album review

With Her New Solo Album (and New Relationship), Gwen Stefani Proves the Value of Public Insecurity

This Is What the Truth Feels Like.

At the turn of the millennium, Gwen Stefani and I both had braces. I was 13, she was 30, and she and her band, No Doubt, were preparing to release their third album, Return of Saturn, named for that horoscopic event that occurs once every 30 or so years, when the titular planet occupies the same place in the sky it did when a person was born. This is supposed to be, astrologically speaking, a time of great upheaval and emotional confusion in one’s life, and accordingly Stefani dyed her hair Lisa Frank pink and got adult braces. “I always told myself when I got rich,” she said about her orthodontics in Harper’s Bazaar a few years ago, “that’s the first thing I’d do.”

I loved her for this; at 13, I loved Gwen for most things. And so I don’t remember exactly where I was as the ’90s switched to the aughts and, miraculously, the world’s computers kept working, but I do remember that I was watching MTV so I could see No Doubt perform a cover of R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World As We Know It.” Gwen kind of fucked it up. She tried her best with the lyrics, and there was a youthful, sugar-high energy to her delivery, but she couldn’t quite maintain the frenetic pace set by the band’s wild-man drummer Adrian Young. My favorite theory, and the one I choose to believe, is that her braces kept getting stuck to her lips and that was what made her stumble. But — now and especially at 13 — something about her failure to nail the performance was more admirable than success would have been. A famous woman had appeared on television, on a network that could then still be reasonably understood as an arbiter of cool, and let herself be as gawky as I very often felt. And somehow this made her beautiful, magical, and aspirational. I bought some Manic Panic pink hair dye that year, but my mom let me use it only in the summer, when school was out, and even then not the whole head. Just, in the front, two pink streaks.

There have, before and since, been many, many phases of Gwen Stefani, who is now 46 and about to put out her third solo album, This Is What the Truth Feels Like. I have adored some of these phases (athletic ska punk Gwen; Eve’s BFF sidekick Gwen), been troubled by some of them (Harajuku Barbie Gwen; Native American–headdress Gwen), and, for a brief period after she got her braces off, felt personally betrayed. But when you take a step back, the arc of the Orange County native’s musical and stylistic evolution really has three main acts: from the plain and unassuming lead singer of a local ska band (nascent No Doubt) to the Deborah Harry of the ’90s alt-rock boom (famous No Doubt) to a slick pop star whose aesthetic is some combination of Vargas girl and high-school drum majorette (solo Gwen). That latter phase has lasted the longest, and, at least for a certain kind of person who grew up with the antic goofiness of No Doubt, has been something of a comedown from the heady days of her pink hair. Somewhere before her first solo album, 2004’s Love. Angel. Music. Baby., she got one of those Hollywood makeovers that seem irreversible — she was now in with the in-crowd. The girl who’d once made awkwardness and cheekiness seem so glamorous was, suddenly, telegraphing the opposite message: Sand down your rough edges, and they’ll like you even more!

All of which is to say that, while I loved a few singles here and there, I’ve found it kind of hard to feel enthusiastic about Gwen Stefani for the past decade or so. It’s maybe because there is a certain level of sheen and precision about her now that makes her feel distant. Perhaps there is an element of my own immaturity at play here, but I cannot help hearing a voice in my head that snipes, in the cadence of a jilted tween, “Gwen’s been so stuck-up ever since she got her braces off.”

Stefani, 1999. Photo: Gregory Pace/Sygma/Corbis

But for the past couple of months, I’ve found myself reconciling with Gwen, drawn to her again almost magnetically — going through my own personal Gwenaissance, if you will. It pains me to say that it took something as awful as the dissolution of her 13-year marriage to Gavin Rossdale (taking a page out of the Ben Affleck playbook, he was cheating on her with the nanny) to make her seem relatable again, but — in the spirit of putting ungainly truths on display — there you go. Sure, most musicians thrive off heartbreak, but this is hypertrue for Gwen Stefani, the woman who made her name with the breakup ballad for the ages (1996’s megahit “Don’t Speak”) and who possesses one of those mellifluously honking voices that always sound like they have just cried or are about to cry or, at their most emotive, are currently crying. So it should come as little surprise that she sounds creatively reinvigorated on the strong new This Is What the Truth Feels Like, a good chunk of which was written as recently as January. This makes songs with guess-who-they-could-possibly-be-about titles like “Red Flag” and “Used to Love You” feel startlingly up-to-the-minute and in tune with the tabloid stories we’ve been reading. (Or, ahem, high-mindedly pretending not to be reading.)

And by this logic, of course, the album’s bubbly, crush-struck songs are obviously about her new boyfriend and ex-Voice co-judge Blake Shelton. Stefani executes these just as well as the ballads and the kiss-offs, and that in itself is its own kind of revenge. The charm of the great lead single “Make Me Like You” is that it finds, in new love, not simple (or cheesy) euphoria but playful vexation at its tendency to disrupt your best-laid plans. “Why’d you have to go and make me like you?” she pouts. It feels irrepressibly, convincingly teenage — which is maybe why it’s my favorite Gwen Stefani song in ages. There’s an unspoken pressure in our society for women to “act their age,” whatever that means, so maybe the most inspiring thing about Gwen is that, at her best, she’s disregarded that false ideal. I didn’t expect her new album to clarify exactly why I worshipped her when I was younger, but it did: She’s always been the world’s oldest teenager.

This is What the Truth Feels Like is out March 18.

*This article appears in the March 7, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.

Gwen Stefani Proves the Value of Insecurity