i originally published this on tumblr in response to a lot of gwen stefani love i’ve seen going around on my dashboard lately. i find it difficult to have engaging conversations on that platform, so i thought i’d repost it here.
images not unlike this one circulate around tumblr and the web, often tagged as “inspiration” or “riot grrrl” and “hero.” tinged with a taste of nostalgia for the days of our youth, our budding critical thinking ways, and our need to look up to and admire someone who told people not to be shitty to her just because she was a girl.
i stumbled upon a gif of stefani singing in the “sunday morning” video, with the lyrics “sappy pathetic little me” in the caption. this is new radio posted it with this statement underneath:
I think the absolute best revenge on an ex-boyfriend is write songs about how he wronged you and then HE HAS TO PLAY THEM.
i had to chew on this for a second. yeah, i have to say that sounds like pretty sweet revenge. but… what about this situation? we’re talking about no doubt here, and the relationship between gwen and bassist tony kanal.
the thing is?
gwen stefani is kind of an asshole. i mean, what’s the worst thing tony kanal did? she’s the one who got famous, and he is always in the background (i mean he is the bassist and he is, from my recollection of teen magazines, shy and quiet). meanwhile, her stock kind of skyrockets. she profits from being an “it girl” in both the music and fashion industries, and ends up making bindis and saris popular for a hot minute in the 90s. i literally know nothing about their relationship/breakup other than the fact that it inspired the tragic kindgom record. am i wrong in wondering why she deserves “revenge?” correct me if i’m totally out of line here…
but you might be wondering… why do i think gwen stefani is an asshole?
let me count the ways. ananya mukherjea breaks it down in her essay indo-chic:
Somewhere around 1995, the band No Doubt, with its energetic, effervescent, cute lead-“just-a-girl” Gwen Stefani hit MTV (and North American hearts everywhere) hard. The story was this: the guitarist was this Indian-Californian boy named Tony Kanal and was the love of Gwen’s life for a few years until he dumped her (for being “too clingy”) just before the production of their mega-hit album, breaking her heart. Consequently, every song on the album is written about their break-up and her heart-break. She moved on, eventually, to that guy from Bush; but her sexual/ emotional brush with the East remained significant.
It was there in all these songs, in the interviews where she discussed her fallen relationship at length, and in the videos where she crooned at Tony (who remained silent throughout). Most visibly, it was there in her fashion— in her ever-present bindi and in the expensive sari’s she wrapped around her waist sarong-style, matched with a little bustier. No one ever talked about Tony being Indian (that would be strange and irrelevant, no?) or discussed the myriad complexities of inter-racial romance (again, a different story) or even articulated which subcontinent her fashion was borrowed from (but, why?)… her bindi and sari fabric were just quirky, “new,” and cute— like Gwen, herself. My much-maligned bindi looked attractive, it seemed, on Gwen’s racially different face; and the implicit message seemed to be that the dark and silent Tony had squandered his chance with this girl who featured fusion-sexy (white skin, American attitude, exotic style) so temptingly well.
there are countless other examples (let us not forget that fuckery around literally silencing asian women but using them as props with the harajuku girls) and i’ve definitely got other questions about no doubt (why were the black horn section players never seen as part of the band? why is it okay for a popular californian ska/rock/pop band to just jump from culture to culture to culture for musical and sartorial inspiration?) but in this case, this is the one that comes to mind.
i’m not gonna lie, gwen stefani was a big deal to me when i was a teenager. i blame it on the dearth of strong female musicians in the mainstream rock scene in the 90s – at least for a kid growing up on military bases and whose access to music severly limited. remember, we’re talking about the pre-internet days here. when i think back, i have a hard time remembering what it is i loved about her… i suppose she was one of the first people i saw mimicking style icons of the silent screen, and i loved that she was still boyish and tough while wearing makeup.
unsurprisingly, she was quickly de-throned when i discovered punk music and riot grrl… but still, in ‘96 she was super important to me. it wasn’t until she went solo/i got older that i started realizing how blatantly appropriative she was/is, and i still don’t feel like she’s been properly taken to task on it.
if this 90s revivalism shit keeps picks up any more steam, it looks like i’m going to have to be the one to do it.