Popus is a SiftThru feature in which we chew on pop songs to get to the marrow of what makes them musically enchanting and culturally significant.
The big question for any commanding lead vocalist of a successful band is less if he or she will release a solo album, but more so when. After all, countless frontmen and women break away from the comfort of their units, whether it be temporarily or permanent, to mixed results. When it came to Gwen Stefani, the bombastic voice of No Doubt, the music world practically begged for her to craft an album under her own name.
When No Doubt exploded on to the mainstream music scene in 1995 with a blaze of horns and high kicks, the world fell in love with Gwen. The band gained a cult following with their first two records, a self-titled album released in 1992 and The Beacon Street Collection in 1995. Of course, it was No Doubt's third album Tragic Kingdom that landed them on stages and screens across the globe. With songs like the raucous "Spiderwebs" and feminist anthem "Just a Girl," No Doubt stood out for the right reasons. They turned the notion that rock music had to be aggressive and masculine into an androgynous, nebulous sound that permeated through every demographic.
As the band's sound and presence evolved, so did Gwen. Other artists began to recognize Gwen's versatility and requested her voice on their songs. Her most notable early collaborations included Moby's dark and groovy "South Side," with Gwen on glorious harmonies, and Eve's "Let Me Blow Ya Mind," which wouldn't be what it is without Gwen's hook. Both tracks made Billboard's year end chart in 2001, and paved the way for Gwen and the other members of No Doubt to explore a more pop-centric sound. The result, 2001's Rocksteady, abandoned most of the Ska elements that trademarked their band in favor of reggae-tinged guitars and 80s synths.
When the group finished promoting and touring Rocksteady, news began to trickle out about a long-awaited Gwen Stefani solo project. First it was MTV revealing Gwen was working with pop rock hit-maker Linda Perry, who'd helped P!nk and Christina Aguilera freshen up their respective sophomore efforts. At first, Gwen felt naked without her bandmates and the sessions were unproductive.
That was until "What You Waiting For?" began to take form. It's been ten years since the song was first released. With Gwen's recent return as a solo artist, and given where pop music finds itself today, it's easy to appreciate the inventiveness and confessional nature of "What You Waiting For?" The song opens with a smokey, jazz intro, lulling you into a false sense of serenity. Immediately, Gwen sets the narrative for what is one of the most personal pop songs ever created. "What You Waiting For?" served as the lead single from Gwen's first solo album, 2004's Love. Angel. Music. Baby.
What an amazing time
What a family
How did the years go by?
Now it's only me
After the the intro fades away, a hammering new wave beat erupts with Gwen singing "Tick tock" in time, vocalizing the pressure and imagined time limit on her career and maternal clock. Produced by Nelle Hooper, who'd worked on songs with Bjork and Madonna, the music sounds like the rabbit from Alice In Wonderland hurriedly heading to his very important date. Gwen even went with an Alice-themed video for the song. Then comes the opening line of the first verse, which quotes an actual critique of Gwen's voice: "Like a cat in heat, stuck in a moving car." That's how the conversation between opposing voices in Gwen's head begins. She sings in different pitches to represent the conflicting feelings she had while deciding whether or not to pursue a solo career. "A scary conversation."
The voices battle throughout the song to be heard. The positive - "Take a chance, you might grow" - and the negative - "Take a chance you stupid hoe." The optimism becomes more prominent as the song progresses, and Gwen's voice fluctuates to express the tug-of-war, with dramatic rises and falls that match the frantic beat. With so much going on in the verses, Gwen and Perry used the chorus as an opportunity to ground it all. Gwen repeatedly sings what everyone, including herself, is asking: "What you waiting for?"
Look at your watch now!
You're still a super hot female!
You got your million dollar contract!
And they're all waiting for your hot track!
The making of "What You Waiting For?" also birthed the controversial Harajuku Girls, Gwen's back-up dancers named after the album and who followed her everywhere during its promotion. During the bridge of the song, Gwen celebrates the Harajuku Girls and fantasizes about newfound popularity in Japan. In the context of the narrative, it's Gwen coming to terms with the idea of a solo career and even getting excited about what opportunities it could bring.
The final chorus leads into the aggressive voice winning over.
Take a chance you stupid hoe
Thankfully, she did. Chart-wise, the song didn't make a huge dent. On October 16th 2004, "What You Waiting For?" debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 at 97, and reached a peak of 47 by November 27th 2004. Still, Love. Angel. Music. Baby. spawned six memorable singles, including another duet with Eve called "Rich Girl" and the inescapable jock jam "Hollaback Girl." These songs were more successful than "What You Waiting For?," most likely due to their straightforward approach to pop. "What You Waiting For?"'s eccentricities made it stand out on radio, and makes it stand out today.
The worldwide success lead to Gwen making a second solo album, The Sweet Escape, in 2006 which didn't have the same impact as her first. This month, Gwen released her first solo song since then. "Baby Don't Lie" re-contextualizes Gwen's brand of pop in 2014, and with collaborations with Pharrell and Charli XCX being considered for the album, there's no doubt she'll once again rock the pop world.