Gwen Stefani is not a pop star.
You might have heard otherwise: she’s been called “the Queen of Confessional Pop”; a “pop princess”; and two out of her three Grammy wins were for “best pop performance”. But this is a smokescreen! Because Gwen Stefani is not a pop star — she’s a rock deity, a ska stan, a hip hop ally, and ultimately, one of the first truly genreless female solo artists of the noughties.
Let’s set the scene: it’s 1999, and Britney Spears has just become the center of the universe. Her first album ...Baby One More Time topped the charts in 15 countries and rewrote every rule on how pop stars should look and sound. That year, Stefani turned 30, yet to go solo, a decade on from the shimmering success of her own very different debut — with rock band No Doubt.
Stefani was a founding member of No Doubt in 1986 with her brother, who later became a Simpsons animator. The siblings loved Jamaican music — and the UK ska bands they inspired like Madness. Even now, Stefani holds onto that teenage obsession: her newest single, “Let Me Reintroduce Myself”, is a joyful reggae song about her rediscovering “the original me.”
It’s a source of inspiration she may very well share when she joins Alessia Cara, Carrie Underwood, Common, John Legend, JoJo, and Tori Kelly performing at Global Citizen Prize, a night celebrating the leaders and activists making the world a better place, premiering globally from Dec. 19. Find out how to watch online or on television, wherever you are, here.
At first, Stefani sang backing vocals for No Doubt. It wasn’t until lead singer John Spence died by suicide in 1987 that she became the frontwoman. Slowly, a following was built — and their third album, the soft rock Tragic Kingdom (1995), gave the band their first slew of hits. Stefani was credited for 12 out of 14 songs on the album, and autobiographical bangers like “Just a Girl” and “Don’t Speak” turned the world onto Stefani as a talent with limitless potential.
But, as it turns out, if you’re woman, fronting a rock band, singing rock songs, Rolling Stone will still call you “the Queen of Confessional Pop” — before you’ve even released a pop song. In December 2000, the magazine wrote the star “wrestles with the Big Questions: kids, career, marriage.” Would the same image have been projected onto Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong?
When No Doubt won two Grammys for “best pop performance”, it was for songs that were inspired by ska and reggaeton — with the exception of some Britney-esque piano-elbows on “Hey Baby.” And according to the Hot Girl History podcast, Stefani would play dancehall records at afterparties celebrating the release of Rock Steady (2001). All this came before Stefani went solo in 2004. “I'm just a girl in the world, that's all that you'll let me be,” she sang on “Just a Girl”. Perhaps the only thing that made Stefani a “pop star” at the turn of the millennium was her gender?
It was during the recording for Rock Steady that Stefani first met Pharrell Williams at MTV. It was a chance meeting that marked the next stage in her evolution — a “cultural collision” that would put her in the same room as some of the most influential pioneers of hip hop and supercharge her solo career.
“We had the same interests, the same... just love for life and art and music and for telling a story and getting our feelings out,” Stefani said while appearing alongside Williams on The Late Late Show With James Corden in 2018.
Williams — a frequent Global Citizen Festival favourite — was at the height of his success with The Neptunes at the time, a production group that, prior to working with Stefani, had produced Nelly’s “Hot in Here”, Kelis’ “Milkshake”, plus tracks for Beyoncé, JAY-Z, Snoop Dogg, and dozens more. Vice recently called The Neptunes a “revolutionary” force in pop music, writing that "they have turned just about every modern genre inside out."
That unpredictability defined Stefani’s first two solo records. Her debut,2004’s Love. Angel. Music. Baby (L. A. M. B.), defied labels and conventions, and rolled out the red carpet for hip hop royalty. The Neptunes produced “Hollaback Girl”, the first song to ever reach a million digital downloads. Outcast’s André 3000 joined for the futuristic “Bubble Pop Electric” and “Long Way to Go”, even sampling Martin Luther King, while Eve, one of the most dominant female rappers of the 2000s, lit up “Rich Girl” — a track produced by none other than Dr. Dre.
Once again, Stefani was aware that the music industry — made up of scoffing male journalists and executives who likely prescribed to the notion of Britney or bust — was hostile to a woman who wanted to express herself with creative freedom, especially around her fashion line launched with the debut record. “Your moment will run out 'cause of your sex chromosome,” she sings on “What You Waiting For”, an anthem that crunches the culture of agism against women in the industry. “I know it's so messed up how our society all thinks.”
It was Williams himself that talked Stefani into a follow up, The Sweet Escape (2006). But like always, it had to be on her terms. L. A. M. B’s genreless experiment in hip hop and art-pop had already been borrowed from by the likes of Fergie and Nelly Furtado, two artists who had since become her competition. So Stefani did what only she could do: she yodelled, and sampled her favourite movie ever, the Sound of Music, on album opener “Wind It Up”.
The Sweet Escape was essentially an album of hip hop beats with a trademark Stefani sheen. She took risks on form and sound that would inform artists all the way up to 2020, a generation where shunning labels and stereotypes has become the norm — see: Billie Eilish, Lizzo, Harry Styles, Lil Nas X.
The Neptunes returned to produce almost half the record, with Williams listed as a co-writer on tracks like “Orange County Girl”, where you’ll find a minimalistic grime beat that sounds like a Fruity Loops throwback, and “Yummy”, an avant-garde experiment in sharp refrains that wouldn’t be out of place on a Charli XCX album — a song about finding body confidence again after giving birth.
Did we mention that she recorded all that while pregnant?
It would be Stefani’s last album for a decade. In that time, she reunited with No Doubt, worked with trap legend Fetty Wap, and replaced Christina Aguilera as a judge on The Voice — while later bagging her own Las Vegas residency, film roles, and, as she turned 50, a feature on Dua Lipa’s “Physical” from Future Nostalgia, a disco record that Vice listed as one of the biggest cultural moments of 2020. Dua Lipa would later remix “Hollaback Girl” into her Studio 2054 virtual clubnight, breaking global live streaming records in the process.
And although she doesn’t shout about it, Stefani’s humanitarian work is an example to follow. The dozens of organizations she’s supported throughout her career include UNICEF, Save the Children, and the Elton John AIDS Foundation — a group whose founder, Sir Elton John, is among the winners of the 2020 Global Citizen Prize awards.
She’s also an honorary board member of the EB Medical Research Foundation, and when she did Vegas, $1 from every ticket sold went to a children’s cancer treatment center in Nevada. In 2016, Stefani received the Radio Disney Hero Award in recognition of her philanthropic work.
When she fronted No Doubt, Stefani broke up the boys club of men with guitars and resisted sexist projections of pop. Then came the solo albums: monuments to pure creative freedom that worked against what was expected of female artists at the time and set a new standard for mainstream success.
Gwen Stefani is not a pop star. She is Gwen Stefani — a labelless, rebellious innovator that pop culture borrowed from with such faithfulness that, in time, it became impossible to tell the two apart.
For more information about Global Citizen Prize 2020, click here.
Join Global Citizen on December 19, 2020, to celebrate the leaders among us who have stepped up against a backdrop of unprecedented global challenges to take action for the world we want — a world that is fair, just, and equal.
The broadcast and digitally streamed award ceremony will also feature inspirational stories of human strength and unforgettable performances that will bring together artists, activists, and global leaders to remind each of us that, together, we will come out of this year stronger. Find out more about the Global Citizen Prize here.