Wolf In L.A.M.B. 's Clothing

Gwen Stefani struts a new persona with every wardrobe change.

Gwen Stefani
Gwen Stefani, vamping it up at Wolstein Center. - Walter  Novak
Gwen Stefani, vamping it up at Wolstein Center.
Half Betty Boop, half Rosie the Riveter, Gwen Stefani shook her ass and her fists at the crowd. "I was thinking we could get to know the Cleveland boys a little better tonight," she purred midway through her set at the Wolstein Center last Thursday, enjoining all the fellas in the house to sing along to the dizzy, innuendo-laced "Crash."

Then it was the ladies' turn. As Stefani goaded the females to join her in song, the place erupted with the sound of girls stretching their vocal cords like wet taffy.

Clearly, this night belonged to all the young gals in attendance, who outnumbered the boys three to one. Throngs of 'tweens with sparkling earrings and glittering tiaras huddled in the rafters, their moms perched a few rows away. For many of the girls, this was their first concert, and Stefani seemed to realize as much, making her stage show a fantasia of bubble machines, illuminated hearts, and one wardrobe change after another. Like a young girl rooting through her mother's closet, Stefani tried on everything from vintage swimsuits to beaded evening gowns.

Through it all, Stefani attempted to strike a balance between being a blond temptress with blow-dried, Marilyn Monroe hair and the tough rock chick who scored her first hit, with her band No Doubt, by railing against the stereotype of being "Just a Girl."

Stefani's appeal is rooted in her ability to seem both vulnerable and in charge. She has a pouty, come-hither voice that's as slinky as the dresses she wears on the red carpet. But when she sings, she punches the air with her fists and thrusts her hips at the crowd, rolling her shoulders and strutting about the stage like a wide receiver celebrating a touchdown. She carries herself like a tomboy, but has the look of a prom queen. She calls herself a "super hot female" and a "stupid ho'" on the same track.

Stefani's solo debut, Love, Angel, Music, Baby, is a pointedly superficial record, full of fluffy pop tunes and chest-thumping dance numbers. She frequently mines '80s new wave for her DayGlo pop songs, and they bear many of the earmarks of that era: outsized synth lines, tinny-sounding electronic drums, and occasional use of the keytar. L.A.M.B. is a pop pixie stick, meant to provide a quick sugar rush, not any real sustenance, and Stefani's live show is much the same.

High-stepping in designer threads across a three-tiered stage, Stefani was backed by bright, Japanime visuals and footage of dancing monkeys. She was complemented by four Harajuku girls in shiny skirts and tight black tops. They danced and did jumping jacks behind Stefani nearly the entire show, working the stage next to a crew of four B-boys. It was fun, silly, and decadent, the musical equivalent of eating Twinkies for dinner. No wonder so many young kids showed up to gorge on the sweetness.

Of course, Stefani still sang about sex. But unlike, say, early Madonna, Stefani kept her hot talk less overt. "Crash into me baby, real hard," she moans on "Crash," over a crackling old-school hip-hop beat. On "Serious," she's lovesick and in need of a remedy. "I think I'm coming down with something," she tells her man, "I know it gonna need your medicine." When addressing her carnality, Stefani borrows a page from classic romantic comedies, in which sexual situations were alluded to symbolically, with images of a train barreling into a tunnel and such. Even when she's being tawdry, her tunes still seem pretty tame.

Stefani doesn't have many peers in contemporary pop. There are plenty of bombshells who flaunt their sexuality (Jessica Simpson, Christina Aguilera) and others who attempt to get by on an aw-shucks earnestness (Ashlee Simpson, Kelly Clarkson). But there are few who tread a middle ground between the two, and no one who does it with as much command as Stefani. Her music may seem trivial -- and it is -- but it gains resonance with an arena full of young girls screaming along to songs about being a well-heeled badass.

Ending the show with her hit "Hollaback Girl," Stefani invited fans to come up and sing the song's refrain with her. Swarmed by beaming young ladies, she got lost in the crowd. For a second there, you couldn't tell her apart from all the other giddy, smiling girls jumping up and down onstage. And that was the point.

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