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Gwen Stefani at the Santa Barbara Bowl

Skin Deep

As Elvis Costello’s “Watching the Detectives” echoed through the Santa Barbara Bowl on Tuesday, dancers began to appear among the crowd. These were the Harajuku girls, Gwen Stefani’s roving entourage of breakdancing Japanese-style fetishists, and they signaled the imminent arrival of her holiness, the reigning queen of Orange County mall chic, the original hollaback girl. But tonight, the Harajukus were not the only human accessories in the house, as Stefani indicated early on that her brand-new baby boy, Kingston, was in the audience for one of his first-ever shows.

Gwen Stefani brought her squeaky-clean song stylings to an energetic and diverse crowd at the S.B. Bowl.
Paul Wellman

At 37, Stefani has become a mother herself, and the direction her life has taken toward raising a family was reflected in the mix of people in the audience, which included plenty of parents and many young children. With her platinum blonde locks and sexy rock-star attitude, one might wonder if the forthcoming material would be entirely appropriate for all these youngsters, many of whom appeared to be enjoying a special dispensation to stay up past their regular bedtime. Never fear-however risque Gwen’s concepts, her execution remains so squeaky clean and Disney-plastic that no one could possibly be offended.

Take the opening number, “The Sweet Escape,” which saw dancers cavorting in pantomimes of cops and robbers as Stefani was wheeled onstage in a mobile prison cell. In other hands-say Madonna’s, or Christina’s, or Britney’s-the women-in-prison motif would conjure up heavy sexual innuendo, but for Stefani, it’s just another cool costume change. No matter how roughed up or eager the man in stripes may seem to get at those women in police leotards, he will still have plenty of bounce left when the time comes for him to breakdance on the prison cell’s roof.

In other words, if you were looking for a political statement, or even a theme that makes any sense, then Stefani’s Sweet Escape tour is not your exit. Leave the implications of bondage and domination to other, less carefree pop stars. If Gwen wants to go to jail, it’s because she likes how she looks in stripes.

Her singing was mostly strong, particularly on the straight-ahead ballads. The audience of course loved it all, and went wild when Stefani and two members of the band popped up in the middle of the stands, playing a couple numbers right from among the seats. The beauty here may not be more than skin deep, but few contemporary performers are as happy and radiant in the spotlight as Gwen Stefani.

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