Gwen Stefani – Hollaback Girl (2005, Interscope)
Why It’s Perfect: Hate to kick off with an anecdote, but to hell with it. My senior prom was the year this song was on its way to becoming huge. I’ll never forget the way practically every girl in the place hit the floor at the beck of Gwen’s first catcall, the way they no-bullshit stomped out that huge Neptunes beat, stilt-like high heels be damned. Beyond the initial, reptile-brained “Damn” factor of seeing so many dolled up girls getting down, I feel in retrospect like that moment drove a stiletto right through my previous understanding of pop music. Whether you like it or not, Hollaback Girl is the sort of song that forcibly resets your biorhythms to a common time, and there’s a very good chance that no matter what you are doing while Hollaback Girl is on, you will do it either along with or in deliberate opposition to the song.
The track’s construction, of course, is perfect. There’s a tendency to refer to the Neptunes’ signature production style as “skeletal,” given its minimalist aesthetic and the prominence of the beat (the foundation of all hip-hop/contemporary R&B). If the production is indeed skeletal then Hollaback Girl is made of elephant bones, because this beat is as thick as any Williams and Hugo ever devised. Prince has often rightly been cited as the originator of this kind of cyber funk cool, and Hollaback Girl is notable for flipping one of The Artist’s most notable artistic breakthroughs: where Prince replaced the traditional funk horn section with synths and keyboards to create a hypermodern take on the classic sound, the Neptunes have exchanged their traditional synth stabs for the blare of brass. And not just a horn section, but an entire goddamn marching band! Stefani is aiming for Queen-level bombast, as the brief We Will Rock You-quote attests, and the sheer weight and size of the band ensures she strikes true. Of course the “marching band” sound is entirely constructed in the studio, but the way the artists manage to mimic the aesthetic effect (i.e. size, enthusiasm) of a school band is nonetheless impressive. Combined with the mesmerizingly circular guitar figure and those evaporating bass plunges during the verses and you’ve got a track fit for club and grandstand alike.
Stefani’s lyrics are, of course, nonsense, but as far as this song goes that’s completely appropriate; anything of substance over such a purposefully dumb, blunt beat would be absurd and incongruous. She offers a focal point for your voice just as the music offers a blueprint for your feet and hips: hard, (playfully) aggressive and, above all, energetic. Not that any of that had anything whatsoever to do with the way this song slowly converted me, back in those last dwindling days of adolescence.
Defining Moment: One of those tracks where it’s all in the intro. The drum sample is so ridiculously crunchy and compressed that they might’ve gotten it by chucking a snare into a garbage compacter.
Other Great Songs by Gwen Stefani: Gwen of the Immortal Abs has a really spotty solo discog, obviously, but there are a few gems here and there. The Sweet Escape gives Hollaback Girl a fairly serious run for her best, and What You Waiting For? is an awesome dance-rock fusion that shames most of No Doubt’s attempts in the same direction. Oh, and Eve’s Let Me Blow Ya Mind (which Stefani features on) is still a fantastic tune, if anyone was wondering.