Collectively Exhaustive: Growing Up Gay & Gwen Stefani
When I was five years old — not long after my parents broke-up — I went through a phase of shoplifting. Nothing major: Cherry Drops and Fry’s chocolate bars that I’d hide under my bed, untouched like miniature minty corpses, rendering the whole practice pointless. When my mum found out, she booked me in for an appointment with our parish priest, then took me to the police station to put the fear of God in me. It worked, and I’ve been a paying customer ever since. At the time of my misdemeanour, the song “Don’t Speak” by No Doubt was number one in the charts and constantly on the radio. I had no idea who No Doubt were, but this song gave me butterflies — the balance of seduction and desperation in the leader singer’s voice, the sinister-sounding minor keys which made me feel emotional and indulgent in my guilt. I subconsciously linked “Don’t Speak” to my time as the Artful Dodger, and even hearing it now makes my stomach flip with anxiety; a kind of guilty pleasure.
Fast forward five years to a Saturday afternoon in 2001. My butt is rooted to the carpet in my mum’s friend’s living room, jaw slack and the remote laying lifeless in my hand. Granted, it was the music and the pawprints on Eve’s boobs that first drew my attention to the TV screen. But what kept me there, legs crossed in the centre of the carpet for four minutes, fourteen seconds (and probably longer to be honest - gaze cemented into the middle distance, processing what I’d just witnessed), was Gwen Stefani. Eve & Gwen’s song Let Me Blow Ya Mind had just been released, and its music video did just that.
A few months prior, I’d been to my primary school disco at the local football club, feeling proud as punch because my new “big sister” was in attendance: the daughter of my dad’s girlfriend, who worked at the venue. She’d given me some costume jewellery and a tiara from a goody bag she didn’t want, and I was passing the evening swanning around the club with the distinguished air of a newly coronated Queen. During my royal circuit, I spotted a girl in the car park outside who seemed much older than me (so probably twelve) vomiting into a bush. She must have been drunk — which in itself is quite a dark situation for a tween at a school disco - and even though I didn’t yet know about alcohol-induced vomiting, nor bulimia, I instinctively knew she was in a scary and unsafe situation devoid of adults. I sensed her vulnerability in that moment, whereas before, my imagination had conjured her as a cool, calculated enigma. She was alone in the cold: waif-thin, toddling about in a tight gold dress and heels. I instantly got an overwhelming urge to look after her. Her cat-like features had an evil look about them and ironically it was this above anything else that made me want to protect her. Knowing I was too young to do so, my tummy flipped aggressively as I averted my eyes and went back to the dancefloor to join my classmates. Although I never saw her again, I thought about her on and off for the next year or so. I’m not sure why I was so drawn to wanting to save this strong, cruel-looking girl from danger (in my bizarre, childish reverie, she was not someone who usually wanted nor needed help, yet just desperately did on this occasion. I’ve never been into the victim type). But a few months later — during an ‘away’ netball match at the school I’d heard she attended — I imagined us being present at a stabbing, or a kidnapping, or an illicit incident involving a stolen car in a dangerous estate during the early hours. In my daydream I’d arrive to interrupt the raucous, taking her hand to lead her away and whisk her into safety (with this level of fantasy going on, it was no wonder I was always Wing Defence).
Anyway, back to this video, from which I couldn’t tear my eyes away. As Eve & Gwen took over the freeway on their motors; the ink black sky lit by both the traffic lights behind them and the promise of hedonism in front of them as they sped towards their plans to crash an upper class function, my jejunum did backflips and all blood flow to my stomach restricted. I was frozen to the spot as my arms and legs coursed with adrenaline. It was this lady’s chola-adopted style, her doe-eyed lazy face. The way she moved like milk. The pillarbox red of her Hollywood lips; dark flick of eyeliner. With her shoulders pinned back by some invisible restriction - like the impact of being eternally pushed against a wall and kissed — Gwen strutted confidently into a room full of suits, fascinators and canapes, pushing a woman off the microphone so she could grab it and sing to the room; her tight, undulating torso seducing a room of people she didn’t care about. The coquettish, nasal voice that poured from her throat suggested sex in a way I didn’t yet understand, but nevertheless stirred something deep in my belly. She simply did not give a fuck.
Not when she abandoned her car in the middle of the road after a casual shrug of the shoulders because the dirt bike Eve was summoning her towards looked more appealing, not when an aristocrat rudely bumped into her, not when she was arrested for disrupting the bourgeois. She merely chewed her gum and tossed dirty looks at her offenders, leaned against the wall for her mugshot, too lazy and superior to react. My favourite thing about her was not her bleach blonde hair, nor her chic black beret, nor the fact she thought a red and white striped string bikini was an appropriate outfit for a dinner party. It was the way her front teeth were pushed in slightly, perfectly white and slightly vamp-ish. The crimson and black of the visuals were an added aphrodisiac that made the whole scene pop.
Gwen Stefani was definitely not a victim, I deduced. I would love to rescue her the one time she needed it. Oh to be her Dr. Dre, pouring bail money out onto the sheriff’s table and the reason for the mischievous outburst of freedom that broke out in her laughter which ended not only the video, but the sexiest four minutes of my life so far. (I was ten.)
Being young and not yet familiar with this genre of music, I had thought this Gwen Stefani lady was a superficial addition to a song that was ultimately Eve’s; a token blonde who didn’t really know the meaning of the words she was singing. Obviously this is untrue and I had bought into the stereotypes of hip-hop and R&B that were prevalent in the early Millennium - but I was a child - and my assumption, however incorrect, made her more endearing to me. A flashback to the girl getting sick in the bushes at the school disco — trying to be cool but out of place.
It was years before I found out that this same vixen was in fact the front woman of No Doubt, who sang the soundtrack to my chocolatey childhood crime. But when I did, it just further cemented into my psyche the idea that there was an inherent link between sexiness and the forbidden…