Stefani bland, but Peas are sweet


October 30, 2005


Gwen Stefani and the Black Eyed Peas certainly share the same demographic appeal: Their sold-out bill at the Allstate Arena Friday night was the social event of the season for every 13-year-old girl in the Chicago area. But the two chart-topping acts otherwise seems to have traded roles.

Gwen Stefani is a white pop star who has scored her biggest success by trying to sound like a black rapper or R&B diva, while the Black Eye Peas are a once-credible hip-hop act that has "gone pop" and topped the charts by courting the white bubblegum audience and freely quoting rock and pop licks.

As the leader of pop-rockers No Doubt, Stefani, who has always had a severely limited and screechy voice, was nonetheless an undeniable force onstage thanks to her irrepressible energy. But there was nary a hint of that on this tour, as she posed and preened her way through an overly choreographed, extravagantly staged and thoroughly soulless arena spectacle worthy of Madonna.

Meanwhile, the Black Eyed Peas -- who were once relatively unimpressive performers, back before they added the flamboyant female figurehead Fergie -- overcame the limitations of their shticky material and the fact that none of the four front members can rap, and they succeeded on the strength of sheer exuberance.

It was impossible to stay in your seat as the openers grooved, bounced and mugged their way through dumb but fun hip-pop hits such as "Where Is the Love," "Let's Get It Started" (which they delivered in its original, non-politically correct, unedited for radio form as "Let's Get Retarded") and the sexy smash "My Humps," which found Fergie gyrating in ways that this critic has never seen, and which he didn't think were anatomically possible.

With its displays of break-dancing, call-and-response chants and a breakbeat percussion solo delivered a la "Stomp," this was a hip-hop primer for clueless kids as staged by a cartoonish theater troupe on a Saturday afternoon at a local shopping mall. But the group was clearly reveling in the joke, tossing in surf licks and quoting Guns N' Roses' "Sweet Child O' Mine" and Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit."

Like single-handedly drinking a 12-pack of beer, the Black Eyed Peas' set was probably reckless and irresponsible, definitely devoid of nutritional content and possibly something that cost concertgoers brain cells they will never recover. But it was also a heck of a great party.

In contrast, Stefani was entirely too sober and joyless as she segued from one grand vignette to another, her singing a secondary consideration to her frequent costume changes. (Look, she's a pirate! Now she's an old-fashioned bathing beauty! How about the gangsta prison get-up! And say, isn't that Jean Harlow?)

The best moments in her set were the most incongruous, when she did her silly but fun turn as a wannabe b-girl with "Hollaback Girl" and "Crash." But with only one solo album to her credit, she had to pad her 14-song, 90-minute set with subpar material from her record (including the dreadful "Rich Girl," with its chorus borrowed from "Fiddler on the Roof") and lame new material such as the single "Luxurious" (a transparent attempt to update "Material Girl") and "Orange County Girl" (a self-serving autobiographical celebration of her wonderfulness).

Quoting the inscrutable lyrics of "Hollaback Girl," Stefani's fans are fond of saying her concerts are "bananas." But in their current pairing, the Black Eyed Peas, the band that brought us "Monkey Business," is eating Gwen alive.