“It’s good to see you now with someone else”: Hope and Heartache in Gwen Stefani’s ‘Cool’

You wouldn’t necessarily guess listening to Gwen Stefani’s Love. Angel. Music. Baby. (2004) how much she cried making it. The No Doubt frontwoman had first considered recording a solo album during the band’s Rock Steady Tour in 2002. One morning between shows, she heard Club Nouveau’s “Why You Treat Me So Bad?” from 1987—you’ll recognize it as the precursor to “I Got 5 on It,” the song that was featured heavily in Jordan Peele’s Us (2019)—and something just clicked. Gwen “turned to [bandmate Tony] Kanal over breakfast and said, ‘I want to do that song,’” reported Jenny Eliscu in a 2005 Rolling Stone piece. What she meant was the sort of pop she listened to as a high schooler in the ‘80s—Prince, Depeche Mode, New Order, Madonna. “It was Kanal, after all, who had introduced her to that kind of music when the two were teenage sweethearts,” Eliscu wrote. The idea crystallized in Gwen’s mind: why not work on an ‘80s-inspired dance record as a side project? She pictured something fun and low-key, “with Tony in his bedroom and the two of us singing in a microphone.” 

But at some point, Gwen bounced the idea off of producer Jimmy Iovine, whose vision for such a record—not to mention his definition of “side project”—was rather different. Shortly after the tour ended, Gwen’s phone rang. “Linda Perry is ready, she’s in the studio and waiting for you,” she remembers someone from Iovine’s Interscope Records telling her. Some musicians would kill for a call like this, but the timing was all wrong for Gwen. As she later explained, “I wanted to do a record but I also wanted to sleep really bad! I wanted to take a break and was really burned out.” She made it to the studio to meet with the 4 Non Blondes singer-songwriter and producer, but not until she’d had a good sob: “I literally cried in my bed because I was scared.”

In fairness to Gwen, there were good reasons to be. For one, she’d spent almost two decades making music with her bandmates—her “little comfort zone,” as she once called them. There was also the issue of her age: the average woman in pop doesn’t wait until 34 to record her first solo project, especially not one who’d been talking about settling down and having babies since No Doubt’s breakthrough in the ‘90s. Not surprisingly, Gwen’s first session with Perry proved unsuccessful; they called it a day after the former broke down again in the studio. “I’m just thinking like, ‘What is she waiting for? This is the moment,’” Perry would recall in 2014. And with that, inspiration struck: she stayed up all night writing a song that tackled Gwen’s uncertainty head-on. Perry “didn’t even say anything” to Gwen when she arrived for work the next morning; “[she] just pushed play, and then [they] got to work on the melody and the lyrics.”

“What You Waiting For?” would kick off Love. Angel. Music. Baby. (or L.A.M.B.) a year and a half later. No Doubt had decided to go on hiatus, which gave Gwen an opportunity to finish the album in earnest. It sold half a million copies in its first two weeks and would eventually be nominated for Album of the Year at the 2006 Grammys. All three components of its lead single’s making-of story—Gwen’s burnout, her songwriting woes, and her ambivalence about the project in the first place—were dramatized for its Francis Lawrence-directed video. Drawing heavily from Alice in Wonderland (a perfect reference point for something that needed to have crying in it), the video incorporated everything from the post-tour phone calls from Iovine to the ticking of Gwen’s biological clock. (“Your moment will run out ‘cause of your sex chromosome” referred as much to her fertility as it did her being a woman in the public eye.)  

It also marked the debut of the Harajuku Girls, four Japanese and Japanese-American women—Maya Chino (“Love”), Jennifer Kita (“Angel”), Rino Nakasone (“Music”) and Mayuko Kitayama (“Baby”)—who, as Anne Helen Petersen wrote for BuzzFeed, “trailed [Gwen] during promotional tours, shifting expressions in union, seemingly on cue.” Indeed, the only thing that defined Gwen’s L.A.M.B. era more than crying was cultural appropriation. After “What You Waiting For?” came David LaChapelle’s “Rich Girl” video, then the Paul Hunter-directed one for “Hollaback Girl.” The Harajuku Girls returned for both, but were again used largely as background fodder. These first three videos established Gwen’s image as a solo artist, one of a culture-hopping “blond sex symbol.” It wasn’t all that different from her No Doubt image, really: as Petersen put it, Gwen was already known for her “magpie-like tendency to absorb the fashions around her,” like when she started wearing saris and a bindi after spending time around Tony Kanal’s India-born mother. Some of her choices during the L.A.M.B. era were plainly racist, like the fact that “What You Waiting For?” sampled what’s known as the “Oriental riff.” (You can hear it most clearly in the instrumental version of the song, at 2:15.) A later video from the album, Sophie Muller’s “Luxurious,” was arguably the most appropriative: to quote Julianne Escobedo Shepherd, it “placed [Gwen] as the only (blonde, glimmering) white chola at a Mexican American barbecue.”

There was only one video from L.A.M.B. that didn’t fetishize any cultures or use people of colour as props, and it happened to be the only one other than “What You Waiting For?” to mine Gwen’s personal life for inspiration. A few months before she helmed “Luxurious,” Muller directed the video for “Cool,” which my friend Anna recently described to me as “the song version of the end of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.” Anna ruined my night when she said this, but she’s right: the 1964 Jacques Demy musical follows a man and woman—Guy (Nino Castelnuovo) and Geneviève (Catherine Deneuve)—who fall in love, are separated by war, marry other people out of convenience despite having conceived a daughter, and encounter one another at a gas station years later. Geneviève has done exceedingly well for herself; Guy doesn’t want to meet his child but wishes them both well; he watches as their car pulls away before returning to his own family. To explain what all of this has to do with “Cool,” I’ll need to say a few words about the man who helped inspire L.A.M.B. in the first place: Mr. Tony Kanal.  

“The first time [Gwen] saw [Tony], stepping out of his silver car, carrying his bass, wearing Mexican sandals and baggy pants, his hair sticking out over his forehead, she immediately knew,” wrote Chris Heath in a 1997 Rolling Stone profile of No Doubt. The couple dated for seven years, from high school all the way until 1994, when Tony suddenly asked to break up. By all accounts, Gwen was devastated: “For a long time, even after it was supposed to be over, she would make him kiss her,” wrote Heath. “That’s why we stayed together for such a long time,” Gwen added. “Because he was such a good friend to me that he could never hurt me. Even though he was already killing me, just by me knowing he didn’t want to be with me.” Rather than break the band up, too, No Doubt opted to make music about the split, using songwriting as a kind of therapy. “Don’t Speak” was the most successful track that fell under this umbrella, spending a record-breaking 16 weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100 Airplay chart. 

The breakup was also alluded to often in the band’s videos, from “Don’t Speak” to “Sunday Morning.” Even in the ones for “Simple Kind of Life” and “Ex-Girlfriend,” songs that Gwen had reportedly written about new boyfriend Gavin Rossdale, Tony played the male lead. (There’s a dream sequence moment in “Simple Kind of Life” where Gwen finds a brown baby in the street that she’s forced to hand off to someone else.) “Don’t Speak,” “Simple Kind of Life,” and “Sunday Morning” were all directed by Sophie Muller, which meant that when the band went on hiatus in 2004, she’d helmed nearly every video in the Gwen and Tony breakup saga. When it came time for Gwen to promote L.A.M.B., Muller was called in for one more. 

Gwen hadn’t been looking to infuse any more of her personal life into her solo project, especially not after the nightmare that was writing its lead single. But one day in the studio, producer Dallas Austin presented her with a half-finished song that he’d been struggling with for some time. It was inspired by an ex-girlfriend with whom he considered himself “not ‘just friends’ but the best of friends.” The story “triggered something” in Gwen: she finished the song in less than 15 minutes. “Cool” is a hopeful, if sad, synth-pop track that served as the album’s fourth single. While it’s addressed to an ex who’s technically left nameless, there are multiple nods to Tony in the lyrics. “Remember Harbor Boulevard,” she sings at one point, referring to the Orange County neighbourhood where he lived during high school. Gwen told one interviewer that the song “[put] an end to a chapter in a really nice way,” but the video she had Sophie Muller make for it in 2005 substantially complicates that claim.

“Cool” opens on a man (Daniel González) and woman (Erin Lokitz) approaching a massive Lake Como mansion. The woman is visibly nervous, smoothing her clothes and breathing deeply; the man looks at her instead of the house, as if to make sure she’s alright. He’s turning away from her as we fade in for the very first shot: they’ve been talking about something before going inside—psyching each other up, perhaps. An equally-nervous Gwen anticipates their arrival from the house’s interior. The shots in this opening sequence jump between regular-speed and slow-motion. This will continue for the remainder of the video (slow-mo is a Muller trademark), but in these first 20 or so seconds, it makes us anxious—creates a sense of dread, even.

When Gwen answers the door for the pair, her eyes lock instantly on her male guest. The two go for an awkward handshake, the kind you’d give an old friend with whom you’re not sure you’re still on hugging terms. But he’s quickly overtaken by a desire to touch her hair—she’s gone platinum!—and she gives it a quick shake. Only at this point does Gwen acknowledge the woman standing beside him. They shake hands and kiss each other on the cheek, after which Gwen flashes her the first of several ridiculous fake smiles. It’s clearly the first time they’ve met.

Gwen walks her guests to the parlour of the house, where she and the man awkwardly stumble into each other. The exchange triggers a series of images—memories—and we learn that they were once in love. She’s a brunette in these flashbacks; he’s scruffier than he is now. We might imagine we’re inside Gwen’s head at first—this is her music video, after all—but the camera gives us both of their POVs during the set-up. He’s thinking about the past as much as she is, and that same slow-mo effect from before now suspends them in time by decelerating it in a literal sense. The video also relies heavily on match cuts, which are at once something pleasurable to the viewer’s eye and another device that visually links the past to the present. 

With the first notes of the song’s synthesizer appears Gwen in a third timeline. Reporting from the bedroom of her enormous home—she, like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg’s Geneviève, has prospered financially in the male lead’s absence—this Gwen performs the song for the camera in an off-duty Marilyn look, complete with turtleneck. It’s an overtly ‘50s-inspired get-up to contrast the ‘40s-esque ones in her flashbacks. From this, it’s safe to assume that Gwen the platinum blonde exists a decade later than Gwen the brunette. “Cool” was written in 2003 or 2004, roughly ten years after the real-life split, so this checks out.

There are additional signs that the costumes in “Cool” were chosen with intention. “I feel like there’s something about fashion that is such an extension of the personality,” Gwen said on the press tour for L.A.M.B.. If we extend that philosophy to “Cool,” a clear effort has been made to distinguish Gwen from her ex’s new girlfriend through their clothing. The former dons a colourful print-mixing look; her guests have gone for attire that’s—technically speaking—funeral-appropriate. Everyone looks great, to be clear, but Gwen has been styled to seem like the funkier, more singular choice. Per Kim Kardashian West, Gwen’s successor is “the least exciting to look at.” The flashbacks also give Gwen the sartorial upper hand: her younger self wears six different outfits for us to drool over, all of them lewks. She traipses around Lake Como in a red polka-dot dress; she has a popsicle in a blue-and-white gingham bandeau; she dons two different floral dresses—one for eating spaghetti, the other for being kissed. 

Unfortunately, that’s right about where Gwen’s power ends. In the song’s opening line, she sings, “It’s hard to remember how it felt before / Now I found the love of my life.” But she literally spends the duration of this video remembering how it felt before; it isn’t hard at all. As for having found the love of her life, Gwen had been married to musician Gavin Rossdale for almost three years when “Cool” was shot. (She gave birth to the first of their three children 11 months later.) At the time, the lyric was therefore a flex. These days, it’s rather heartbreaking: Gwen filed for divorce from Rossdale in 2015 after he was allegedly caught cheating with their nanny. (Things had never necessarily been smooth for them: there was the paternity test that revealed an estranged daughter, the grossly tabloidized claims that he wasn’t straight. During an early break in their relationship, he also dated Courtney Love. Gwen and Love would feud semi-publicly while the former was putting the finishing touches on L.A.M.B.; “Hollaback Girl” is rumoured to be addressed to the latter. As of 2015, Gwen is dating The Voice co-host Blake Shelton.)

The video also makes Gwen a more vulnerable character than the song does. If we close-read the lyrics to “Cool,” we’ll find pain experienced on both sides of the former couple. There’s no indication whether Gwen was the one who did the dumping or the one who got dumped; it reads like things were pretty mutual. Muller’s video, on the other hand, pulls from the real story to show that Gwen was on the receiving end of the split. At 2:13, she has done something—we never learn what—to frustrate her boyfriend, and he shakes his head at her in disappointment. At 2:30, she places her hand near his but he won’t take it. At 2:40, she suggestively pushes him against a wall, desperate for some validation that things are okay. They’re obviously not.

There’s a vast dissonance between how Gwen claims she feels in the song and how the video depicts her as really feeling. Take “After all the obstacles / It’s good to see you now with someone else,” for instance. When her ex grabs his new girlfriend’s hand in front of Gwen, seconds after the flashback of him refusing her own, she forgets to do one of her fake smiles and lets her face fall completely. The next time she gets to the song’s refrain—“I know we’re cool”—after this sequence, she’s in tears. It’s cool, though! What’s there to not be cool about? The fact that her ex and his new girlfriend are sitting in her front room? That they’re holding hands? That she’s a brunette, just like Gwen used to be? Everything’s definitely cool—nothing to see here! 

And now for something kind of bonkers: Erin Lokitz, who plays the new girlfriend character in the video, was really Tony Kanal’s new girlfriend at the time. (She and Tony were married in 2011 and now live in Los Angeles with their two children.) We can read Lokitz’s involvement in the “Cool” video two different ways, and I’d argue that they’re not mutually exclusive. She may have been cast because the two women are, in fact, cool. Her presence suggests that Tony was in on the plan, after all. Perhaps the three even had a sit-down like the one depicted and wrote its treatment together. 

The other possibility is that Gwen wanted to demonstrate her coolness to the world, maybe even to herself. Prior to “Cool,” the public had never been given something to wrap up the aforementioned Tony and Gwen breakup saga—to “[put] an end to a chapter in a really nice way.” “Cool” could never match the commercial success of “Don’t Speak,” but it was at least out there alongside it to show fans how far they’d come. The video arguably acknowledges that there’s a degree of performance involved in being friends with an ex. When I ran this idea by my friend Anna, she said something equally valid: “As much as it’s performative, there’s also something to the idea of aspiring to get to that place where you can be cool. Even if not real friends, then just comfortable with where you ended up.” The video’s final shot is one of very few where all three characters appear in the same frame, the only others taking place during the awkward meet-and-greet at the beginning. It’s an optimistic ending, one that suggests civility, even unity. Still, it’s a gut punch to see Gwen—who has spent much of “Cool” holding her ex’s hand in flashbacks—now walk alone beside him as he holds that of his new woman. 

I actually believe Gwen when she says she’s cool, but I think Muller’s video asks us to understand the term as loaded, as messier than it sounds. Cool acknowledges that you can be happy for someone and simultaneously distracted on occasion by the fact that they’ve seen you naked. “Time always kills the pain,” sure, but that doesn’t mean you don’t still cry every once in a while about that shitty thing they did. These two narratives are constantly competing for screen time as they are space in Gwen’s brain. 

Shortly before I filed this column, I was commuting home from class and wondering how the hell I’d end it. “Cool” resists a neat conclusion, and to write one seemed almost antithetical to my argument. I’d also been struggling because, like many others, I see myself in this video. “I think most people have someone they’re cool with where they always wonder what could have been if things were different,” Anna told me. “But they also have enough good things still in their life that they don’t necessarily want to change it.” My column was already several days late, and I still didn’t know whether to mention or merely continue writing around the man I consider myself cool with. I looked up from my phone on my commute and found myself quite literally face to face with him. We hadn’t seen each other in two years, and so my first thought was whether I’d conjured him up in the witchcraft sense. My second was whether Dilara, my editor, had orchestrated this so that I’d finish my damn column. He and I chatted for a bit, as we do sometimes; I don’t think he’d disagree that it was awkward. I told him I was heading home to finish a piece on Gwen Stefani, and figured it would be best not to elaborate. 

“I was never intending to go personal on this record,” Gwen said in 2005. “But no matter what you do, things just come out. It just ended this whole thing for me in my head, and it puts an end to a chapter in a really nice way.”

Female Director Spotlight: Desiree Akhavan Tackles Sexuality with Refreshing Honesty

Often semi-autobiographical in nature, Desiree Akhavan’s work unabashedly celebrates what it means to be an Iranian-American bisexual woman. As an openly bisexual filmmaker who centers her experience of bisexuality in most of her works, Akhavan has had to frequently deal with critics expecting her to deliver a “taboo-breaking drama on bisexuality.” To this, Akhavan responded in an interview for the Independent that she is merely trying “to figure shit out for [her]self” rather than put forth a “taboo-breaking” narrative on the matters of gender and sexuality. Indeed, it is worth questioning why gay artists are expected to deliver ground-breaking work when the film industry persistently denies funding, access, and support for gay artists. When gay people are still fighting for their right to simply exist, ground-breaking becomes a luxury reserved for the most privileged. 

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Beyoncé’s ‘Rocket’ and the Pleasures of Artistic Freedom

When Beyoncé first met with Miguel to discuss what eventually became “Rocket,” the longest track on BEYONCÉ (2013), she’d only recently given birth to Blue Ivy. It would have been mid-2012 or so; Miguel recalls that “she was looking beautiful; her skin was glowing and she was ready to create.” Beyoncé was feeling more sexually empowered than ever as a new mom—she says as much in a behind-the-scenes doc released with the album—and wanted to record something D’Angelo-esque in that spirit. “I’ll never forget the conversation I had with Beyoncé and her insisting that nothing was off-limits,” Miguel told VIBE in 2014.

Given Beyoncé’s green light, Miguel imagined himself in her lover’s shoes to come up with “Rocket”: “What’s the first thing I would want Beyoncé to say to me as a man? What have I not heard her say?” Miguel, Justin Timberlake, and Beyoncé then co-wrote the song, working with producers J-Roc and Timbaland. On paper, the gender dynamic here is weird: we’re looking at a female sexual empowerment track made by a team of mostly men, one where the lyrics originate in what Miguel would want Beyoncé to say in a sexual setting. The album doc also suggests that, aside from music executive Teresa LaBarbera Whites, Beyoncé was the only woman in the room while recording “Rocket.” My goal here isn’t to undermine the song, but to contextualize its production. As I’ll argue, the fact that Beyoncé worked on it—and later, its visual accompaniment—surrounded by male creators didn’t ultimately prevent either from being subversive.  

Albums are generally titled eponymously to introduce a new act to the world—Queen made its debut with Queen (1973), Christina Aguilera with Christina Aguilera (1999), and so on. But self-titled albums can also debut a new sound or phase of an established artist’s career. Cher (1987) did this, as did Britney (2001). BEYONCÉ doesn’t fall neatly into one category or the other. When it surprise-dropped in 2013, the world had already known Beyoncé for a decade and a half. Still, it practically relaunched both Beyoncé the entertainer and Beyoncé the brand. 

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‘GLOW’ Declares That a Woman’s Body Isn’t Tied to Her Destiny for Greatness

Usually, in this industry, it’s every man for himself, and it’s almost always a man telling you your ass is too fat at the same time he’s trying to grope it. And having a woman in charge instead of that Sackballs guy? This is as good as it gets.

While there have been many shows about show business, GLOW is one of the few series that doesn’t treat its women as disposable, as plot devices, or eye candy for problematic men. At first glance, the show appears as if it’s geared to cater to the male fantasy, but GLOW is so much more than that. GLOW, for the most part is devoid of the male gaze, and allows its women to be imperfect. It demonstrates the complicated relationship between a woman’s body and her trajectory in life, and how men in entertainment (and beyond) try to take ownership of that. Over the course of its three seasons, GLOW has allowed its women to thrive, and take charge of their bodies and careers- both on screen and off. Although GLOW takes place in the eighties, not much has changed in regards to the body policing of the ambitious woman.

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Female Director Spotlight: Julie Dash’s Legacy is Rooted in Black Heritage and Extraordinary Women

Deeply poetic, and rooted in her heritage, Julie Dash’s work showcases extraordinary women from the past and present. A pioneering director, Dash places historical heroines—both known and unknown—front and center in her filmography. Her refreshing work places a lens on black women, and showcases them in a way that doesn’t follow society’s (or Hollywood’s) rigid standards. Dash’s women overcome obstacles, and exhibit a resilience and grace no matter the circumstances. She doesn’t allow her leads to follow traditional narratives, in fact she allows them to follow a narrative of her own design.

The heart of Dash’s work are the complex women that she paints a vivid picture of, both real and fictional. While she often explores the complex relationship of racial identity, at the same time she is a visionary that refuses to place her heroines in a box. Dash cites that her films were influenced by authors such as Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and Toni Kay Bambara.

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Jewels Under the Kitchen Sink: ‘El Auge del Humano’ is a Radical Mood Piece

This piece is part of a series called Jewels Under the Kitchen Sink. Here we try to bring films that have been overlooked during their time, or were (despite their distinctive and timely nature) somehow forgotten, back onto the radar. It’s an attempt at reaching into the dusty niches of time and fishing some true gems out of there. We hope to pique your interest towards some of these films, so they can be reintroduced into today’s film discussion.

Some films just won’t leave your head after you have seen them. Recently confronted with the slightly overwhelming request, “Recommend me the most unforgettable film you have ever seen,” I was suddenly thinking about El auge del humano again. I didn’t give the recommendation, because the person asking probably wouldn’t have liked it and there are so many other unforgettable cinematic experiences. But, the instinctual jump obviously didn’t happen without reason, so my train of thought went from there. It’s rare that cinema is so distinct and led-on with such a pronounced confidence.

Writer/director Eduardo “Teddy” Williams was born in Argentina, tutored by Miguel Gomes during his studies and garnered attention with his short film Pude ver un puma, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2012. Starring frequent collaborator Nahuel Pérez Biscayart, who is known for his dazzling performance as Sean in Robin Campillo’s 120 BPM, the film tells the mysterious story of young men roaming a torn-down and empty world with a floating and dreamlike sensibility. While dystopias are a popular narrative framing device in short films, there has never been one that tells its story quite like this one. This fact announced the young director as a filmmaking voice to look out for.

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After several shorts, Williams finally put together his first feature film, a deeply mysterious study of both characters and their environments, seamlessly spanning three countries through small towns, jungles and video chats. El auge del humano finally premiered at Locarno in 2016 and won Williams a highly deserved Best First Feature Special Mention and the Golden Leopard in the Filmmakers of the Present section. While the film sparked very diverse reactions amongst critics, there was no denial that Williams’ craft was absolutely original. Continue reading “Jewels Under the Kitchen Sink: ‘El Auge del Humano’ is a Radical Mood Piece”

Negotiating New Masculinities in ‘The Art of Self Defense’

As a transgender man, I have a complicated, strange, and usually arduous relationship with masculinity. Why are men so obsessed with the fact that they are men? For people who claim to be independent and strong, why is is validation from someone they perceive as superior (read; more powerful) so important to them? Why is violence, hatred, and ugliness seen as so essential to being a man in mainstream society? I ask myself these questions constantly. They keep me up at night. The same questions seem to keep Riley Stearns up at night as well, as indicated in his new film, The Art of Self Defense.

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Jesse Eisenberg in ‘The Art of Self Defense’

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