Take this pink ribbon off my eyes
And it’s no big surprise
Don’t you think I know
Exactly where I stand
This world is forcing me
To hold your hand
-No Doubt, ‘Just a Girl’
When I was a teenager, I took music and concerts very seriously. Back then concerts weren’t nearly as expensive as they are now, and once we were street legal my friends and I went to Philly pretty much every weekend and just saw whoever was playing. I discovered a lot of great bands that way.
When I was 19, I went to the WDRE Fest in Camden NJ (with my boyfriend, who was soon to be my husband). This was 1996. Looking at the lineup for that day, I guess we were probably there for Filter or Fishbone; I really liked (and still do) a song or two from Cracker, The Nixons and the Toadies but I would never have agreed to an all day music festival on the strength of one song.
In any case, we got there nice and early, and we caught No Doubt opening for the day. Now, at that time I don’t think I listened to the radio, ever ( I’m not going to argue the fact that I’m an aging hipster) and I don’t remember recognizing their songs. What I do remember is what a tour de force Gwen Stefani was as a performer. In her pigtails, midriff top and big@ss jeans, she was all over that stage; she was pure energy and howling spirit. I listened to the lyrics of “Just a Girl” as she hollered ’em and I couldn’t get over just how good she was, even as she performed for a nearly empty arena as the audience just started milling in. It’s a moment that’s stuck with me and the song still deeply affects me whenever I stop to listen to it closely.
Over the years No Doubt, and later Gwen as a solo artist, put out a good number more songs that were edgy and unique and catchy and passionate, although I’d probably argue none of them were as powerful as “Just a Girl.”
A cage that’s built in a spirit of love and protection is still a cage. And it’s OK to be angry about it as you fight your way free. As I evolved to become quite vocal about empowering women, especially our daughters, it’s a sentiment that in no small way has informed the perch that I sing my message from.
Jump ahead to 2016, 20 years later, the year I’ve dubbed #NostalgiaTour2016. Sooooooo many bands I loved in the 90s— a time I will fiercely defend as a golden era of music— are either back in the recording studio or back on tour or both. Somehow, I have less money available to me now for concerts, and concerts are much more expensive; I have to carefully pick and choose.
On top of that, I have to consider the fact that when I first bought these albums or attended these concerts, I was in my late teens and the bands were older. Now I’m old; old enough that my son is the same age I was then, and the artists are even older than me. Will their voices still be worth hearing, their performances worth watching? Can their new endeavors stay relevant in this very different world?
Gwen Stefani’s new album, This Is What the Truth Feels Like, was at first an odd listen for me as someone who so clearly remembers the power of “Just a Girl” in concert. Obviously, I went into it wanting Gwen to recapture that raw intensity, that anger at the patriarchy, that GRRRL POWER.
This Is What the Truth Feels Like does do a very good job being relevant to today’s music, and while that’s in no way a bad thing I initially found it disappointing. A ton of the songs on the album (“Misery,” “You’re My Favorite,” “Send Me a Picture,” “Asking 4 It”) are super catchy with fun, dance-y hooks and you can easily imagine Taylor Swift or Miley Cyrus or Kelly Clarkson or even for a few fleeting moments Nicki Minaj belting them out. In fact, for a few minutes there I was considering how much today’s female singers have evolved from Gwen’s music, and whether it was possible for Gwen to stand out a whole lot from music that’s derivative of her own.
I was looking for the distinctness, the warbling, the trademark mouthy weirdness of Gwen Stefani, and it does surface to some degree in “Red Flag,” but the song doesn’t hang together quite right for me. And it’s definitely there in “Naughty” and “Me Without You.”
But on a second listen, it was the quieter songs that really spoke to me. I’m not the same person I was in 1996, and neither is Gwen; I have evolved and so has she. And that’s a good thing. She’s become a mother, weathered a very public divorce, opened herself up to someone new (that country singer guy from The Voice; that is literally all I know about Blake Shelton, whose name I had to look up just now). She’s not as hard and loud and as in your face as she once was, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t still powerful, and listening to her lyrics knowing as much as I do about her personal life— which really I have no right to know— well, those lyrics quietly hit home.
I really don’t wanna embarrass myself
and no one’s gonna believe me, (not even myself)
and they’re all gonna say I’m rebounding
From “Used to Love You”:
I don’t know why I cry, but I think it’s ’cause I remembered, for the first time since I hated you
that I used to love you
You thought there were no boundaries
What, you just pushed me too far
I guess nobody taught you
nobody taught you how to love
From “Me Without You”:
I can love whoever I want, say whatever I want, do whatever I want
and now I’m me without you, and things are ’bout to get real good.
So, yes. Give This Is What the Truth Feels Like a listen. If you have tween or teen daughters to listen with you, all the better. This album is, on the surface, a lot of fun. It’s enjoyable. You’ll dance. You’ll sing along. You’ll maybe roll your eyes at a line or two.
But here and there, on a deeper listen, a lyric might sucker punch you in the gut; even as it’s delivered lightly in a lovely voice. Because we’ve all had pain, we’ve all had fear at new beginnings, we’ve all been vulnerable— but Gwen Stefani decided to reveal hers to us in such a public way, and somehow does it without bringing us down. And dang it, even though she’s loved and lost, she is still willing to be vulnerable. She still feels so young and full of vitality. Man, I have a lot of respect for that.
The Gwen Stefani site has limited availability of special bundles.
I participated in this sponsored album review program as a member of One2One Network. I was provided the album to review but all opinions are my own.