In 1995, I hated Juliana Hatfield and Gwen Stefani. They were easy targets: dolled-up beauties cooing about spinning the bottle and being "just a girl," cashing in with what I saw as a pathetic, watered-down version of rock-'n'-roll female empowerment. Kathleen Hanna, Kim Deal, Polly Jean Harvey--they were the real thing, not those platinum-blonde floozies all over the radio and MTV. I also had zero tolerance for Hatfield's and Stefani's high, baby-ish voices, thinking they sounded like very young, very nubile Girl Scouts asking sweetly if you'd like to taste their cookies.
Of course, I was 14 years old then, and I wasn't much fun. I also wasn't too informed. Unaware that Hatfield had played in the late-'80s Boston jangle-pop band Blake Babies, or that Stefani's group, No Doubt, had been paying its dues in the SoCal ska scene for just as long, I believed both women to be crass record-label creations.
Now it's nine years later, and No Doubt is on a co-headlining tour with fellow Cali pop-punkers Blink-182, which stops at the Amphitheater at Clark County on Thursday. That same night, Hatfield will be at Berbati's Pan, supporting her new solo album, In Exile Deo. It's a mature, polished affair full of midtempo rockers with smooth edges that belie the angst-ridden wit of Hatfield's lyrics. But only a small fraction of her once-large audience is likely to hear it.
What happened? Why is one icon of mid-'90s girl power still playing to thousands, while the other sweats it out on the club circuit? A peppy punk cheerleader radiating sunny California enthusiasm when mopey grunge was still king, Stefani was a '90s Cyndi Lauper headed, presumably, for the one-hit-wonder cut-out bin. But the hits kept coming: The buoyant, cloying "Just a Girl" was followed by the answering-machine anthem "Spiderwebs," then "Don't Speak," a tortured ballad about Stefani's failed relationship with bassist Tony Kanal. No Doubt's breakthrough second album, 1995's Tragic Kingdom, went on to sell 10 million copies.
Hatfield, the deceptively innocent indie guitar goddess who famously claimed to be a virgin at the age of 25, didn't have nearly as much luck. Her major-label debut, 1993's Become What You Are, topped out at number 119 on the Billboard 200, despite the modern-rock radio hit "Spin the Bottle." After 1995's Only Everything flopped, Hatfield was dropped by Atlantic records and retreated back to the underground. And there she remained, while Stefani's star as a genre-crossing pop princess and fashion plate rose and rose.
Neither singer fit neatly into rock-chick stereotypes: "All the women around me that I could look at were in bands like L7 or Hole," Stefani said to Rolling Stone in 2002. "They were angry, and I didn't really feel like that. And the other ones were these folky girls."
"You have to be Joan Jett or Joan Baez," Hatfield told the same publication later that year, "If you don't fall into those categories, people are going to be confused." Likewise, neither woman let romantic relationships with once hot, now has-been grunge rockers define their careers: Hatfield pressed forward as her former lover and bandmate, the Lemonheads' Evan Dando, fell off the radar and into drug addiction, while Stefani distanced herself as much as possible from the music of her husband, Bush frontman Gavin Rossdale.
Maybe it all comes down to that baby voice, and how it's used. Hatfield wields hers as a weapon, drawing you in with a ballad like In Exile Deo's "Tomorrow Never Comes," only to lash out with feral attack songs like "A Dame with a Rod" from Become What You Are. It's scary, dangerous and often thrilling, yet possibly too off-putting for mainstream tastes. Stefani's voice, while wider-ranging than Hatfield's, is pure sweetness. Even when railing against The Man on "Just a Girl," or dissing a suitor on "Sunday Morning," she sounds as threatening as a puppy dog. Gwen is the all-American girl-next-door, dressed in athletic gear and glam makeup. Juliana is the moody princess who will kick you when you're down, just because she feels like it.
In the pop-music game, we know who wins this one.
plays with Blink-182 and Phantom Planet Thursday, June 17, at the Amphitheater at Clark County, 17200 NE Delfel Road, Ridgefield, Wash., 360-816-7000. 8 pm. $39.50 lawn, $49.50 reserved. All ages.
Juliana Hatfield plays with the Damnwells, the Carolines and Loch Lomond Thursday, June 17, at Berbati's Pan, 231 SW Ankeny St., 248-4579. 9:30 pm. $12 advance, $15 day of show. 21+.