For some time now, I have been thinking about, and sometimes writing about cover songs. By “writing about cover songs,” I usually mean penning some nostalgia tickled by hearing the song, and so the writing becomes as much about my past as it is about the songs themselves. I suppose this is just what middle-aged GenXers do now. We remember those nascent versions of ourselves. We said we wouldn’t do this, but we do. I don’t buy a flashy sports car, I don’t get plastic surgery, so, instead, I indulge in music and memory.
I recently heard a pair of songs that put me in mind of how much I felt the influence of pop culture growing up. The first “it” girl of my not-quite-adult life was Molly Ringwald, and all my friends and I wanted to be like her. By the early 1990s my desire to spontaneously morph into a Molly Ringwald-esque character from a John Hughes Film mutated into a new creature, aligned with androgynous-yet-gamine Winona Ryder. I went from Pretty in Pink to Reality Bites, one version of pretty outcast to another, both impossible standards. Perhaps the shift was more seismic. In the 1990s we settled into the muddy aesthetics of grunge music; Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains. Disaffected and yet somehow gritty. Douglas Coupland chronicled us as an X Generation, to which we shrugged our shoulders in collective “meh.” Against this background would be the slow emergence of a ska punk band from Anaheim, California. Fronted by Gwen Stefani, a heady mix of Betty Paige, Jayne Mansfield and, curiously, a dash of Audrey Hepburn—contradictions that would run deep into the fabric of the band itself, No Doubt stood alongside grunge like a pesky and weird cousin who came to visit for the summer and stayed.
So, of course, I wanted to be like Gwen Stefani.
Platinum-haired and ruby-lipped Stefani dived into the mud-crusted grungy heart of late Gen X-dom with a pop-inflected, strangely radio-friendly, Southern California version of malaise different from her stormy brethren up the Pacific Coast Highway. The punk undertones of No Doubt lent a raw quality that played nice enough with the aesthetics of grunge. The breakout song, “Just a Girl” established Stefani’s feminist bona fides, if not full on Riot Grrl. In 1995, “Just a Girl” contained enough bounce and enough anger to feel like an anthem for Molly Ringwald character castoffs and Winona Ryder wanna-bes. Music for young, adult girls. Young, adult girls highly susceptible to representations of other young, adult girls.
Converted, I cut my long locks into a swishy bob, donned my androgynous GAP khakis and a rainbow assortment of boxy cardigan sweaters, ready for something different than the mottled aesthetics of gunge. Unsophisticated, I sipped pints of Guinness and read Jane Smiley and Anne Tyler and Lorrie Moore and ended up dating an older poet who appreciated my college football watching and quirky takes on music. Mostly I wanted to sit on the porch and listen to people.
Later, “Don’t Speak” articulated the confused feminism lurking inside me, and a full listen to No Doubt’s Tragic Kingdom fit the mid-point of a catawampus decade as well as my confusing twenties. I thought a lot about Monica Lewinsky, how I could have been her or any of my friends could have been her, and how confusing and sad it could be trying to figure out adulthood. Piecing together confusion, angst, misplaced ambition and wayward desires were the wares No Doubt trafficked in, and I lapped it up. Backed by an all-male band, which included her ex-boyfriend, Stefani rose beyond her bandmates as the face of this new fusion of ska, punk, new wave, alt rock, synth pop. To me, at that time, Stefani became the face of feminism.
No Doubt often shows up in my playlist when I dip into that special sugared nostalgia of my twenties—those so-called making of me years—and when I indulge, two covers often come to mind. Quite different from each other, both are covers by No Doubt.
Donna Summer played a musical role in my early years. My dad adored (and still adores) “Macarthur Park” (itself a cover, the original sung by Richard Harris). But it was not unusual to hear any Donna Summer song, and so I would know her hit “Love to Love You Baby” even though it wasn’t the Donna Summer song I’d often hear in my house. I would re-encounter “Love to Love You Baby” through Gwen Stefani, a song No Doubt contributed to the campy Zoolander soundtrack in 2001. We’d just flip-flopped from the go-go 90s into a new millennia, one that hazy, scary, unclear. Here was a song with disco sensibility, funk undertones, and sex-edged signing, an update to the sultry Donna Summer version from the 1970s. As Xers, we love 70s remakes, and Donna Summer would inspire prime pickings. She dripped sexuality borne of 1975’s bourgeoning club scene, producing nothing less than female orgasm in song form. Perhaps lacking in Donna Summer’s sexual charisma (a persona Summer later tried to shed), Stefani brings an edgy GenX-styled update in the form of throwback. A ray of California sunshine softens the driving lust propels No Doubt’s version of the song, light on actual lyrics but heavy on cooing. A different take on the sexuality. A wink and a nod to the heady 70s, era of Studio 54. Good postmodernists remake with such ironic stances.
Chameleon-like Stefani imitates and updates, as she and her bandmates will attempt again with a cover of “It’s My Life.” Originally performed by the 1980s new wave band Talk Talk, No Doubt polishes this new wave song with a pop punk veneer for a new millennia. Funny how I find myself in love with you, sings Stefani, a lyric that feels as if it could have been pulled from Tragic Kingdom. Where “Love to Love You Baby” sound like a song from a different era, even as Stefani refracts it through a No Doubt sensibility, “It’s My Life,” even as a cover, rings truer to No Doubt’s actual sound. It’s as if this song was theirs originally. Raised during the 1980s when “It’s My Life” originates, that song makes sense to me more on a listening-level than I am able articulate. It feels 1980 redux. Some things just sound right, depending on where and when you hear it, who you are at that time. Where “Love to Love You Baby” feels like a one-off for a campy soundtrack, “It’s My Life” comes off as a true cover (even though I struggle with what a true cover might actual be). “It’s My Life” also performed well in terms of airplay, ending the run of No Doubt as a band as Stefani turned to a new musical age for herself as a solo artist. I wonder what means to end one’s musical legacy on a cover song for a best-of album.
Truth told, I love both covers: one for the audacity of covering sonic sex and the other for the zeitgeist most native to me.
In the 1990s, when No Doubt would ascend, I wanted to be anyone but myself, mostly scared that I’d end up in some monotone version of job, husband, house, car, kids. I both did and did not want that. Could I be both pinned down and not pinned at the same time? I spent a lot of time figuring out what mattered, what that title, “It’s My Life” actually meant in personal terms to me. Maybe this feels more generational than it is, and perhaps it’s all young people who want to be someone other than who they are as a part of becoming a fully actualized person. I simply knew that I wanted to more empowered like the girl-gone-aggressive I heard in songs like “Just a Girl.” I didn’t want to feel like a pushover, which I often did (and most times, still do). On screen, I watched Winona Ryder do away with all the Heathers and watched her boyfriend smolder in the wake. She’d fumble and Big Gulp her way post-college, her version more mirage than reality. From these, I cut up, borrowed, and stitched together what felt like an adult life. I looked for and never quite found role models, and I struggled to become an original. In short, in a postmodern time I found myself a very postmodern girl, wearing my array of candy-toned cardigans to work and in the dying light of evening scribbling secret short stories, the faint hint of Tragic Kingdom low on a boxy CD player. My tamped ambitions hid in notebooks.
All these past, tangled feelings resurface listing to the No Doubt covers. “Love to Love You Baby” evokes smoldering sexuality, one that’s owned, one I lacked. The prolonged “Ooo,” oozing a primal charm. Stefani, unafraid, claims it in a way I’d never attempt. The other song, “It’s My Life,” asserts one’s existence as singular and self-made. Both speak directly to the problems of my twenties, where, caught between girl and woman, I faltered. If I was sometimes played upon, afraid to lose. Unsure sentiments in Stefani’s full, confident voice. Young women like I used to be dress up in confidence when we least possessed it. Still do.
The original Talk Talk version of “It’s My Life” encapsulates a desire to stand apart in a decade, the 1980s, that pushed conformity. You were a jock, a nerd, a prom queen, a basket case to borrow again from the silver screen. The cover reimagines the song much like memories, morphing, taking shape into a version we need to remember. Like putty, we press and squish and mold it into the cracks and crannies of us, as if we make the thing whole. And maybe we do. But we also cram those things we most want, filling in for the creased and blemished spaces we lack the courage to face as they are. If we’re lucky this new thing retains some kind of beauty.
So, did I go from Molly Ringwald to Winona Ryder to Gwen Stefani? Literally, no. Each symbolizes a cultural touchpoint, a place in time’s measuring stick. They represent in my imagination what I thought I wanted, who I aspired to become during any one moment of growing up. At some point, I cast each off. So, am I grown up now? I cue my Spotify to nostalgia du jour. I read smart, poignant essays by the older Monica Lewinsky in Vanity Fair. Ringwald and Ryder play mom characters now. Stefani buys a house with a country star.
These women act like a kind of cover for me—less in the song sort of way and more in the “give cover” or sheltered or protection kind of way. I could try on these personas on for size, getting a sense of who I was through this filter. When I look back on it, the original parts of my life stand out: the girl who liked to adorn her jeans and army-surplus backpack with patches and pins, who scavenged vintage purses and baubles (and still does), who liked to read and dance, creating almost fantasy realms through both. A girl who stumbled her way into concerts, following a trajectory of musical tastes not quite inside or outside the mainstream. A girl who became a woman on a circuitous path, not by following a conventional one.
I cue up No Doubt now, and Stefani’s voice lingers the way only songs do, beyond these covers. I ache a little at each listen of Tragic Kingdom, Rock Steady, The Return of Saturn, The Singles. Smile too. It is, of course, my life, and not even a cover set to any one point in it can sum it up. But I keep listening, especially to cover songs, obsessed with them, as if the covers map out all my intentions. I have been a creature of fits and starts, twists and turns. Maybe all the covers I consume show me where I’ve been, and hint at where I am to go, what’s possible even if the terrain doesn’t change. What actually changes? Me. My life. I am the factor in play. Sometimes I still sip Guinness on the porch. I’m listening, enjoying each remake.
Renee Nicholson is the author of two collections of poems, Roundabout Directions to Lincoln Center (Urban Farmhouse Press, 2014) and Post Script (Urban Farmhouse Press, forthcoming 2020) and co-editor of the anthology Bodies of Truth: Stories of Illness, Disability and Medicine (University of Nebraska Press, 2019). She was the past Emerging Writer-in-Residence at Penn State-Altoona and is Associate Professor in the Programs for Multi- and Interdisciplinary Studies at West Virginia University. Renée’s writing has appeared in Electric Literature, The Millions, Bellevue Literary Review, Paste, Poets and Writers, The Gettysburg Review and many other publications. She is the 2018 recipient of the Susan S. Landis Award for Distinguished Service to Arts from the West Virginia Division of Arts, Culture, and History.