Today, Gwen Stefani is a household name. She's sung several number one hits. Two nights a week, her face is on primetime television in front of millions of viewers as one of the coaches on The Voice. Hell, the woman made spelling "banana" a cultural moment.
But Stefani didn't make her mark on the music world immediately. She's been performing since 1986, when she joined a band in her home town of Anaheim called No Doubt. It wasn't until 1996 (a full decade later) that the band had their first number one hit, "Just a Girl," off of their third album, Tragic Kingdom. Only then did No Doubt become mainstream enough for widespread publicity, and Stefani herself began to take the spotlight; she went on to release her first solo album in 2004.
What did critics think of the ska girl turned pop princess in the beginning of her career? Here are some of the earliest mentions of Gwen Stefani I could dig up in a LexisNexis search:
The first reference to Stefani in the New York Times comes in 1996, immediately after the release of Tragic Kingdom, and at the beginning of No Doubt's tour. After seeing the band perform, Jon Pareles wrote an article titled "Girls will be Girls, and So Will Their Fans," touching on how No Doubt appealed to the teenage sensibilities of its audience. He was the first music critic for a national publication to center his show’s review entirely on Stefani’s performance:
As the band played bouncy pop-ska tunes and danced like rubber-limbed cartoon characters, Ms. Stefani sang about romantic setbacks with a diva's vibrato and an imp's playfulness. As she ran and strutted and grinned, her act suggested that no matter what a girl had to put up with, she would prevail.
Pareles' review veers away from criticizing Stefani for anything other than her relationship with the crowd. He doesn't comment on her ability as an artist or her deficiencies on the stage, he only points out how attuned she seems to be to the wants of her crowd.
Objective writing about No Doubt's performances was pretty rare. In 1996, No Doubt was seen as a soon-to-be one-hit wonder and when critics focused on Stefani, it wasn't because she was the front woman of a band with a chart-topping song, it was because they had a problem with the way she behaved. As Elissa Blake wrote for Australian newspaper The Age:
Stefani looked like a trailer-park Madonna swaggering around the stage. Her warbling voice and trashy strut kept the crowd interested, but no amount of on-stage energy could make up for weak songwriting… A furious version of 'Just A Girl' followed, showing that the band can spit out a good song. But it was an exception. Another tour to Australia seems unlikely based on this performance.
Blake's review is fierce. In addition to panning Stefani for her appearance and shaming her for the way she behaved, Blake concluded:
On the strength of one hit single and one insipid album, the only doubt should have been whether to bring this band to Australia at all.
Blake wasn't alone. It seems that almost every music critic had a problem with Stefani in 1996, and not for the entirely legitimate issues of cultural appropriation that would come later, during her solo career.
No, the problem critics seemed to have with Stefani was her behavior. They described her appearance disdainfully, and dismissed her talent quickly. Here's how Mike Boehm did it for the Los Angeles Times:
Even on her best day, nobody will confuse Stefani with a diva. Her voice is rangy but thin, tending toward a shrill, piercing, breathy quality that easily might turn off some listeners. She makes her mark not with her Madonna-esque pipes, but with her flair for theatrics and high-energy entertainment.
Despite her blond beauty and signature bared bellybutton, Stefani's calling card is comedy, not seductive vamping. Adopting a persona that borrows from Lucille Ball and Judy Garland as a wide-eyed Dorothy, she spent her time on stage romping, mugging and playing the sly ingenue who only feigns dizziness.
As 1996 ended, the tide was certainly against Stefani instead of with her. The editors of Rolling Stone voted No Doubt the third worst band of the year, and Stefani often bared the weight of those critiques.
One of the most serious pans of Gwen Stefani based on her behavior comes in a piece written by Karen Schoemer for Newsweek, titled "Skanks, but no skanks: post-grunge divas like Gwen Stefani and Lil' Kim are setting a new standard for icky sexiness." Shoemer asserts that there's no way No Doubt and Garbage would have become popular if their front-women hadn't behaved so lewdly:
One of the most endearing things about Stefani is the way she simultaneously apes both feminist and bimbo stereotypes. "I'm just a girl, all pretty and petite/So don't let me have any rights," she sang in No Doubt's bouncy, peppy single "Just a Girl." It was the year's most ringing declaration of not-quite independence, moderate self-esteem and quasi conviction. But we feel like party poopers complaining about it.
But whether Shoemer liked Stefani's behavior or not, Gwen Stefani was pulling away from the rest of the pack into her own spotlight. She quickly became the most famous member of No Doubt. By the time Rolling Stone interviewed the band in May 1997, the focus was so clearly on Stefani that the other members of the band might as well not have existed. It would be seven more years before Stefani released her debut solo album Love. Angel. Music. Baby. Wonder what the
First Reviews is a series that finds and evaluates early reviews of now-popular and well-respected artists.
Kelsey McKinney is a culture staff writer for Fusion.