For as long as she’s been famous, Gwen Stefani has been everything all at once. As the frontwoman of the pop-ska-punk group No Doubt, she was a day-glo Debbie Harry, sporting bindis, adult braces and layers of concert sweat. At gigs, she moved like Iggy Pop, her body as flexible and unpredictable as a spring. Once she went solo, she was a David LaChapelle portrait come to life – a hyper-real yodeller and pop queen who rapped about bananas alongside a troupe of Japanese back-up dancers. Her transformations were seamless, every one of them feeling as natural as slipping on a new skin. Perhaps because there was something underneath them that stayed consistent: she wrote about heartbreak better than anyone.
Twenty-five years ago next month, Stefani cemented herself as pop’s patron saint of tears. The single “Don’t Speak” – an angry yet devastated mid-tempo ballad about losing your best friend and lover – also transformed No Doubt into a late-Nineties phenomenon. In its video, Stefani is three different versions of herself: an anarchic rock star on stage, a glamorous solo act with diamonds around her neck and a band that resents her, and a wounded young woman whose only hope of recovery is pouring her heart out. Released in the UK in February 1997, it topped the charts for three weeks, an instant classic.
Stefani’s greatest chart success – both as part of No Doubt and as a solo artist – never came from that same emotional well again. Rather, it came from her purest acts of pop and chaos, such as No Doubt’s dancehall jumble “Hey Baby” or the marching band opus “Hollaback Girl”. But buried beneath the bravado was Stefani’s turmoil, much of which she turned into pop beauty.
This, truth be told, started early. “Just a Girl” – released in the UK to little attention in 1996 but re-released and subsequently smashing in the wake of “Don’t Speak” – is best remembered as a sonic eye-roll, or a sardonic kiss-off, to male condescension. Stefani is defiant and battle-ready, but watch its video until the very end and you’ll see the patriarchy finally get to her. The track doesn’t ascend to its close but rather shrinks, Stefani’s expression going from certainty to apprehension as she sings one last, suddenly hopeless cry of “I’ve had it up to here”. In that moment, she laid the groundwork for much of her best work: give us escapist fantasy, but not without a glimpse of the gnarlier truth.
Stefani’s greatest songs are tortured romances, ones that recall all-consuming love affairs gone to seed. She writes them as the psychodramas they often are, where having your heart broken is – on some level – akin to being killed. Her teen romance with No Doubt bassist Tony Kanal fuelled 1996’s Tragic Kingdom, the album that sent the band into the stratosphere. Her on-again/off-again relationship with Bush frontman Gavin Rossdale – they first got together in 1995, married in 2002, had three children, then divorced in 2016 – underpins much of the rest of her work.
On Tragic Kingdom, Stefani nails the very specific misery of loving someone far more than they love you. “Don’t Speak” is about recognising that your partner has grown distant, yet practically begging them not to recognise it, too. Other tracks sound like Stefani is crawling out of grief, but with such bluster and performative defiance that it borders on denial.
In interviews at the time, she would admit that her and Kanal’s break-up was messy and far harder on her than it was on him. She’d often try and start things up again, to little avail. “God gave me this gift of being able to live on a strange fantasy planet where Tony still likes me,” she told Details magazine in 1996. “And I know he does, ’cause he admitted it to me the other day … I force him to make out with me sometimes. I crawl in his bunk, and he’ll say, ‘Get off me!’”
Perhaps because they dated so young and were bound by the success of their band, Stefani and Kanal did foster a friendship from the ashes of their romance. “Cool” – a track from Stefani’s first solo record Love Angel Music Baby and, truthfully, one of the greatest songs ever written – unfolds like a fairy tale that somehow came true. Stefani sings of her disbelief that they became friends again and can hang out with their new partners with no drama. “We used to think it was impossible,” she sings. “Now you call me by my new last name.” The video – directed by Stefani’s regular collaborator Sophie Muller – toggles back and forth in time, Stefani and her on-screen lover in the throes of young love, and then later on with Stefani meeting his new wife. There are still brief moments of longing or an aura of feelings unspoken – because, as Stefani has always told us, nothing is ever that easy – but they are otherwise cordial. As the song goes, they’re cool.
Her relationship with Rossdale had a less happy ending. No Doubt’s follow-up to Tragic Kingdom, 2000’s melancholy Return to Saturn, was written by Stefani while in a state of depression. Before she and Rossdale married, the pair were forever splitting up and getting back together, pulled apart by infidelities, insecurities and conflicting tour dates. Stefani said last year that she can’t listen to the album today as it’s too loaded with “messages” that she didn’t take notice of at the time. It makes sense: Return of Saturn goes beyond confession to a point of almost unbearable intimacy. “Simple Kind of Life” finds her pining for motherhood and stability with Rossdale, despite him seeming cruelly withholding. In the track’s video, Stefani sits beneath a giant, flashing birth control device and sings guiltily and uneasily: “Sometimes I wish for a mistake”. On the album’s other songs, she grapples with her own self-loathing and how it manifests as jealousy and rage. “Such a cute girl, I’m so jealous,” she sings on “Staring Problem”. “I wish I looked exactly like her/ What’s it like to have that body?”
Stefani’s lyrics can be brutal and unsparing, and she rarely writes in metaphor. That’s potentially why she always seems surprised in interviews when she’s told they’ve touched people. Yet their lack of obvious complexity is where their power lies. A song like the dramatic ballad “Early Winter” – from her 2006 album The Sweet Escape – is arresting because of how blunt it is. “I was always one for crying,” she confesses. “I was never one for lying/ You lied to me all these years.” “Red Flag”, a track from her most recent album This Is What the Truth Looks Like, was written after she and Rossdale finally split, and it has a frightened vulnerability to it that feels real. “I get nervous you won’t love me back,” she sings to a potential new partner. It only drove home how Stefani specialises in unattractive emotions, or the ones we’re told to conceal. By singing about them, though, she drains them of their shame.
In recent years, much has been made of Stefani’s marriage to the singer Blake Shelton, a cheesy country music crooner who’s repeatedly dodged questions about his political leanings. Their relationship has coincided with a vaguely uncool pop culture era for Stefani herself: a Christmas album; judging the US competition series The Voice; singles witheringly compared to discount clothing shop adverts. Shiny and chic her newest output is not. But if we are to take Stefani not as an incredibly radical pop star and more one of music’s greatest vessels of heartache, it is the ending she always deserved. She finally has the simple kind of life she’s wanted for more than two decades, one devoid of the drama that fuelled such transcendent music, but also brought her years of pain. If anyone deserves uncomplicated love with a man who worships her, it’s the woman who spent years so openly pining for it.