Gwen Stefani | The Sweet Escape (Interscope)

Ciara | The Evolution (Laface/Zomba)

It’s a challenge to talk about multiplatinum pop in terms of artistic vision–in fact it’s hard to even use those two phrases together in a serious sentence. It’s much easier to understand a pop-chart worker as a performer, as a commercial conduit, than as someone acting on a creative impulse. When you’re dealing with a person-product that’s been carefully groomed from the ground up for widest appeal, “artistic vision” is as much a marketing construct as “sexy hair.” I’m thinking about this lately because of the radically different ways Gwen Stefani and Ciara–two million-selling songstresses–have tried to imbue their prefab surfaces with a grain of authenticity.

Anyone who’s been conscious of Top 40 in the last ten years understands No Doubt front woman Gwen Stefani as an icon first and a singer second. For her 2004 solo debut, Love.Angel.Music.Baby., the rude girl in a half shirt underwent a fashion transfiguration, full-bore co-opting the style of Japan’s Harajuku girls and even hiring a gaggle of them to serve as her posse. They dance behind her onstage, trail her at public appearances, and even pose behind her while she gives interviews. What it means to have four mute punky Stepford geishas working full-time as your accessories (pets?) is just too mammoth to unpack here–Stefani has explained them as an embodiment of her imagination–but more than two years later, even after the release of the new The Sweet Escape, the Harajuku girls are still the primary totem of her “vision.”

This year Stefani’s Harajuku-influenced clothing line stands to take in an estimated $90 million. Her last album sold 7 million copies; No Doubt has sold 42 million worldwide. Not only is her career going gangbusters, she’s got a husband who, one would assume, understands her job, a new baby, and her figure back already–the works. (“I been off making babies,” she sings on “Yummy,” a task she compares to “a chef making donuts.”) Yet on The Sweet Escape Stefani spends a lot of time lamenting what she doesn’t have–male attention, primarily. “Breakin’ Up” is a not-so-clever bit of wordplay about maintaining a relationship by cell phone: “Our connection’s all wrong / You’re acting like I’m slower than you are / And my batteries get low.” The title track is a plea for reconciliation after a domestic spat: “If I could escape / I would, but first of all let me say / I must apologize for acting, thinking, treating you this way / ‘Cause I’ve been acting like sour milk fell on the floor / It’s your fault, you didn’t shut the refrigerator / Maybe that’s the reason I’ve been acting so cold.” And on “4 in the Morning,” one of two songs where she makes emotional demands on a guy who’s asleep, she sings, “And all I know is you’ve got to give me everything / And nothing less ’cause you know I’d give you all of me.”

The glamorous life: without love, it ain’t much. But I can’t help but wonder if she’s playing the diamond fishwife because she thinks art is supposed to be about suffering. She can’t find anything else to suffer about, so she picks at her yellow wallpaper with a perfectly manicured fingernail.

Productionwise The Sweet Escape is gleaming and bombastic, the better to balance out Stefani’s emoness. The single, “Wind It Up,” is the Neptunes’ yearly make-good on their perennial hype: it sounds like a halftime show in the Alps, with Fiesta Bowl drums and horns and samples from The Sound of Music. It may be rehash of “Hollaback Girl,” but it’s fun. Stefani does her pep-rally rap and yodels and plays fast and loose with basic grammar. “Girls wanna know why the boys like us so much,” she observes, and then takes a couple guesses, including “They like the way my pants / it compliments my shape” and a direct pitch for her clothing line: “They like the way that L.A.M.B. is going ‘cross my shirt.” In interviews Stefani has said the single is “about nothing”–but this nothingness, this pure pop pleasure, is what she does best.

The poor-little-rich-girl routine, not so much.

On the surface Stefani and Ciara, the “princess of crunk ‘n’ B,” might seem to be cut from the same cloth–both make hyperaccesible club music, both have hits produced by the Neptunes, both are resourceful with a rather limited singing range. But they aren’t. Ciara’s sheer alacrity on her latest, The Evolution, makes The Sweet Escape look like a zombie march. It starts off with a spoken segment and two songs that establish, in the plainest English, that Ciara defers her dreams for no man. On “That’s Right,” while Lil Jon foghorns a call to arms for women who love too much, Ciara sends booty-calling cads straight to voice mail so she can party with her girlfriends. “Tonight I’m doing me,” she coos. “I’ll call you in the morning.”

Much of the album is the kind of ephemeral fluff that’s best for slow dances at prom or long stints on the elliptical machine, but Ciara interrupts it every few cuts to explicitly discuss what motivates her and keeps her inspired. And despite being incredibly cliched–some of her lyrics sound like earnest answers to a MySpace quiz–these passages do lend some credibility to her projection of artistry. “The past few years of my life have truly been a journey,” she tells us. “So many things about me have changed: my faith is stronger, I’m much more confident–shoot, my jeans even fit a little different. A lot of life lessons learned, but no regrets because it’s all made me the woman I am today.”

The album closes with another taking-care-of-me twofer, “I’m Just Me” and “I Found Myself,” where she channels Oprah and Mary J by way of Aaliyah. And as with Oprah, somehow her absolute confidence that you’ll give a shit comes across as ecstatic personal statement. On “I’m Just Me” what Ciara is “just” is the CEO of her own brand, but while she may have gone from ghetto to platinum, she makes clear that her newfound status is not what defines her. In “I Found Myself,” a ballad of bittersweet self-discovery, she takes us high atop Cheese Mountain, where she tears off her sparkly XXL tracksuit and yells “you go girl” unto the heavens. For all the formulaics, on The Evolution Ciara manages to do what Stefani can’t on The Sweet Escape: take responsibility for her own happiness.

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Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Gwen Stefani photo/Mark Squires.