Monday, September 8, 2008

No Doubt - Rock Steady

No Doubt - Rock Steady
by Theon Weber

The best explanation for my love of Rock Steady is my dislike of No Doubt. The idea, as far as I can tell, was that they were a poppy, ska-ish band with a singer who thought women should be allowed to vote; since this was the mid-90s, we had half a million other bands for better pop, the great Bikini Kill for better suffrage, and I'm sure we had something for better ska only I don't know because I sort of hate it. (Nevertheless, I'm as fond of some of No Doubt's early apocrypha, particularly The Beacon Street Collection, as I am of Rock Steady). The Superball stutter built around "Just a Girl" is a revelation, Tragic Kingdom's title track has lyrics so crazybad (“midgets who disguise themselves as tiny little dwarves”) they make my hair stand up, which is an endorsement, and “Bathwater” we'll get to; but "Don't Speak" always bored me; “Simple Kind of Life” didn't have much besides an interestingly droning structure; and there are better ringtones than “Spiderwebs”.

There are a lot of bands like this - talented, hardworking, a genuine unit, never quite more than second-tier - and what sometimes happens on the way to their being subsumed by their leaders - I winced for Tony Kanal and company when Gwen Stefani's solo song with the line "take a chance you stupid ho" got giddier praise and doomier hate than anything they'd done together - is they turn into dilettantes for an album or two. (See Garbage, a better 90s rock band with even more anonymous non-girls, whose third album had a Phil Spector ripoff and a Nikka Costa doppleganger and a song where Shirley Manson rapped, and a lot of sort of boring people were disappointed.) Rock Steady, a pop album by a rock band fronted by a woman already auditioning harajuku girls, opens with a Neptunes dance track that grants a good long scratch to an itch the indelible bassline of "Bathwater" had previously only flicked with a nail, hustles Ric Ocasek into the studio to record a couple fake Cars songs (one of which, the half-parody "Platinum Blonde Life", is possibly the best straightforward rock song this band ever wrote), and finds time for one sublime slow jam ("Underneath It All", the best song of any kind this band ever wrote). Prince shows up near the end. The album is a band's last confused gasp before disintegrating, and it has the insouciant, voracious charm of - here's something neat - the loathed film adaptation of Tank Girl, a messy movie that can come across as slapdash exploitation of the precise third-wave-feminist aesthetic No Doubt used to be into. I sort of adore this movie, because it's the kind of movie where Tank Girl escapes from a brothel by having everyone burst into a Busby Berkeley number to "Let's Do It", and also Malcolm McDowell has an electric head.

Everyone knows what too many cooks do, but it's hard to spoil a broth you didn't particularly like, and like Tank Girl No Doubt's swan song puts the hyperactive urge to do a whole bunch of stuff above everything - above cohesion, respect, meaning, fanservice. (It should be noted that this is awfully punk.) An older friend of mine complained when it came out that No Doubt was "gradually regressing"; that the next album would have them singing "nothing but baby sounds". I'm not sure that this wouldn't be great; I'm not sure what poetry's been lost. He accused me of fetishizing bad art, which was legitimate; the 1989 Nintendo-sponsored film The Wizard is a pretty flabbergasting experience and I recommend it to everyone, but I look askance at the urge to put on a smug grin and tell you it's good. Rock Steady actually is good, not badgood, which is an important distinction because it's the difference between respecting an artist and enjoying a fluke. I respect Tank Girl because there's a part where Lori Petty asks Naomi Watts why she always covers her mouth when she smiles. I respect No Doubt because their forty minutes in a consumerist funhouse, yanking producers and synth presets and personas from the shelves like Hot Wheels, feel joyous and democratic even as the limo waits for Gwen outside - and because of "Underneath It All", which coos and flatters and sways like a half-stoned Marilyn Monroe, and ends up much warmer, much more mimetic of real snuggles and slow dances, than the vague angst of "Don't Speak". This album is the best disintegration can sound.

Theon Weber is a Stylus Magazine alumnus who writes occasionally for the Village Voice, Portland Mercury, and Blender. He lives in Portland, Oregon, on homemade omelettes.



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