you could buy a piece of her at the mall, thanks to the vast L.A.M.B. consumer offerings inspired by 80s pop and the culture of Tokyo’s fashionable Harajuku district. As a result, Love.Angel.Music.Baby. transformed Stefani into a cultural commodity.
A cipher for various personas
Since co-founding No Doubt in 1987, Stefani had amassed more than 20 million album sales and had been touring and recording regularly by the time the band finally took a break, following their 2001 album, Rock Steady. Some bandmates started families, while others wrote songs for others; Gwen jumped a few collaborations, including the Dr. Dre-produced hit “Let Me Blow Your Mind,” featuring Eve, in 2001.
Stefani’s strength has always been in her confessional songwriting style but, following her break from the band, she was at an impasse. Stuck with writer’s block, Stefani was coaxed back into the studio by 4 Non Blondes’ Linda Perry, who’d become the go-to songwriter for female pop stars looking to get introspective (she’d previously worked her magic for Christina Aguilera on Stripped (2002) and P!nk’s Missundaztood (2002)).
The result was the electro-rallying cry “What Are You Waiting For?” the first single from Love.Angel.Music.Baby., which was released on November 23, 2004. On the song, Stefani becomes her own critic, asking: “How did the years go by, now it’s only me/You got your million-dollar contract, and they’re all waiting for your hot track.” It would be the most personal cut on a record that eschews the usual confessional singer-songwriter solo statement and instead doubles down on unabashed bubblegum pop. The video also introduces Gwen’s Harajuku girl gang that would become her backup dancers on her subsequent tour.
In the visual, Stefani falls down her own rabbit hole into an Alice In Wonderland-type world, as the clock of success keeps ticking away. On Love.Angel.Music.Baby., she isn’t Gwen Stefani, but a cipher for the various genres, eras, and personas that inhabit the record.
A ‘guilty pleasure album’
During promotion for Love.Angel.Music.Baby., Stefani said she set out to make a “guilty pleasure album” full of singles – and she succeeded. Both a concept record and mixtape, Love.Angel.Music.Baby. is a musical scrapbook of early 80s influences, as Stefani cycles through dancehall reggae (“Rich Girl”), new wave (“The Real Thing”), synth-pop (“Bubble Pop Electric”), and hip-hop (“Crash”).
Being a multi-platinum singer also meant she could collaborate with her music heroes from that era, including New Order’s Peter Hook, Wendy and Lisa, of Prince’s The Revolution, and production dream-team Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. Having grown up with the likes of Depeche Mode, The Cure, and Prince, Stefani wanted to recapture the feeling of falling in love with music during adolescence – a fitting approach because, no matter how many songs Stefani sings about settling down or navigating her “Return To Saturn,” she’ll always been a teenager at heart.
A lowrider anthem for the 00s
An ode to adolescence, Love.Angel.Music.Baby. features inspired combinations that featured sounds from the past and present. On the aforementioned “Rich Girl,” Stefani mashes up the Louchie Lou & Michie One track and the Fiddler On The Roof classic, with an assist from Dr. Dre and Eve once again.
Speaking of Dre, while it owes much to the G-funk sound he pioneered, “Luxurious” is produced by U.K. veteran Nellee Hooper and features the oft-sampled “Between The Sheets” by The Isley Brothers, for Stefani’s eye-winking nod to bling culture. It’s hard to take Stefani’s rap posturing too seriously when she sings “Cha-ching”, but it still became another lowrider anthem for the 00s.
A stylistic melting pot
In the stylistic melting pot of Love.Angel.Music.Baby., the real pop agitator is “Hollaback Girl.” After teaming up with Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo of The Neptunes, Gwen had her signature hit: a Queen-meets-Toni Basil cheerleader chant with plenty of attitude and The Neptunes’ hip-hop stomp. Fans went bananas for it, as the song topped the Billboard Hot 100 for four weeks, but “Hollaback Girl” isn’t the only hip-hop-inspired cut on the album. On “Crash,” she takes a page from Salt-N-Pepa’s “Push It,” delivering her own campy-rap hit.
The rest of Love.Angel.Music.Baby. is 80s synth-pop through and through. On “Real Thing,” Stefani finds herself in her own “Bizarre Love Triangle,” with Peter Hook and Wendy and Lisa, while “Cool,” takes its inspiration once again from Gwen’s former relationship with bandmate Tony Kanal, as she sings, “We used to think it was impossible, now you call me by my new last name/Memories seem like so long ago, time always kills the pain.” Stefani often credits Kanal with broadening her musical worldview beyond ska and pop-punk, and Kanal contributes a number of songs on the album, including “Crash,” ”Luxurious” and “Serious.” (This wasn’t the first time Stefani had paid tribute to her new wave heroes. With No Doubt, she covered the 1984 Talk Talk hit “It’s My Life.”)
’An artistic and a literal bow down’
If it wasn’t clear from the onset, Love.Angel.Music.Baby. is a high-camp affair. As well as teaming up with former members of The Revolution, Stefani also channels Prince on the screwball single “Bubble Pop Electric,” which features OutKast’s André 3000 as “Johnny Vulture,” who also co-wrote the track.
Despite the album’s concept, only a few songs directly reference the “Harajuku Girls” that Stefani claimed as her muse, including the Jam and Lewis-produced track of the same name. Stefani has since had to field claims of tokenism and appropriation, but as she explained in a recent interview with Billboard: “When it first came out, I think people understood that it was an artistic and literal bow down to a culture that I was a superfan of. I wanted to write a song that talked about my love for Harajuku. When I got there and saw how fashion-obsessed they were, I thought they were my people.”
Love.Angel.Music.Baby. was a stunning success, peaking at No.5 on the Billboard 200 and spawning six singles, including “What You Waiting For?,” “Rich Girl,” “Cool” and the No.1 hit “Hollaback Girl.” The album was eventually certified five-times platinum by the RIAA and nominated for a pair of Grammys, including Album Of The Year, at the 48th annual Grammy Awards in 2006.
Just as it marked a nostalgic return to the music Stefani grew up with, Love.Angel.Music.Baby. become the backdrop to the lives of a whole new generation.