Some may argue that Gwen Stefani completely lost all of her edge when she traded in Gavin Rossdale for Blake Shelton, inexplicably People‘s Sexiest Man Alive this year, and released her third album, This Is What the Truth Feels Like. In actuality, however, it has to be said that, she surrendered her cachet with the single and video for “Cool,” off of her debut 2004 solo album, Love. Angel. Music. Baby. As the fourth release from the record, “Cool” presented a “softer side” in comparison to the previous three singles, “What You Waiting For?,” “Rich Girl” and “Hollaback Girl.”
Based upon her tumultuous and lengthy relationship with No Doubt bassist Tony Kanal, which began in 1987 when Stefani pursued him at a party even though they were already in a band together, Stefani insists, “And after all the obstacles, it’s good to see you now with someone else.” Kanal, incidentally, was the one to break up with her before the release of their breakthrough album, Tragic Kingdom, though it was a long and painstaking process to finally be able to do so. As Gwen noted in an interview with Rolling Stone in 1997, “‘If we break up how can we be in a band together?’ I was, ‘If you even see a girl in front of me, I will kill myself. How can we hang out each day, and I can’t touch you?’ And that’s why we stayed together for such a long time: 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.”
The pain of being the one broken up with when she, as the already more prone to emotions and attachment female, was enough to drive Gwen more than a little insane, hence the creation of one of the band’s biggest and most iconic hits, “Don’t Speak.” And for any woman who has been broken up with by her best friend (our greatest loves always turn out to be our best friends, don’t they?), there is never any real way to be “cool” with the person who let you go.
Finding sanctuary through her chosen artistic medium, Gwen eventually had to move on, or at least get over it, in order for the band to persist. And move on she did, to Gavin Rossdale circa late 1995 (the quickness with which she had to find someone knew was telling of how badly she wanted to eradicate her mental disquiet over Tony). No Doubt was opening for Bush, which is probably what allowed Rossdale to be attracted to her as her band hadn’t fully eclipsed his yet.
Through all the ups and downs of No Doubt–of which there were few, at least professionally–Gwen remained close with Tony, but it could never be as it was when their relationship had existed with that extra layer of romantically and sexually driven love. Gwen’s claim that “memories seem like so long ago, time always kills the pain” doesn’t quite ring true from the residual ache in her voice, almost as fresh-sounding in agony as the modulations of her “Don’t Speak” performance. Gwen adds to her faux sense of triumph in the song, “And now we’re hanging out with your new girlfriend, so far from where we’ve been.” No thanks, I’d rather fucking kill myself than ever have to do that, I don’t care how much time has passed.
The video, directed by No Doubt go-to Sophie Muller (she also directed “Don’t Speak” among other of their visual accompaniments), mirrors the falsity of the lyrics in that it’s set in the paradisaical Lake Como. With Gwen clearly winning at life financially by answering the door to her villa to greet her ex, played by Daniel González, and his new girlfriend, meta-ly played by Kanal’s significant other, Erin Lokitz, it doesn’t really matter. She’s still the loser for remaining single while having to feign “coolness” with her true love and his less complicated piece. The look in her eyes as she greets her ex indicates an electric spark that’s still there, only to be interrupted by Daniel’s introduction to his girlfriend, a, shall we say, slightly homelier broad than Gwen. Gritting her teeth as a smile, Gwen shakes her hand.
Match cut flashbacks to all the times of happiness shared between Gwen and Daniel indicate a latent lust that can never fully be quelled. Cringing as she watches Daniel hold his girlfriend’s hand as they sip coffee together, the flood of memories continues as the lyrics ironically seem to goad, “I know we’re cool,” as though if it’s said enough, it will be true.
While it’s a pretty thought to believe that friendship with an ex can be healthy and genuine, the fact of the matter is that this was the person you could once be completely candid and literally naked with. Now, forced to censor your true self to him, it’s inevitable that any so-called sentiment of good will is inevitably tinged with an underlying contempt. Which means running off into the sunset together as the third wheel (as is the conclusion to the video) is far from realistic. So no, Gwen, we are most definitely not cool. Because your song is predicated on a total fabrication of how people deal with their exes. Maybe Europeans can do the friendship thing, but that’s perhaps only because they’re far more cavalier about emotions, seeking ultimately only someone to procreate with since religion and family are still “a thing” on continents outside of the one housing the U.S. But over here in the land of unsuppressed feelings (the first amendment yo), it can never truly be.