No doubt old Gwen better

June 10, 2007


Back in the '90s, Gwen Stefani retained a surprising amount of artistic credibility while turning No Doubt from underground ska-punk heroes into a chart-topping pop group.

But the peroxide-blond singer threw all that away in favor of a charade -- she's a 37-year-old mom pretending to be a jailbait Kewpie doll/sex kitten -- while launching a pandering bubblegum-dance solo career that's been even more successful.

Stefani sold 7 million copies of "Love, Angel, Music, Baby" (2004) and scored another hit with the Radio Disney crowd on last year's follow-up, "The Sweet Escape." It's doubtful that any of the 20,000 'tweens at the First Midwest Bank Amphitheatre Friday even knew there was an earlier, better Gwen. And that's sad.

Vocally challenged
The Stefani they got left no showbiz cliche unturned. She changed costumes for every tune, hyping her designer line. She employed flashy lights, hokey videos and gyrating dancers -- her "Harajuku Girls." She swore that Chicago was the best audience ever ("The only reason I'm here is to see you guys sing these songs to me!"). She even sang a tune from the midst of her "peeps" on the lawn, prompting venue security to prohibit everyone from leaving their seats to go to the bathroom for half an hour before this "spontaneous" stunt.

Meanwhile, the vocally challenged star -- think Betty Boop on helium, or a more annoying Madonna circa "Material Girl" -- screeched, squeeked and yelped, mercilessly slaughtering genres from hip-hop (the execrable "Yummy") to quiet storm R&B ("Luxurious"), and from bombastic '80s balladry ("Early Winter") to Bizarro World show tunes ("Rich Girl," "Wind It Up").

Call me b-a-n-a-n-a-s, but I just don't hear solo Stefani's charms. As bubblegum goes, give me Hilary Duff, Joss Stone, Avril Lavigne, Pink or Ashlee Simpson. And hey, Hollaback Girl, when you reunite with No Doubt and begin recording next month, give me the Gwen of old.

Akon behaves himself
The tour's opening acts have both generated negative headlines recently: British rapper Lady Sovereign (a k a "Feminem") for onstage hissy fits and cussing up a storm, and Senegalese-American rapper Akon for allegedly throwing one fan off the stage and dirty dancing with another (an underage girl). Both were on good behavior Friday, but only one was good musically.

If Lady Sov wasn't as powerful as she's been at earlier Chicago shows, she was still a fiery presence, building her 25-minute set to a rambunctious climax with a cover of the Sex Pistols' "Pretty Vacant" and the title track of her recent album, "Public Warning."

Akon was less impressive, delivering slight but catchy hits such as "Smack That" and padding his half-hour performance with left side/right side shtick and a showcase for lame female proteges Brick and Lace. But at least nobody flew off the stage, and skeptics weren't barred from walking away.