Liner Notes: Gwen Stefani Bends & Stretches The 'Truth'

Everybody loves them some drama.

From grey-haired aunties to Instagrammed thotties, everybody wants to be in other folks' business. It's why I never believe anyone who says they don't like to engage in gossip, because more than likely they are just waiting around till you have some sweet n' savory tea to spill, and there they'll be, cup in hand, ready for the sipping.

Pop music gets its daily dose of nutrition from drama. Most, if not all, of the best, and memorable pop albums involve some form of petty, sneering, 'I hate you so much right now!' confessional in its lining. Adele turned Millennial angst into a lucrative narrative with her age-focused recordings. To this day people are still trying to figure out who the hell Carly Simon put on blast on "You're So Vain". And just a few months ago social media was in a tizzy, wondering who the "Becky with the good hair" was that had Beyonce out there busting car windows over.

Gwen Stefani also isn't a stranger to laying her heart at her wounded knees. During her tenure in the ska-pop outfit No Doubt she penned the ultimate heartbreak anthem of the 1990s, and continued to get in her feelings and note her insecurities through many a song and album thereafter. Not to say that an artist is more effective when they are in the throws of tissues and tantrums, but Gwen was a reliable savant of such a narrative because even when she was romping around calling out the hollaback culture or dreaming of sweet escapes, she was still wondering if she was "cool" with an ex-beau and was getting killed softly with curiosity while splashing in her lover's bathwater of past paramours. The balance of emotions, of being headstrong and vulnerable, worked for Gwen and gave her much appeal especially to those coming of age in the confusion of the 1990s and early 2000s.

So when Gwen attempted to restart her solo career back in 2014 coming out with age-chasing singles like "Baby Don't Lie" and "Spark That Fire", she discovered that the public's disinterest of such banal material wasn't what would pass for reflection these days. What made her tick was her baring her heart and taking us through it's wicked breakdown. So she scratched Pharrell and Benny Bianco off of the project, and searched for new inspiration. As if on cue, she found her inspiration in her crumbling marriage to Bush frontman, Gavin Rossdale, wherein after 13 years of marriage she filed for divorce. Once first single, "Used To Love You" took flight it was obvious that Gwen was back to being barefoot and blue, and the 'truth' was to be exposed.

Sadly, the candor of Truth makes better as tabloid fodder than it does music. Juxtaposed with the songs about mis-matrimony, Stefani is also harboring an emotion of well, happiness. It should be noted that Stefani is currently in the throws of a new relationship with fellow The Voice judge, country music star, Blake Shelton. It also should be worth mentioning that he too brings in suitcases of drama with his ending relationship to fellow country star, Miranda Lambert. With such a love square dance and Gwen's flip-flopping of emotions, the album has a personality disorder. It truly plays like the erratic campy, mascara running, breakneck sloppy kisses of a exasperating soap opera --- and not in a good way.

Stefani is just all over the place. She's angry. She's in love. She's remorseful. She's a flat-out mess, and while it may be interesting to rubberneck around such erratic behavior in theory, listening to it unfold is about as boring hearing that one friend who is crying over one boyfriend, but already has latched onto another. You feel soooo sorry for her, right? That's what's missing from Truth --- pure empathy, the ability to connect and give a shit to what Gwen is twisting the bedsheets and digging into her second carton of Ben & Jerry's about.

Not to say that Gwen is wrong for being a tangle of emotions. It is refreshing on some level to hear Gwen at her whimsical best when she pulls out the sugary duos of "Misery" and "Make Me Like You". They aren't as fun to romp in as "Hollaback Girl" or "Hella Good" even with the disco charms of "Make Me Like You", but they still are both better than your average 2016 pop single as is the ska-flavored Greg Kurstin-produced, "Where Would I Be?" which should be opined for single release if Gwen is wise.

With these high-points, Gwen still knows how to make merry and throw the confetti, but one difference in her position this time is that she has fallen victim to believing there is a fountain of youth when she saddles herself with songs that attempt to 'youthinize' her. "Naughty" and the Fetty Wrap-assisted "Asking 4 It" are simply ear-bleeding embarrassments that do nothing but bring the album down, and make it painfully obvious that Gwen is a 46-year-old mother of three, when that probably wasn't the intent.

Gwen is more so in her element when she tries something on like the excellent "Truth" for size, as she dives into the coolness of its electro-tropic vibe courtesy of Mattman & Robin, distributing honest epiphanies about what it's like succumbing to a brand new relationship in the midst of being a public spectacle. With the folk tinges of "Rare", Stefani is looking towards the future (with Shelton no doubt) rhapsodizing about making new memories and putting the past behind her, and she's gentle and thoughtful in this rumination. The ode to selfies and social media, "Send Me A Picture" also wins by Gwen's lighter touch, as it sounds like the calmest No Doubt track you've never heard.

While the pros outweigh the cons on this album for the most part, Truth is still too safe for it to be impactful and revive interest in what Gwen is confessing. Funny, it's been praised for its lightweight direction as the New York Times noted how 'sleek and grown-up' Truth is in their write-up. To me, Truth sounds too polite and precious for it be considered 'grown', but it's still not brash or edgy enough to be considered 'sleek'.

It's unfortunate that today's pop platform hasn't been kind to women past the age of 35 and that female pop artists like Gwen have found themselves in the weird position where they're trying to straddle two different age groups: the kids (and moms) who know of her due to her new TV persona as a judge on The Voice, and the fans who came of age when she was reviving punk and feminism for the mainstream masses. We are certainly not in the 1980s anymore back when Tina Turner was able to make a hugely successful comeback at 50 or institutions like Dusty Springfield and Aretha Franklin could make hit magic with younger superstars. Gwen, sad to say, isn't the young punk from Anaheim anymore, she's not young, restless, and pink-haired, and she has removed the braces from her mouth --- but why put them back on her music?

Never will I understand the (idiotic) 'logic' of focusing on a younger audience while forgoing your loyal, older fanbase. Pushing units is of natural reason to do so, of course, and Gwen was smart in a sense to not drop this album on streaming sites, hence why she received a #1 outing, but just because you're popular on Twitter or on a competitive reality show isn't a guarantee to move said units nor get you proper radio airplay or sell-out concert seats (both of which Gwen has failed to do). Gwen doesn't have to stoop to such banal measures to be heard or put out good pop product, but then again, maybe she feels she does when the odds are stacked and the pop climate gets narrower and narrower for those like her who "age out of it". Desperate times call for desperate measures, eh?

Still pop markets are fickle, and to gamble on them is a foolish risk. What I kind of wish elder pop stars would do is to not Benjamin Button themselves all for the sake of trying to appeal to a sector that changes iPhone wallpapers daily and hyperventilates over problematic celebs on Tumblr. If there is to be one cue that elder pop stars like Gwen should take from the youth is the reckless abandon to buck the system, and yes, it can be done. Janet Jackson proved to rise from the ashes on the mature and accessible, Unbreakable while keeping an eye and ear towards her loyal fanbase. Kylie Minogue still keeps her fans happy by never straying from her camp pop lane even as she graces 40+ years. Madonna's Rebel Heart had moments that showed that she is still able to put out good pop product when she stops trying to put her age in a choke hold.

While I cannot crawl into the album and tell Gwen how to properly express her emotions about her relationship status, but she has the heartbreak and the history to bring a new dimension to everybody's favorite pop music device. Then again, the truth and reality of it is that drama only works and looks 'cute' when you're young and foolish --- not when you're growing older and should know better.
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