Bubble Pop Electric – Gwen Stefani: Ten Times

Listen 1:

Wow. It’s been a long time since I have heard this song. A long time. Unfortunately, this album – which I never owned – was pretty good as far as remember, but it seems to have dropped off the face of the pop planet. When I was thinking of other songs that have become as infectiously repeated as ‘Too Little Too Late’, this tune was top of the list.

It instantly takes me back to a very specific time/place/musical format. 2004/Havana International Airport/ a mix tape made for me by my flatmate Grant. I had just been visiting my then girlfriend (now wife) in Cuba, and Grant had supplied me with a mix tape or two; one of which was called ‘Our Man in Havana’. I still have this tape. I had listened to it a couple of times on the journey over, but always whilst reading or exploring some generic wing of one of the airports I had to go through (Manchester – Heathrow – somewhere in Spain (can’t remember where) – Holguín – Havana), having just undergone a tearful farewell at the airport, and incapable of doing anything constructive, I sat to really listen to it!

The tape was, as with many of the tapes Grant had made for me (and continued to make), full of songs that I didn’t know, this was no exception. Yet, as is his wont, there was an expertly chosen pop tune nestled in the middle of side B; a ray of extrovert sunshine beaming through.    

Listen 2:

So, I was sitting in Havana international airport, eating an entire punnet of guavas that my girlfriend’s grandma had given me for the journey (that I had been informed in no uncertain terms I could not take onto the plane), feeling very sorry for myself, and this tune came on the mixtape. I suddenly felt elated. The abandon of the thing is sensational. It’s pantomimic in its invocation of 1950s culture: the drive-in movie, the backseat of a car, the rebellious boyfriend, sweaters, motorbikes, the front porch. Yet it never sounds clichéd or staid. This is certainly because of the frenetic, non-stop percussion, replete with popping bubble sounds (a bit like yellow submarine).

It’s so full. I’d forgotten how manic it is. It scarcely gives you time to catch your breath, even the usual ‘low points’ of the intro and middle 8 – those times of anticipation and reflection – are jammed to the hilt with noise – literally noise, of people speaking, motorbikes revving, the actions of the song being played out, acted out as well as sung out. Usually songs like this grate on my nerves a bit; they don’t offer any place for the listener, no space for interpretation or reflection. But perhaps it was this very chaotic quality that made this song so irresistible that time in the airport. It was perfect for blocking out negative thoughts, perfect for disappearing into this imagined-never-existing faux-50s sing-along.

Listen 3:

It was something of a short trend at the time, wasn’t it; that sort of 50s pastiche? Actually, the vocals have something more of the Andrews Sisters – particularly on the chorus lines (“tonight I’m gonna give you all my love in the back seat”) and in the second verse – spoken – when she says ‘jeez Louise’, with what I think of as a sort of Philip Marlowe-esque drawl! But then these lines are instantly juxtaposed in the delivery of ‘bubble. Pop. Elec-tric.’ This Andrews Sisters homage stand up much better than Christina Aguilera’s attempt (I can’t even remember what that tune sounded like) or the frankly unnecessary Puppini Sisters. Something weird in Gwen Stefani assuming the role of all three sisters; I don’t know what that says about anything, but I think it works. The multi-layered, multi line vocals are great for the most part; it sounds like she is having a conversation with herself, the backing vocals don’t purport to be somebody else (I don’t think). But these is a self-assurance in them which makes the subject matter (i.e. waiting for a boyfriend to turn up so they can go and shag in the car at a drive-in movie) a little more palatable. Actually the 1950s air – which the more i listen to this tune is disappearing further into the ether – I’m not sure exactly which bit is supposed to by 50s; was it ever trying to be? I’m not sure, maybe I just made that up, and it has stuck in my head. Anyway, if there is something 50’s about it, then the contemporary voice given to the gender politics is at least interesting.

Listen 4:

So; a closer look at some of the things that I particularly like about this tune. Well, the bubble noises at the start, for one; they continue throughout the song. The transistor radio-effect guitar that comes in at around 12 seconds has a really nice timbre to it, it shifts the mood of the song as well. Yeah, the skittish hi-hat is lush as well. The crossing (one ascending and one descending) harmony parts in the chorus are also very nice. The delivery of Jeez Louise keeps popping out at me as being of particular note. In fact, the whole second verse is really good; the spoken delivery comes as such a surprise after the onslaught of harmony that is the chorus. I don’t know what the last line of the second verse is – is it “the queen of England says it’s Mandy”? Ok – almost – it’s ‘the queen of England would say its randy’; makes no sense, but there we are. Shit. Now that I’ve looked up the lyrics, I’ve noticed that this song contains what I would describe as an ‘Unforgivable Sin’ of lyrics; the ‘catch me/you when I/you fall’. It’s slightly altered into ‘tonight I’m falling, won’t you catch me’ and its odiousness is tempered by the rhyming ‘snatch me’ in the next line, but this is truly the worst, most meaningless, inane lyric ever to grace popular music (closely followed by the rhyming couplets ‘love/above’ and ‘fire/desire’). I almost want to stop doing this now!

Listen 5:

I’ll continue. Actually, one thing that has begun to wear a bit thin is the very end, where all the vocal parts are superimposed upon each other. I think there is just one part too many. I think its the ‘oohs’. Also, thinking about it, wasn’t there a trend also in the early noughties of 6/8 sounding songs in 4/4? This one does it – although it would be a stupidly fast 6/8! Remember that song by ‘big brovaz’? (“this is big bro/ takin’ over the show/ with the new flow”)? Remember that? Wow – there was a slice of meaningful pop music. I may try and find that when this is over[1].

The ‘come to me drive in movie/ run it like a track meet’ bit is really good. The vocals here are at their sweetest. Actually I have just been thinking about the name of the song: Bubble Pop Electric. I know that is it obvious, but it had never consciously dawned on me that this is an allusion to bubblegum pop. I know it probably sounds dense to say it, but with that in mind, the title of this song really does sum up the style; a souped-up version of the Shangri-las.

Did this song ever have a music video? I don’t remember one. I’ll have a look.

Listen 6:

No. Apparently not. Or at least, it there was one, it does not seem to be held in the infinite archive of Youtube. So here is a little look at a live version.

I’m always secretly impressed with, but outwardly cynical about, these sort of live performances of pop tunes, where the goal is to make the live performance as identical to the recording as possible. I guess with this particular brand of pop, exact duplicatability is demanded – not even that – is so expected as to not be thought of. Of course pop stars will replicate what i am familiar with. I am thus left, using my tired ‘folk/rock’ brain, to think ‘what is the point of going to see these people perform live?’ It is the unending array of costume changes? Take That seem to be blurring the boundaries at the moment between the pop concert and ‘cirque du solei’ (can you even begin to contemplate the overheads for a production like that? It makes Emerson, Lake and Palmer look demure!)

This live version is no exception. It’s hard to know what is live instrument and what is recording. Even Gwen’s voice. The spoken promises of affection at the beginning are recorded. Why? Couldn’t these be ad-libbed, or even reproduced in time to the backing track? The effect is jolting when Gwen-actual does start singing. Presumably the guitars and drums – maybe even a synth – is live, but the backing vocals? I can’t tell.

One thing i can tell for certain is that Gwen Stefani is fit. So fit. It makes me wish No Doubt would reform. I had a real soft spot for No Doubt. I still do. Tragic Kingdom was a good album.

Ok, so on the evidence of 2.13, it seems not only are the backing vocals live, but they are being done by Willem Defoe’s character in “the Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou” and a man with a key-tar.

Then a man in a vest, braces, beret and black leggings does some sort of exaggerated form of jitterbug dancing with one of Gwen’s Harajuku Girls. I should point out that I hate dancing in almost all its many guises. But this kind of dancing in particular irks me the most, not least because of the value bestowed upon it by programmes such as ‘so you think you can dance’ etc.

The drum fill at 2.48 is lush. Although by this point, Gwen looks like she has given up a bit.      


Listen 7:

Actually, one person I haven’t mentioned as yet is ‘Johnny Vulture’: aka Andre 3000 of outcast, who plays the love interest in this song. His vocal presence is actually pretty understated in this tune, which is odd, because usually a guest appearance from a rapper on a pop album would demand a phoned-in few bars that offer nothing to, nor comment upon, the rest of the song: think of about 50% of Snoop Dogg’s later career.

But Andre is rap-less. I always think that when, in the middle of the song (when the rap would usually unfurl itself), he says ‘Hi Mr. Stefani’ he is about to burst into a rap. It is said with such exuberance, and with a rhythm that demands a rap. I have come up with my own second line, which I always sing: “hi Mr. Stefani/ I know you like to party”. I haven’t got any further than this. I am no rapper.

The reason Andre provides no vocal part is probably because he spent so long producing the backing track, which is so dense and multifaceted. He has certainly done a lot of work for his guest credit; much more than the sparse offerings of the Neptunes-produced tracks like ‘Hollaback girl’. So that this tune wasn’t released as a single is surprising, particularly as Outcast were at the peak of their popularity, weren’t they?

Listen 8:

One other nice little bit is the crickets chirruping and distant dog barking that finish the song as Johnny’s motorbike speeds away. I’m just going to listen to it this time through.

Listen 9:

I have sort of run out of things to say for this tune now. It’s not that I’m sick of it or anything, I think I could listen to this song quite a lot, though i haven’t heard it, nor felt the need to hear it, for some five years!

It’s just that listening to it, I find it quite difficult to think of anything at all. It is so dense, that it doesn’t really open itself up to interpretation so easily. It sort of happens to you. Maybe that’s why it became such a repeater on that cassette, because it demands multiple listens just to decipher what is going on.

Listen 10:

So, I’m partially reminded of that moment repeatedly rewinding my walkman in Havana airport, looking at the threadbare ‘flags of the world’ that hand from the ceiling, trying to find the American one (it is much smaller and much more tatty that the others) and trying to name as many as I can, eating guavas by the bucket load. But the intoxicating love that i had for this song at that particular moment has not really stood the test of time. It was the first on my list of songs to write about, and I did have a huge fixation with it, but now, I can’t really remember why. It’s still a really good pop song, but that spark has gone slightly. Though I hope it’s not another five years until I listen to it again.   

[1] Just in case you want to relive this nadiral moment in popular music history, here is the video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mhj0Q8wUlqs

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