“It’s pretty obvious,” she said. And it definitely is not. 

By Sam Reed
May 28, 2021 @ 6:05 pm
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Your Politics Aren't Actually Obvious, Gwen
Credit: Emma McIntyre/Getty Images

Among Gwen Stefani's fans, the question of her political identity has in recent years — following her divorce from fellow '90s rock star Gavin Rossdale and her subsequent relationship with bland blonde Blake Shelton — loomed large as the question. And this week, the 51-year-old kind of, sort of answered it in a Paper magazine cover interview by Kat Gillespie. 

"I can see how people would be curious, but I think it's pretty obvious who I am. I've been around forever. I started my band because we were really influenced by ska, which was a movement that happened in the late '70s, and it was really all about people coming together. The first song I ever wrote was a song called 'Different People' which was on the Obama playlist, you know, a song about everyone being different and being the same and loving each other. The very first song I wrote."

May I just be the first to say that nothing about this mishmosh of references is, in any way, "obvious." In pop culture hindsight, "the '70s" evokes hippies and free love and Jimi Hendrix — but it's not as if everyone who was around then is in some way liberal (see: Boomers). And the "melting pot" theory of diversity that came of that era was only welcoming of "different people" so long as they assimilated into American cultural norms, allowing their own to melt away. Almost like a lite version of modern racism and xenophobia, which is more blatant about what it thinks of people who stand out. 

That said, I don't believe Stefani was getting that deep. Her statement seems factory engineered to be pleasing to as many groups of people as possible. A non-political reference to President Obama? Sure. And who can disagree with a song about "different people" living in harmony? 

What fascinates me, however, is the strange dance that celebrities do around the subject of political affiliations, a trend her roundabout answer to a yes-or-no question exemplifies perfectly. In the last decade we've watched our government more or less burn to the ground, collapsing into a divided, ashy, mess of populist extremes. It's no longer 2009 — we're not being coy about political leanings anymore! Taylor Swift tried that, then had a whole Netflix documentary to try to explain why (corporate interests, fears of alienating customers), and that it was a Bad Idea. 

Celebrities' use of their affiliations with Obama — be it appearing on one of his playlists or that one time they posed with him at the White House in 2011 — is as cringe-y as the white woman who says "I voted for Obama!" as though that fact alone is anti-racism work. This tack may have worked 10 years ago, but today it feels like the insincere copout it is. A lot has happened since Obama that you would expect anyone sentient to have some feelings about in one direction or the other. 

As far as celebrities are concerned, Stefani is a special case, having served as the mainstream face of counterculture in the U.S. in the late-'90s and early-'00s. Her technicolor hair, often styled in double buns, bleached brows, and spacey makeup, paired with her preference for fuzzy bikini tops over T-shirts, captured the aesthetics of a post-punk pop rock era. Not to mention, her idiosyncratic voice — something between an expressive Broadway character and a howling diva whine — had the sheen of a woman going against the grain. When she sang "Just a Girl" it felt as close to a feminist anthem as anything at the top of the Billboard charts at the time, especially to the tweens and teens who adored her and expected her to mature in her understanding of the politics of womanhood as they did over the years. 

Cultural critics in recent years, though, have questioned whether we gave the singer too much credit. She may have looked the part, but it was Ryan Gosling — a prototypical Hollywood leading man — who wore the "Darfur" shirt to the 2005 MTV Movie Awards. It was Jane Fonda, a legacy Hollywood star who, rather than coasting on her charm, built a career advocating on behalf of every marginalized community in the country. Stefani may have nailed the aesthetics, but she was the first to acknowledge even then that she wasn't really political. "I'm really not the type of person that's a big feminist," she said in a 1995 interview with Billboard. "I'm a more old-fashioned kind of girl, a real girly girl."

In 2018, culture writer Anne Helen Petersen dissected our obsession with Stefani's politics, the dissonance between the anti-establishment leader we all thought she was, and the fairly conventional pop star she actually is. Stefani's then-fairly new relationship with the hearty country singer, Petersen argued, was not at all surprising when examined through the lens of the very statements like the above "not a feminist" quote. 

Since becoming one-half of America's most insufferably over-the-top couples (the two teased their engagement for years and gush about each other to the press at pretty much every opportunity they get), Stefani has continued her own longheld tradition of keeping her politics to herself — even after Shelton released his own less vague commentary about Donald Trump's, um, antics. 

"Whether you love [Donald Trump] or hate him, he says what he thinks, and he has proven that you don't always have to be so afraid," he told Billboard in 2016. "A lot of people are pulling for him, no matter how much Hollywood fights it. I see people who don't like him go and beat up people that do like him. You tell me, who's crazy here?" Both he and Stefani doubled down on the "we don't do politics" messaging after Shelton received backlash for his seemingly pro-Trump stance. 

And again, there's the aesthetics. It's hard to divorce the image of the alt cool girl who wore a bindi on stage as an homage to her bandmate, with the woman Stefani has become: a prim TV personality with country pop leanings who has more in common these days with a Fox News anchor than a punk. Her answer in Paper makes me wonder if at some point she also become caught up in the myth of her own counterculture legacy. The allusion to her days in a ska band seem like a kind of "remember when I was punk? Liberals loved me for that." 

Well, it's never too late — the fans are ready to welcome that Gwen back any time.