“It’s good to see you now with someone else”: Hope and Heartache in Gwen Stefani’s ‘Cool’
This essay was originally published by Much Ado About Cinema on October 7, 2019. “Why Did You Do That?” was a column dedicated to pop music videos warranting further critical respect and/or attention.
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 Indian-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. 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 then-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 pleasing 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 her ex’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 apply 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 unique 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 as to 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’s 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 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.”
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