The Number Ones

May 7, 2005

The Number Ones: Gwen Stefani’s “Hollaback Girl”

Stayed at #1:

4 Weeks

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

By rights, Gwen Stefani should’ve had a #1 hit long before she finally did. In 1996, Stefani’s band No Doubt released “Don’t Speak,” a heart-crushed ballad about Stefani’s breakup with No Doubt bassist Tony Kanal, as the third single from the band’s album Tragic Kingdom. No Doubt were already getting big before “Don’t Speak,” but that song turned them into a runaway boulder.

“Don’t Speak” topped the Billboard airplay chart for an astonishing 16 weeks, and it’s the main reason that Tragic Kingdom eventually went diamond. But Interscope, No Doubt’s label, never released “Don’t Speak” as a commercial single. Because of Billboard‘s rules about what counted as a single, “Don’t Speak” never charted on the Hot 100, where it almost certainly would’ve reached #1. Today, “Don’t Speak” stands as Exhibit A for anyone who wants to explain how the Billboard Hot 100 was just utterly fucked in the ’90s, before the magazine changed its rules. (The song would’ve been a 7.)

But Gwen Stefani didn’t fade away after “Don’t Speak.” Nine years later, Stefani finally scored her only #1 hit on the Hot 100. This time, she used changing Billboard rules to her advantage. In February of 2005, Billboard instituted a new rule: Legal digital downloads would count as sales. The iTunes Music Store had become a real force in the music business. People were less and less likely to go out and buy CDs, but they might pay 99 cents to get a catchy new song on their iPods. At the time, the radio was utterly dominated by rap and R&B, but thanks to those 99-cent downloads, Gwen Stefani managed to slide into #1 with a berserk cheerleader-chant earworm about wanting to fight Courtney Love. The shit really was bananas.

By the time she landed her one chart-topper, Gwen Stefani was 35 years old, and she’d been performing for half her life. Stefani was born in Fullerton, California, and she grew up middle-class in suburban Anaheim. (The Archies’ “Sugar, Sugar” was the #1 song in America when Stefani was born, which feels somehow appropriate.) In 1986, when Stefani was still in high school, her older brother Eric started a bright, frantic, extremely Californian ska band called No Doubt, and he recruited his little sister as a backup singer. Eric Stefani played keyboards, and a guy named John Spence was the lead singer.

For a few years, No Doubt played backyards and, eventually, clubs. Gwen started dating bassist Tony Kanal, and they stayed together for years. A year after the band started, John Spence died by suicide. Another guy came in as lead singer, but when he left, Gwen became No Doubt’s frontwoman. No Doubt signed with Interscope in 1990, shortly after the label came into existence, and they released their self-titled debut two years later. It flopped.

After No Doubt’s album tanked, Eric Stefani left the band to focus on his full-time job as an animator on The Simpsons. Gwen Stefani and Tony Kanal broke up. No Doubt could’ve easily ended then, but Interscope paired the band up with producer Matthew Wilder, who helped them find a brighter and cleaner sound. (Wilder’s highest-charting single, 1983’s “Break My Stride,” peaked at #5. It’s a 4.) By the time No Doubt released the Wilder-produced Tragic Kingdom in 1995, only a few traces of the old wacky ska band remained. The band had become a big, shimmery pop machine, and their timing was perfect.

Tragic Kingdom arrived at the precise moment that dour, depressive alt-rock wore out its welcome. No Doubt were in rotation on the same radio stations as the grunge bands — I saw them play a supremely fun set at an alt-rock radio station fest in 1996 — but they stood out. The album’s lead single, the pop-feminist anthem “Just A Girl,” crossed over to pop radio and peaked at #23. I liked that song, and I loved the follow-up “Spiderwebs,” which didn’t make the Hot 100 because it never got a proper single release. Then came “Don’t Speak,” and it was over. No Doubt became insanely huge.

After Tragic Kingdom, No Doubt spent a few years touring heavily and dropping stray songs on soundtracks and compilations. Gwen Stefani started dating Gavin Rossdale, the Bush frontman with the cheekbones like knives, and they got married in 2002. (Bush’s highest-charting Hot 100 single, 1995’s “Glycerine,” peaked at #28.) In 2000, No Doubt finally came out with the follow-up album Return Of Saturn, which tried to go more explicitly new wave and which utterly tanked. The album went platinum, a distinction that probably would’ve thrilled the band if they hadn’t just sold ten times as many copies of Tragic Kingdom. “Simple Kind Of Life,” the album’s biggest hit, peaked at #38.

No Doubt might’ve been in trouble if not for Gwen Stefani’s work outside the band. In 2000, the same year as Return Of Saturn, Stefani sang on a the single version of the techno producer Moby’s muttery, dramatic dance-rock jam “South Side,” which became an unexpected hit. (“South Side” peaked at #14 on the Hot 100, and it’s still Moby’s highest-charting single.) A year later, Interscope boss Jimmy Iovine pulled some strings, and Stefani sang on Eve’s massive Dr. Dre-produced hit “Let Me Blow Ya Mind.” Stefani might not have been the most obvious hook-singer for a big rap single, but the combination somehow worked, and “Let Me Blow Ya Mind” made it all the way to #2. (It’s a 6.)

“Let Me Blow Ya Mind” gave No Doubt some much-needed commercial momentum. It might’ve given them some confidence, too. On their 2001 album Rock Steady, No Doubt left alt-rock behind completely, embracing dancehall reggae and electro-pop instead. Rock Steady went double platinum, and the band made it into the top 10 with two singles, both of which were co-produced by reggae greats Sly & Robbie and both of which paired No Doubt with dancehall heroes. The cartoonish bop “Hey Baby,” with Bounty Killer, peaked at #5, while the slow-winding love-ballad “Underneath It All,” with Lady Saw, made it to #3. (“Hey Baby” is a 7, and “Underneath It All” is an 8.) Rock Steady also had the pulsing, panting club jam “Hella Good,” a #13 hit. No Doubt co-produced that song with Nellee Hooper, but Gwen Stefani and Tony Kanal co-wrote it with Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo, the wildly creative rap producers known as the Neptunes.

In 2003, No Doubt released a greatest-hits album, which worked as a nice little punctuation on their comeback. That collection also included what now stands as No Doubt’s final top-10 hit: a cover of Talk Talk’s 1984 new wave jam “It’s My Life.” (No Doubt’s cover peaked at #10. It’s a 6. Talk Talk’s far-superior original only made it to #31, and it’s that band’s highest-charting Hot 100 single.) No Doubt didn’t break up after that greatest-hits album came out, but Gwen Stefani did go solo.

In 2004, Gwen Stefani played Jean Harlow in Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator, a pretty auspicious film debut that hasn’t led to much of an acting career. (Other than assorted cameos, Stefani’s only other real acting performance is a voice role in Trolls.) That same year, Stefani also made a solo album. Despite her success singing on other people’s hits, Stefani was nervous about the idea of going solo. She had big ideas about centrist pop music, about bringing back the bright and dizzy ’80s sounds that she’d loved in high school, but she still thought of herself as part of a band. Stefani considered recording a few songs on her own, or maybe putting out a dance record under a pseudonym, but Jimmy Iovine convinced her that she should make a real run at solo stardom.

Interscope really strapped the rocket to Gwen Stefani. She recorded her 2004 solo debut Love Angel Music Baby with an all-star team of collaborators: Dallas Austin, Linda Perry, New Order, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, André 3000, her bandmate Tony Kanal. At a time when half of the critically adored indie buzz bands were biting Joy Division, Gwen Stefani got the actual Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook to play on her record. Stefani’s first real solo single was not a big hit. The hammering dance track “What You Waiting For?” is specifically all about the anxiety of starting a solo career, and it peaked at #47. Stefani made a much bigger impact with her second single. On “Rich Girl,” Stefani reunited with Eve and Dr. Dre to flip a Fiddler On The Roof number into gleaming dancehall-pop, and the song peaked at #7. (It’s an 8.) But the third single from Love Angel Music Baby was the one that became inescapable.

“Hollaback Girl” was a late addition to Love Angel Music Baby, and Gwen Stefani recorded it with the Neptunes, her old “Hella Good” collaborators. Stefani always got along with Pharrell Williams; years later, she told Billboard, “We were so similar: we love Japanese culture and both have clothing lines.” (Stefani’s whole Harajuku fixation has aged about as well as the bindi that she used to wear during the Tragic Kingdom days.) An early songwriting session with the Neptunes hadn’t yielded anything, but when Stefani heard the “Hollaback Girl” beat, she was almost upset that Pharrell hadn’t played her the track earlier.

“Hollaback Girl” is a song with a lot of backstory. Last year, Pharrell went on supermodel Naomi Campbell’s YouTube talk show and told Campbell that she’d inspired the song’s title: “That chorus came from a conversation where you were telling somebody you ain’t no hollaback girl because of a song we had at the time with Fabolous called ‘Holla Back.’ Somebody was trying to speak to you or whatever, and you were like, ‘I’m sorry, I have a name. I ain’t no hollaback girl.’ I thought that was so amazing, and it ended up becoming the chorus to the song.” Fabolous’ Neptunes-produced single “Young’n (Holla Back)” peaked at #33 in 2002, and it’s such a fucking banger.

But Gwen Stefani wasn’t thinking about Naomi Campbell when she was working on “Hollaback Girl.” She had someone else in mind. In 2004, Hole frontwoman Courtney Love had brought up Stefani’s name in a Seventeen interview. (Hole’s highest charting single, the 1994 classic “Doll Parts,” peaked at #58.) Courtney Love interviews are great because she talks shit and names names. In that Seventeen interview, Love didn’t even say anything that bad about Stefani. Here’s the quote:

Being famous is just like being in high school. But I’m not interested in being the cheerleader. I’m not interested in being Gwen Stefani. She’s the cheerleader, and I’m out in the smoker shed…. So if you’re in high school and the popular girls are saying you slept with so-and-so — and you did, or maybe you just made out with that guy, and maybe it was a mistake. Either way, don’t let them dictate to you that you’re a slut. You’re 17; it’s your sexuality.

That doesn’t seem too damning, does it? From where I’m sitting, it doesn’t come off as Gwen Stefani “being bullied” by Courtney Love, which was how Stefani described it as recently as 2019. But there’s more context there. Courtney Love later told Howard Stern that she was sleeping with Gavin Rossdale when he and Stefani were together. Suddenly, Gwen Stefani being pissed at Courtney Love makes a whole lot more sense. In any case, Stefani, who had never been a literal cheerleader, decided to flip that cheerleader line, owning it and shooting right back at Love.

Gwen Stefani was a fully grown adult when she made “Hollaback Girl,” but she adapted the persona of a high-school kid confronting another high-school kid: “I heard that you were talking shit and you didn’t think that I would hear it.” On the second verse, Stefani straight-up challenges Courtney Love (or whoever) to a fistfight: “That’s right, dude, meet me at the bleachers/ No principals, no student-teachers/ Both of us wanna be the winner, but there can only be one.” Stefani imagines the end of the fight, too, singing a bit of Queen’s “Another One Bites The Dust.”

Stefani also says that oooh, this is her shit, and she spells the word “bananas” multiple times, which doesn’t really have anything to do with that fictional rock-star bleacher fight. Maybe that’s why “Hollaback Girl” ultimately comes off as less of a song and more of a collection of catchphrases. I have to say: I do not like “Hollaback Girl.” I feel like I should like “Hollaback Girl.” I like Gwen Stefani. I like the Neptunes. I like big, brash, loud pop songs. I’m not even mad at cheerleader chants in song form; Toni Basil’s “Mickey,” a #1 hit built from many of the same ingredients as “Hollaback Girl,” slaps hard. But “Hollaback Girl” felt like an active irritant — like Stefani was trying to annoy me. It was so grating and yet so omnipresent.

At least in theory, the Neptunes’ “Hollaback Girl” beat imitates the sound of funky Southern HBCU marching bands, and that sound animated a lot of the best rap and R&B hits of the mid-’00s. But the “Hollaback Girl” beat is too thin and anemic to evoke that style. The drums punch with real force, but Gwen Stefani does more shouting than singing, and she does that singing in an exaggerated valley-girl Betty Boop accent. There’s not much sweetener in there to balance out the banging and the yelling. We get a few horn honks, a shred of acoustic guitar, a pillowy synth-tone on the hook. At one point, there’s a whistle, which feels almost assaultive. This shit is calamitous.

“Hollaback Girl” is catchy, but it’s the wrong kind of catchy — the ruin-your-day kind. It’s not the kind of thing that I want stuck in my head. If I’m in a bad mood and I hear even three seconds of “Hollaback Girl,” the bad mood will immediately get worse. I suppose it’s impressive that a song as weird and messy and disruptive as “Hollaback Girl” could reach #1, but it mostly just makes me wish that Jimmy Iovine had hooked Gwen Stefani up with Max Martin instead of all the big names who worked on her solo album. She could’ve hit that big, bright ’80s pop sound so much more cleanly.

Say this for “Hollaback Girl”: People wanted to hear it. The song didn’t reach #1 because of airplay. Instead, it topped the Hot 100 because a whole lot of people were shelling out their hard-earned 99 cents for the digital single. The week that “Hollaback Girl” topped the Hot 100, Billboard spelled it out: “Discounting American Idol sales-driven #1s by finalists Kelly Clarkson, Clay Aiken, and Fantasia, “Hollaback” is the first song to top the Hot 100 without a large base of R&B/hip-hop airplay since Nickelback’s “How You Remind Me” in December 2001.”

You know what that means, right? Gwen Stefani was the first white singer with a #1 hit in well over a year — the first pop artist to succeed in a long time without explicitly courting a Black audience. To be fair, Gwen Stefani did make “Hollaback Girl” with the Neptunes, who were fresh off of “Drop It Like It’s Hot” and who owned rap radio at the time. And “Hollaback Girl” ultimately did reach #8 on the R&B chart. Still, the golden age of R&B singers dominating the charts was starting to reach its end.

The “Hollaback Girl” video definitely helped the song connect. A year after directing Chow Yun-Fat in Bulletproof Monk, Paul Hunter constructed a whole high-school dreamworld for Gwen Stefani and her whole Harajuku Girls dance crew. In that video, Gwen Stefani is a 35-year-old woman playing a high-school girl, and she’s got Japanese mascots with her. That’s a lot. Stefani looks amazing — almost like she could plausibly be a high-school kid — but the clip radiates an intense attention-hunger that I find pretty off-putting. On the other hand, it’s cheerful and colorful, and I like the bit where Stefani leads a marching band through a supermarket and throws cereal everywhere. That’s fun.

Gwen Stefani followed “Hollaback Girl” with a much less obnoxious song: “Cool,” a new wave ballad that she co-wrote with Dallas Austin. That one peaked at #13, and Love Angel Music Baby ultimately went quintuple platinum. In 2006, Stefani had her first child and released her second solo album. She somehow managed to pick a single that was even more irritating than “Hollaback Girl.” Stefani co-write “Wind It Up” with Akon, an artist who will appear in this column a surprising number of times. The song is built around fucking yodeling. I’m listening to “Wind It Up” as I type this, and I feel like I’m bringing up some long-buried trauma. This song should not exist. (“Wind It Up” peaked at #6. It’s a 1.)

Stefani followed “Wind It Up” with another Akon collab. “The Sweetest Escape,” the album’s title track, definitely has some grating bits — “Wooo-ooo! Eeeee-yooo!” — but it’s at least a functional pop song, and it peaked at #2. (It’s a 5.) As of right now, “The Sweetest Escape” is Gwen Stefani’s most recent top-10 hit. Stefani didn’t make another solo album for a decade. Instead, she had more kids and eventually returned to No Doubt for 2012’s Push And Shove. “Settle Down,” that album’s biggest hit, peaked at #34, and No Doubt have been inactive ever since.

In 2014, Gwen Stefani became one of the coaches on the singing-competition show The Voice, which helped keep her relevant. Two years later, she divorced Gavin Rossdale and released the breakup album This Is What The Truth Feels Like. By that time, Stefani was dating the country star Blake Shelton, another mentor on The Voice. (Shelton’s highest-charting Hot 100 single, the 2013 Pistol Annies collab “Boys ‘Round Here,” peaked at #12.) Stefani and Shelton got married last year, and they also got to #18 with the 2020 duet “Nobody But You.” Pretty good song!

Gwen Stefani was still able to do some serious chart numbers 25 years after No Doubt first landed on the Hot 100 with “Just A Girl” — a deeply impressive span. And who knows? Maybe she’s not done making hits. Stefani remains galactically famous — big enough to do Vegas residencies and maintain her singing-show presence. She’s definitely the biggest star that came out of ’90s third-wave ska. She’s always come off like a cool person, and I’m happy for her success, even if her sole #1 hit is a terrible fucking song.

GRADE: 2/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s Sebastian Bach covering “Hollaback Girl” on a 2006 episode of Gilmore Girls:

(Skid Row’s highest-charting single, 1989’s “18 And Life,” peaked at #4. It’s an 8.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene from the 2014 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie where the baby Turtles dance to “Hollaback Girl”:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Avril Lavigne’s 2019 Nicki Minaj collab “Dumb Blonde” doesn’t officially sample or interpolate “Hollaback Girl,” but you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise. If “Dumb Blonde” had been a bigger hit, I feel like Gwen Stefani and the Neptunes would probably get retroactive songwriting credits. Listen for yourself:

(“Dumb Blonde” peaked at #92. Avril Lavigne and Nicki Minaj will both appear in this column eventually.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: On Dua Lipa’s 2020 remix album Club Future Nostalgia, the Blessed Madonna reworked the track “Hallucinate” and used a “Hollaback Girl” sample. After Dua Lipa’s people approached Stefani to clear that sample, Stefani ended up appearing on the album, contributing vocals to Mark Ronson’s remix of “Physical.” Here’s the Blessed Madonna’s “Hallucinate” remix:

(“Physical” peaked at #60. Dua Lipa’s two highest-charting singles, 2019’s “Don’t Start Now” and 2020’s “Levitating,” both peaked at #2. “Don’t Start Now” is a 9, and “Levitating” is an 8. Mark Ronson will eventually appear in this column.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s former SOB x RBE member DaBoii’s video for his 2022 track “Bananas,” which is built on a “Hollaback Girl” sample:

THE NUMBER TWOS: Ciara and Ludacris’ slow-motion Atlanta-pride anthem “Oh” peaked at #2 behind “Hollaback Girl.” It’s a 9.

The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out now via Hachette Books. This book is bananas. Buy it here.

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