Going solo wasn't as easy as Gwen thought it would be.
She'd originally intended to just take a break from No Doubt and make a fun little dance record. But, encouraged by her label boss and others, she'd decided to swing for the fences, and now that she was deep in it, the album suddenly didn't seem like it was going to be all that much fun — and it definitely wasn't going to be little.
Stranded without her longtime bandmates and plagued by writer's block, she nervously turned to a host of producers, songwriters and musicians for creative help. This strategy proved useful, but it had a downside: The music came so easily to everyone else that it made her feel insecure — and jealous. "I've had a hard time with my ego," she said, "because it gets bruised."
After a whole year of work on the album that became Love, Angel, Music, Baby, she had 20 songs in the can. But Gwen still had a nagging feeling that something important was missing. "I could have put the record out," she said. "I had so many songs. But I knew that I kind of had this missing vibe on the album." And she knew she would have to find it.
Who could help her? She'd already worked with every big name she could think of — and after one bout of panic, she'd already resorted to calling in No Doubt bassist Tony Kanal.
So she decided to give it one more try with Pharrell Williams, a man she felt was on her creative wavelength, even though a tentative get-together with Williams early on in the album's production had been a bust. "We didn't have a great session," she recalled. "It didn't have the sparkle."
This creative strikeout nagged at her. "I was like, 'Geez, I can't believe we didn't end up doing something great together.' So I called Pharrell, 'Dude, it's crazy that we didn't do a track together.' The next thing I know, I'm on a plane to New York, booked for seven days in the studio — another week of torture."
Although she was nervous, their first day together was an immediate success. "It was like having a baby," she said (an interesting comment in retrospect: see "Gwen Stefani Confirms Pregnancy While Onstage In Florida"). "I went in there, it was 4 p.m., and by 11 p.m. we had a song.' " The next day they had the same experience, popping out another song with equal ease. "We wrote this second song, and both of us loved it. It sounded like an early, early No Doubt song."
With two songs finished (neither of which made the album's final track listing), a tired but happy Gwen was ready to wrap it up. "But Pharrell said, 'Don't leave yet.' And he started playing me his solo record."
Gwen's green-eyed monster — the one with the bruised ego — nudged her in the right direction. "I was like, 'You are a fricking genius, I can't believe I'm sitting in here with you, right now, and you have those songs! We have got to write another song!' " Gwen recalled, adding with a smile, "I'm greedy!"
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So the pair hunkered down to write their third song in three days. And this time, they finally found the missing vibe.
Gwen had been thinking about what some No Doubt fans might say about her solo effort. "The fans were probably like, 'Why is she doing this record? She's going to ruin everything,' " she said. "And I didn't know why I was doing it either."
So Stefani and Pharrell stayed up all night and came up with a reply — that Gwen didn't have to have an answer for what she was doing, not for the fans, not for anybody. The song was, of course, "Hollaback Girl," and it introduced a new phrase into pop culture. As Gwen recalls, "We looked at each other when we wrote that song and we were like, 'That's it!' It's a song that says, you know, you don't have to answer back. To me, it is the freshest attitude song I've heard in so long."
Pharrell was impressed. "Gwen is like the girl in high school who just had her own style," he said. "Everyone went to high school with that girl — that girl who's just different, right? And she's really cute with it and you can't really say anything about it. You just like it, and it's her."
Those who didn't like Gwen and her cute style only inspired her more. "One time, this person was talking sh-- about me, saying I was like a cheerleader," she recalled, "and I was like, 'You know what? I am a cheerleader [a role she sort of fulfills in the video: see "Pharrell Was Supposed To Battle In Gwen's 'Hollaback': VMAs Behind The Camera". Watch me onstage.' So I wanted a song like that, that was like my 'Just a Girl' song for now. It feels good. It's a slap: It's a slap on the bottom, it's a slap on the face."
Stefani and Williams extended her slap into a storyline, in which "Hollaback Girl" was a high school throwdown, something that could be a cheer at a football game, with fighting words, chanted lyrics, and a marching-band beat, kind of like Queen ("Another One Bites the Dust" is quoted in the song). "Pharrell had some really funny lyrics he wanted me to do," Gwen said. "Usually I'll come up with a lyric, and sometimes he'll have a hook that he wrote that has a word or some lyrics already, but we'd change it because I was like, 'I'm not saying that!' "
"Hollaback Girl" wound up transcending musical boundaries, leaping across all radio formats and cultural barriers and being downloaded more than a million times.
"You can feel the energy around 'Hollaback Girl,' " Gwen said. " 'Don't Speak' was kind of like that. You go to different countries and they feel this song, even though they don't know what you're really saying. 'Hollaback Girl' has this feeling, this massive thing. Like: 'You know who I am? You like my song? Cool, thanks!' "
Even more importantly, Stefani felt that the song was a personal triumph, proving that "if you push, you can come through with a song that captures a moment," she said. "People can try not to like it — they can try real hard. But it's going to be at least a guilty pleasure. Even after you die, that song will live on."
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