Gwen Stefani’s Breakup Album Is Bland, But What Choice Did She Have?
In the entertainment industry, breaking up is good for business. As we’ve seen from Blood On The Tracks to Vulnicura, divorce and other profound romantic dissolution can make for potent creative fuel. But there’s also the tabloid component, the way a superstar breakup suddenly rockets its participants to the forefront of the celebrity industrial complex. Although it must be humiliating to have your private heartbreak paraded in front of the world, the upside to becoming gossip fodder is resurgent public interest in your career. And linking up with a new lover only multiplies that intrigue.
Enter Gwen Stefani, whose long-delayed new album This Is What The Truth Feels Like… arrives Friday at long last. The No Doubt singer has been fixing to release a solo album since 2014, but when singles “Baby Don’t Lie” and “Spark The Fire” fizzled on impact, she scrapped everything she’d done with Pharrell and Benny Blanco and started over. If those tracks felt a little uninspired, last year she found abundant inspiration when she filed for divorce from Bush frontman Gavin Rossdale. (If you believe the tabloids, Mr. “Machinehead” was having an affair with the nanny.) Furthermore, she kindled a new romance with her fellow The Voice judge Blake Shelton, who was dealing with the end of his own superstar marriage to Miranda Lambert.
Stefani funneled that personal upheaval and renewal into writing sessions with in-demand duo Julia Michaels and Justin Tranter, and This Is What The Truth Feels Like… is the result. What might’ve been a breakup album ended up dominated by songs about finding love again, albeit with a few moments of devastation (the brutal kiss-offs “Used To Love You” and “Me Without You”) and indignation (the cartoonish finger wags “Naughty” and “Red Flags”). Or as Tranter explained the project’s trajectory to The New York Times, “We had anger, we had sadness, we had flirtation, we had sexy, and now we’re madly in love.”
It’s a classic storyline, but in this case it did not make for a classic album. This Is What The Truth Feels Like… is more fascinating as narrative than as music. There are some winsome tunes, particularly the roller-rink sugar-rush “Make Me Like You” and the Charli XCX/Chvrches sound-alike “Misery,” and the whole thing has an air of extreme competence about it. But nothing here approaches the irresistible qualities that sent “Hollaback Girl” and “The Sweet Escape” to the top of the charts. That NYT feature gushes, “In a field dominated by young starlets, she’s made a grown-up pop album, confessional and sleek, without the oddball ‘B-A-N-A-N-A-S’ flourishes of her past hits.” But what’s a Gwen Stefani album without oddball flourishes? This shit is B-A-N-A-L.
In Stefani’s position, though, dialing back the personality might be a savvy career move. This is not the magnetic young punk from Anaheim anymore. She’s a 46-year-old divorced mother of three. She’s on The Voice, one of the most ferociously popular and fiercely mundane TV institutions of our time. The soccer moms are her demo now, therefore bland is her brand. As Adele recently demonstrated — not to mention Sam Smith, Ed Sheeran, Meghan Trainor, Maroon 5, and Kelly Clarkson — playing it straight is still the surest route to success for a celebrity with suburban parental appeal. When I wrote about Clarkson last year I called it “edgeless excellence,” though sometimes mere edgelessness is enough for the industry machine to work with.
Aging female pop icons may feel they have no alternative. Singer-songwriter types can call in Rick Rubin or Jack White to produce, but what’s somebody like Stefani to do? It’s very difficult to shoehorn genuine idiosyncrasy into the pop mainstream, and if your fan base increasingly comprises middle-aged conservatives, it might actually be impossible. Even someone with Stefani’s bona fides, a woman who helped introduce punk rock and feminism to a mass audience, might struggle to stay relevant; as a culture, we’re still shaking off the embarrassment from when Madonna tried to make an exciting modern pop record last year. Plus, on the heels of excruciating public trauma, no one could blame Stefani for sidestepping the possibility of an artistic faceplant altogether. And a faceplant was a very real possibility: Frankly, the moments on This Is What The Truth Feels Like… when she tries to summon the electricity that made “Hella Good” hella good — those fuck-you-Gavin tracks, specifically — make me grateful that the majority of the album is tastefully forgettable.
It’s hard not to be wistful for what this album could have been, though. Aging both boldly and gracefully is no easy feat, but it can be done — just maybe not within Stefani’s current professional environment — and the real pain and elation she’s processing here could have been given more room to unfold in unique and exciting ways. I already mentioned the heartbreaking power of Björk’s Vulnicura. The awkwardly thirsty Rebel Heart wasn’t the comeback Madonna hoped it would be, but she did release the tremendous reinvention Ray Of Light at age 39. Kylie Minogue continues to churn out euphoric disco-pop well into her forties. And even some of the more conservative, less flashy veteran moves, like Janet Jackson’s Unbreakable, have turned out to be deeply rewarding.
Very few of those albums earned American radio play, but so far, Stefani’s album isn’t clicking at radio either. Perhaps she’ll sell a boatload of albums next week, but given how fearlessly colorful her previous hits have been, I wonder if she’d have been more successful going for broke with something truly bizarre. Still, in light of Rebel Heart, her situation feels like a Catch-22. That’s the harsh reality facing female pop stars: Breaking up is good for business, but getting older most certainly is not.
Get God on the phone! Kendrick Lamar’s untitled unmastered. becomes his second #1 in just under a year, recording 178,000 equivalent units (142,000 in pure sales), well ahead of Adele (#2, 61,000) and Rihanna (#3, 58,000). K-Dot joins fellow hip-hop heavyweights Drake and Future as the only artists to log multiple #1s within a year since January 2015. And speaking of famous rappers, 2 Chainz and Lil Wayne’s collaborative ColleGrove — billed as a 2 Chainz solo album, presumably for contractual reasons — enters at #4 based on 53,000 (38,000 in pure sales).
The rest of the top 10 is filled out with familiar titles from Justin Bieber, Joey + Rory, Chris Stapleton, Twenty One Pilots, the Weeknd, and Kevin Gates. Interestingly, the 1975 — who last week set the record for the longest #1 album title in history — falls all the way to #26 this week. I guess everyone who wanted a copy of that one went out and got it the first week.
There’s more turnover at the top of the singles chart, although #1 through #4 remain locked in: Rihanna and Drake’s “Work” (on top for a fourth straight week), Justin Bieber’s “Love Yourself,” Twenty One Pilots’ “Stressed Out,” and Flo Rida’s “My House.” Hits from ZAYN, G-Eazy, and DNCE remain in the mix, too. But Lukas Graham’s sentimental folk-rock anthem “7 Years” surges up to a new #5 peak, and Mike Posner’s EDM ballad “I Took A Pill In Ibiza” climbs to a new peak of #10. And Meghan Trainor’s “NO” is knocking on the door of the top 10 after a #11 debut.
Ariana Grande – “Dangerous Woman”
I like this so much more than “Focus,” which was good but struck me as “Problem” 2.0. “Dangerous Woman” steers Grande into new, more adult territory, and she completely lays claim to it. Officially excited to hear this album.
ZAYN – “BeFour”
“BeFour” is the song Zayn Malik teased along with his Fader cover story, the first music that gave a sense of the dark and moody sound he’d be pursuing. Like most of his other Mind Of Mine singles, it’s incredibly pretty but might not have the staying power of a truly great song.
Adam Lambert – “Welcome To The Show” (Feat. Laleh)
Between this and ZAYN’s track, it’s interesting to hear how much the Weeknd is influencing pop’s mainstream.
MKTO – “Hands Off My Heart / Places You Go”
Hey, Walt from Lost is back! And this time they’re attempting one of those FutureSex/LoveSounds song-suites, even lifting the rippling synth part from “My Love.” Unlike that song, this one is not so classic.
Daughtry – “Torches”
Chris Daughtry: He still exists.
NEWS IN BRIEF
- Ciara and Russell Wilson are engaged. [Us]
- Avril Lavigne and Nickelback’s Chad Kroeger seem to be back together, or at least making music together. [Instagram]
- Kesha, Kelsea Ballerini, and Thomas Rhett will appear on Nashville. [THR]
- Here’s Miley Cyrus in a blonde wig on the set of Woody Allen’s forthcoming Amazon series. [Daily Mail]
- “Honey I’m Good” singer Andy Grammer’s wife Aijia auditioned for The Voice. She got rejected and talked about that on Facebook. [Facebook]
- President Obama said he loves J. Cole in his SXSW keynote. [Twitter]
- Fifth Harmony, Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande, Adele, Shawn Mendes, and Wiz Khalifa/Charlie Puth won 2016 Kids’ Choice Awards. [ABC]
- Justin Bieber debuted a new song, reportedly called “Insecurities,” live in Portland. [Idolator]
- Selena Gomez has topped her friend Taylor Swift as Instagram’s most followed person. [Us]
- Swift and Calvin Harris went on vacation. [Twitter]
- Spike has picked up a music game show called Tracks produced by Christina Aguilera. [THR]
- Jay Z requested one of John Oliver’s Make Donald Drumpf Again hats. [THR]
- The forthcoming PBS series Soundbreaking is considering cutting scenes with Dr. Luke. [US News]
- Madonna fired back at critics who claimed she was drunk onstage in Australia. She says she was acting. [Instagram]
- Michael Jackson’s estate sold his infamous song publishing assets (including the Beatles catalog) to Sony for $750M. [NY Times]
HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME
What do you mean by @JustinBieber was my favorite song of 2015
— KANYE WEST (@kanyewest) March 13, 2016