Last week, local Oklahoma news outlets reported the rather surprising celebrity sighting of musician Gwen Stefani and her boyfriend, Blake Shelton. It wasn’t necessarily a shock to see Oklahoma native Shelton eating at the Tishomingo restaurant he owns, Ole Red, with his partner, but the accompanying sight of House Speaker Paul Ryan made a few waves. ‘In walked Paul Ryan first,’ reported an onlooker. ‘And then double duty, we got to see Blake Shelton walk in, him and Gwen.’ The moment was reported as a clandestine meeting between the three individuals, something Shelton himself slammed as he supposedly doesn’t do politics. Yet it’s an instance of inter-cultural image clashing that feels indicative of the opposites-attract narrative that has accompanied Shelton and Stefani since they went public with their relationship. Who wouldn’t find that story enticing: The rocker chick who finds new love after public heartbreak with a rustic country boy who’s also her co-worker. Celebrity couplings are big business for those willing to wield its power effectively, and in an increasingly cynical cultural landscape, where the most openly passionate pairings are lambasted by audiences, it’s interesting to see Shelton and Stefani make it into a long-term commitment, even as they stand as the thirstiest pairing since Tom Hiddleston ignored common sense to don a hand-decorated tank-top. For long-term fans of Stefani and No Doubt, for the women who grew up finding solace in her carefree lone-girl leadership, watching her wholeheartedly embrace the Shelton image for herself has been another instance a routine we’re very familiar with. This is a celebrity who’s always been willing to change her persona for the right crowd, but never so drastically.
Stefani was never the only woman in rock, but if you were like me and grew up with a rock loving dad who never seemed to have any female-led bands or musicians in his roster of CDs, seeing the lead singer of No Doubt on Top of the Pops and CD:UK, unabashedly dominating the stage ahead of her male band members, was a moment of victory. She was glamorous, with bombshell blonde hair and scarlet lips, but she also wasn’t afraid to leap across the stage as she performed, and pre-teen made greatly envied her ability to make midriff bearing waistcoat and tie ensembles look chic. ‘Cool’ didn’t really cover her in my mind: She always seemed too cool to care about being cool, which is the most potent way to make any 12 year old girl think of her as the coolest being who ever lived.
I never really knew how to feel about her decision to go not only solo as a musician but full-on pop. No Doubt were hardly Slayer, but they were still the peak of edgy in terms of the music I chose for myself. Listening to ‘What You Waiting For’, an admittedly banging tune, and watching her sing while dressed as a Harajuku inspired Alice in Wonderland cosplayer felt decidedly off to me. I was still too immature to consider the possibility that people changed over time and that musicians shook up their images as frequently as the rest of us make tea in the morning. All I knew was that I liked the other Gwen better. To be that bitch, Gwen of 2004 seemed like all the other girls now.
Looking back, the Love Angel Music Baby era is a time of contrasts: Some brilliant pop numbers mixed in with unbearable album filler; sharp style with a carefully thought out plan and context but one that’s rooted in discomfiting Orientalism and fetishizing of Asian women (lest we forget her perpetually silent harem of Harajuku girls who tailed her at every red carpet performance); a talented musician figuring out her life as a solo entity and telling that story through her songs, but occasionally trying way too hard to fit in with contemporary trends. A lot of this wasn’t even new - while performing in No Doubt, Stefani often wore a bindi on her forehead, and the cultural appropriation went undiscussed by the wider media spectrum - but without the band unit around her, everything felt more heightened (perhaps because her image at this time was heavily so).
Stefani has been open about her Roman Catholic faith, her relationships (by her own admission, she has only had three boyfriends and they were all long-term partnerships), and how the two intersect. She met Tony Kanal, her first boyfriend and bassist for No Doubt, when she was 17 and ‘instantly was obsessed.’ Coming from ‘a very conservative home [where] family was sacred’, before No Doubt’s fame exploded, Stefani confessed to Rolling Stone, ‘all I ever did was, like, look at Tony and pray that God would let me have a baby with him’. This is the perpetual contradiction of Stefani’s career: The desire for a traditional family life and gender role as a wife and mother while living the dream as the coolest girl in the room who never needs a man. Songs like ‘Simple Kind of Life’ centre on Stefani’s conundrum, with discomfiting lyrics like ‘Like a sick domestic abuser looking for a fight, all I wanted was the simple things’. For all the talk of her conservative image change with Shelton, it’s telling that this pull between her vibrant rule-breaking image and desire for the trappings of patriarchal simplicity have been evident from day one.
In 2002, after dating for over seven years, Stefani married her second boyfriend, Bush frontman Gavin Rossdale, and the pair had three sons. Settling down with family life seemed impossible as her solo career took her fame to new heights, and that conflict is evident in both songs and interviews. The tick-tock beat to ‘What You Waiting For’ was partly inspired by her own biological clock, and even in talking about the excitement of marrying Rossdale, she compares the ‘beautiful, magical feeling’ to ‘having a baby’. Even if the quotes were 1950s ready, the image of the pair together was undeniably cool: Her pink wedding dress was badass, they looked good on red carpets together, and they gave their sons rocker ready names like Zuma and Bowie. It seemed like a good match for Stefani - the sellable image with the desired comfort of wifedom and motherhood - until Rossdale cheated with the nanny, which may be the ultimate bastardising of the familial ideal. When you’ve spent years trying to define yourself as the thing you covet the most, having the guy who’s supposed to be your partner in that shit all over your trust and love is undoubtedly devastating.
As she has always done, Stefani explored the pain through her music. ‘This Is What the Truth Feels Like’ is not the banging breakup record No Doubt’s ‘Tragic Kingdom’ was: It’s glossier and more calculated and her voice isn’t what it used to be, but there are moments of raw truth amidst what is ultimately a decent if forgettable pop album. ‘Truth’ deals with the conundrum of a public break-up, struggling to feel worthy of being loved while fighting the feelings of public embarrassment and being accused of a quick rebound romance. In ‘Used To Love You’, she sounds genuinely upset, singing about the sensation of losing the thing in your life you believed to be the best part of it. It’s angry anguish, and in the words of the album’s review in Pitchfork, ‘it’s a rare moment on the album where you can pick out Stefani from a sea of other pop singers.’
The album came out around the same time her romance with her co-judge on NBC’s The Voice, Blake Shelton, went public. Like Stefani, Shelton had gone through a very public and difficult breakup with his wife, musician Miranda Lambert, and like Stefani’s marriage to Rossdale, it was a pairing that carried with it a certain level of cultural cache. Little bit country, little bit rock & roll, if we want to go there. While the pair played coy with the press at the beginning as rumours of on-set flirting reached a tipping point, once they went public, this was a pair that threw their all into their performance of romance. They got cosy in the car, they smiled at public events together, and the selfies were plentiful. Many suspected the romance to be a mere rebound, one that could be leveraged by both as a bit of media friendly revenge against their exes, but two years later and the pair are still going strong.
Watching Stefani with Shelton, a man I know little about beyond a terrible ‘Footloose’ cover, some supremely shitty tweets and a Sexiest Man Alive honour that feels like some sort of public curse, revives many of my youthful feelings of conflict over the songstress. On the surface, it seems all wrong, and their almost maudlin displays of love - musical duets, Instagram snogs, having their Twitter profile pics be of each other - are reminiscent of that one relative on Facebook whose posts you try to avoid for fear of rolling your eyes out of your skull. She likes it when they match outfits, and while she hasn’t wholeheartedly adopted his style, she is a lot more interested in cowboys now than she was 5 years ago. The old Stefani fan of my youth wants to guffaw with incredulity at the spectacle, and yet there’s part of me that gets it. Stefani is all about love, and being proud of love, and wanting everyone to know her feelings on love. With Rossdale, she never had a wholly willing partner to join in with her displays, but Shelton is 100% along for the ride. He’s just as extra as she is, and as exhausting as that can be to watch from the outside, it feels like it’s exactly what Stefani’s always wanted. After the humiliation of being cheated on by a rocker dude with a colourful past, and the first heartbreak of her life with her bandmate who wouldn’t commit, going with the human embodiment of mundane seems like the comforting thing to do.
All of this makes it exceedingly difficult to talk about Stefani as an independent figure, in part because she has never wanted to be seen as an individual: She wanted the husband and children, and before that happened, she surrounded herself with her own community, be it her band members or her mute Harajuku puppets. She defines herself by those around her - the bindi she wore as an apparent homage to Kanal; the fashion inspiration she took from Chola girls and Japanese style; the musical directions her albums took depending on the fad of the time; and her new Christmas album, perfectly polished and apple-pie sweet for the masses, ready who love Shelton and The Voice. Stefani’s evolution into Shelton’s other half may surprise some, but really, this is the same record she’s always played.