tremble clef

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Gwen Stefani, "Cool" (2004)

For no real important reason, I hated Gwen Stefani during her No Doubt days -- the (borrowed) conceit of, and the video for "It's My Life" in particular used to work me into a frothy fury -- and the early days of her solo career didn't change that much. "What You Waiting For?" left me mostly unmoved -- although I did secretly enjoy going around mumbling, as so many of us no doubt (ha!) did, "Take a chance you stupid ho!" at every conceiveable opportunity -- and "Rich Girl" drove me up the proverbial wall. But "Hollaback Girl" wrestled me to the ground and smothered me with its brassy pom-poms, and you know there's nothing I enjoy more than smothering pom-poms. And now here we are, at the shockingly gimmick-free "Cool," a song I've been obsessed with for a few weeks now.

So let's talk about that track, of which I seem to have much to say, even though I will really be talking about, good lord, eight seconds of the song. In his long and thoughtful consideration, Tim over at Skywriting suggests that "Cool" "appears to tell...a certain story about love in spite of itself": namely, that even though Gwen sings about having moved past the relationship, the emotion in the song belies her "true depth of feeling." In particular, Tim started off by taking the song "at its word," as a gentle, gracious, and generous sketch of how happy Gwen was now able to be for her ex. But the video, in which it is nakedly apparent that the narrator is still in love, changed his mind, with the result that "Cool" is now a "blatantly self-deceiving" song -- although, if I understand Tim right, no less moving because of that.

My comprehension of the song moved through several stages as well, although it started at a different place, wandered around, before finally getting back to where it started from. Unlike Tim, however, when I first heard the song, I immediately assumed it was a "self-deceiving" one. The asumption was so automatic that it was only later that I could reconstruct the reasons why I thought so. One is my inherent predisposition to read (and love) such songs that way, and there is indeed a rich tradition of them stretching from "I'm Not In Love" to a track that I wrote about just a few weeks back. (Two weeks, and I'm already repeating myself. Promising!) Furthermore, that inherent bias in me was triggered, I think, by the fact that "Cool" owes a sonic debt to a classic from that genre: John Waite's "Missing You." Though Tim and others have suggested that "Cool" steals its melody from Yazoo's "Only You" (I don't quite hear it myself), while yet others keep muttering about Cyndi Lauper, for me "Cool" most obviously evokes those 80s synth-rock numbers with chugging guitar lines -- most especially Icehouse's "Electric Blue," but certainly also Waite's bigger hit. Given this subliminal connection, it was perhaps no surprise that I should have thought of "Cool"'s narrator as simply trying to convince herself that she has gotten over her ex.

There's a third reason, but it took time to put my finger on it. As I listened more carefully to the song, I began to doubt my initial impression. After all, there is nothing diegetically in "Cool" itself that really points to self-denial, except, arguably the repetition of its central sentiment ("we're cool, we're cool, we're cool..") which always raises the doth-protesting-too-much specter ("...aren't we?"). In "I'm Not In Love," of course, we know that the narrator still keeps her picture on the wall, calls her all the time, while John Waite tells us that he still catches his breath when he thinks of her. Were there really such clues in "Cool"? It didn't seem so.

But then again.... I realized that the first few times I played Gwen's song, I had in fact misheard a lyric, and that was at least partly responsible for my interpretation. Or maybe it was not so much that I misheard it, but I certainly walked around armed with only an imprecise memory of the song, mis-singing it. The third refrain, which comes at the 2 minute mark, begins: "And I'll be happy for you/If you can be happy for me." Initially, I thought Gwen was singing: "And I'll be happier for you/If you will be happier for me." The implication of course, in that misheard edition, is that Gwen's "happiness" is really not as great as it could be, and it is in any case something she's just miming as a way of getting her ex to be happier for her.

A google search turned up lots of sites recording the lyric, and all of them agree that there is something wrong with my ears, or possibly my subconscious. Gwen is just singing "happy" (and the remixes, especially the one by Richard X, confirms this). But the lines remain sticky, I think. For one thing, the conditional tense is striking: I'll be happy for you if you can be happy for me? Isn't she supposedly already happy for him regardless of whether he's happy for her? Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, I now no longer think that my mishearing was completely accidental. The phrasing of that line is really quite strange; the rhythm of the lyric and the music don't quite line up, and there is kind of an extra beat after each iteration of the word "happy." Gwen clearly has to drag out her enunciation of the word the first time to cover that beat, and, for the second, places an oddly heavy and protracted emphasis on "be" before allowing a beat to intervene after "happy" (the emphasis also makes " happy for me" sound like an imperative, further cementing the sense that her ex isn't as pleased as he could be). "I'll be happppppeeee for you/If you can BEEEEEE happy [beat, and a breath] for me."

Was it my mind simply filling in the gaps, hearing an "-ier" where there was none? Or does the song in fact subtly encourage that, by actually leaving a literal blank (or two) for listeners to fill in? In her phrasing, is Gwen perhaps performing a kind of uncertainty in the way she practically hiccups or stumbles over her words, trying to make them fit the dictates of the story that the melody and rhythm is telling? Does the song tempt her with the ghost of a chance to decide and say, honestly, just how happy she is for him, and does she never quite know what to make of that chance? Happy for you...Happier for you...Happy? What and how am I feeling here?


  • I'm really interested in the way that people see the uncertainty of the song as a marker of its 80sness. Is that because 80s songs are vague? (What does "It's all over you/Electric blue" mean, anyway? Is it about spilling windshield-wiper fluid on someone?) Or is it because the 80s songs are the songs of our youth, when we only had a vague sense of who we were?

    By Anonymous esque, at 6:08 PM  

  • I hadn't mean to suggest that the uncertainty of the song was related to its 80sness, but there may be something in that. I don't know why that would be the case, though; I guess many songs from the Self-Denial Canon are synthy in an 80s way. Hmm. Need. To. Think. More.

    Also, you're a better man than I, because for me "Electric Blue" = toilet cleaner.

    By Blogger Brittle, at 8:29 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home