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Gwen Stefani – Make Me Like You

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Do pop stars have a shelf life? That’s a question that many pop fans ask themselves every time one of their long-standing favorite artists releases a crackerjack single that sounds like it will top the charts but instead ends up sinking like a stone. For most contemporary artists, there seems to be a point on the musical timeline where everyone but their hardcore fans announce, via diminished sales and airplay, that it is time for that artist to pass the pop torch to someone younger and hotter, talent be damned.

Take Madonna. Since her chart debut in 1983, every few years she has been reinventing herself musically, releasing ace singles that push musical boundaries and usually end up charting high. But in the last few years, these “reinventions” have begun to seem like acts of desperation, futile attempts by Ms. Ciccone to recapture her past glory by partnering with the hot producers or rappers of the moment. The records themselves, however, have been quite good – Living for Love being one recent sparkling example. Yet somehow the idea of a 57-year old woman making modern dance music, and then having the nerve (the nerve!) to perform this music in arguably age-inappropriate clothing live on stage or in videos seems quite unseemly to many listeners. Is it sexism, ageism, and or youth culture bigotry and snobbery? Most likely all three, but it remains a disturbing fact of the pop music world, which probably explains why so many “legacy” artists, after ten years or so of hit-making, retreat to the safety and profitability of “hits” tours rather than trying to make new chart hits.

So where does that leave someone like Gwen Stefani? From her first hits in the 1990s with No Doubt, to her triumphant solo successes in the 2000s, Stefani has thrilled her fans with her punk-pop sensibilities, her wacky but on trend musical and fashion choices, her flexible and thrilling vocal range and her all-American, California sun-kissed charm and good looks. But for the last few years, Stefani has had a terrible time getting people to buy or radio to play her singles. The 2012 No Doubt comeback album Push and Shove was a relative bomb, yielding only one minor chart hit in Settle Down. In 2014, she released two singles – Baby Don’t Lie and Spark the Fire – that were meant to preview her third solo album, but the singles died on the vine and the album was scrapped. All of these records were pretty good, but the public appetite for Stefani’s music appeared to have waned. Why? Publicly, she was on a roll, appearing for several seasons as one of the judges on the US version of The Voice where she reconfirmed her appeal as a smart and funny talent. She weathered a tabloid-ready breakup with her ex-husband Gavin Rossdale and found new love with her Voice co-judge, country music star Blake Shelton. And in fact, that romance inspired what is perhaps her most joyful and radiant single ever, Make Me Like You.

One of those songs that is ready-made for blasting out of the radio on a hot summer day, Make Me Like You is three and a half minutes of pure pop bliss. Clearly written to celebrate her new romance with Shelton, the song bubbles along with the effervescence of an early relationship, emphasizing Stefani’s quirky and charming vocals to full effect. With a melody and drumbeat that recalls both LoveFool by the Cardigans and Stefani’s own Cool, Make Me Like You sounds like a classic pop hit from the first few notes. And the song’s innovative video (the first to be filmed and broadcast live on television) is a charmer, showing off both Stefani’s Hollywood good looks and her effortless fashion sense.

Given the greatness of the song, the fact that the accompanying album This is What the Truth Feels Like debuted at no.1 in the US, and the seeming ripeness of the time for a Stefani comeback, most fans were convinced Make Me Like You would top the charts. Yet the song sputtered to a no.54 peak in the US and was an outright bomb in the UK, apparently reaching a cataclysmic no.140 (!!) What happened? On its face, it could be that releasing what is essentially a summer song in February was a big mistake. And Stefani’s relationship with a decidedly un-hip country music singer and her appearances on a mainstream talent competition show could have alienated her hardcore punk fans. But I suspect it’s the shelf life issue at work here. Stefani is 46, almost 47, and as amazing as she looks and sounds, pop stars over 40 – particularly female pop stars over 40 – are not exactly catnip for radio. Her greatest chart successes are ten years behind her, and the fact that her earlier hits are now played on oldies stations can’t help. Which is too bad, because if radio programmers – as well as pop music consumers – could get over their ageist or sexist or hipster biases, they would discover that Make Me Like You is one of the great pop records of this, or any other year.

Gwen-StefaniChart peak: Did not chart

Who could sing this today and have a hit? Given that this song only came out in February, Gwen’s version is still relevant. Although I bet if Katy Perry sang the track with the exact same production it would be a huge hit.

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