In 2004, Gwen Stefani came stomping out as a solo artist with the hit Hollaback Girl. Catchy and aggressive enough to make a statement, the song wasn’t just another Neptunes-produced banger.
The music world isn’t always kumbaya. It can be cutthroat and nasty. It turns out that the ska & pop punk queen had a little beef to settle.
Let’s dig down into the dirt and see who the beef was with and if they buried it. Join us and take a little walk around the track.
Let’s get rockin’!
Who Originally Wrote Hollaback Girl?
When Gwen Stefani started working on her own projects in 2003, No Doubt topped the charts. Stefani formed the band with her brother back in the 1980s with her brother Eric. They created a lot of great music, but it wasn’t always Gwen’s vision.
With her first solo release, Love. Music. Angel. Baby. in 2004, she helmed her own ship. But it wasn’t without help. Already at the top, Stefani relied on top co-writers to create her signature sound. None other than Pharrell Williams, then of The Neptunes, helped write and produce Hollaback Girl.
Stefani grew up in the Anaheim area, a California girl to her roots. Her parents were folk music lovers and introduced their four kids to Bob Dylan and Emmylou Harris young.
Gwen’s older brother Eric branched out and began listening to British 2 Tone, a predecessor to American ska. When he formed a band with some friends, Eric had a good idea to include his little sister on vocals.
Grunge ruled the charts in the early 90s when No Doubt released their first album, No Doubt. Listeners weren’t interested in the horn-infused punk sound that bands like No Doubt and Sublime created.
But Stefani didn’t care. She felt like the female singers in grunge bands were too aggressive, which isn’t her style. She wanted to be more like Debbie Harry, sexy, classy, and powerful.
Her bet paid off. No Doubt started climbing the charts with their third album, Tragic Kingdom, in 1995. Singles Just a Girl, Spiderwebs, and Don’t Speak rocketed the band to the top. The momentum carried them through until 2003.
Stefani started dating Bush frontman Gavin Rossdale in 2000, and Return of Saturn focused on this new relationship. Critics loved the new depth, but listeners didn’t. In 2003, Stefani walked away from No Doubt to pursue her solo career.
Ageless phenom Pharrell Williams spent his childhood in Virginia Beach, Virginia. In seventh grade, he met Chad Hugo at band camp. The two began creating music together, first as Surrounded by Idiots and then as The Neptunes.
Teddy Riley, music producer extraordinaire, overheard The Neptunes during a high school talent show. Riley signed the boys right out of high school and put them to work.
Their first job as producers came with rap duo Clipse and their album Exclusive Audio Footage. This was just the beginning because, in short order, the Neptunes became the “it” producers.
They worked on singles for Brittany Spears, Mystikal, Jay-Z, Babyface, Nelly, and many more top artists in the early 2000s. In 2002, the group worked with Justin Timberlake on several of his big hits (Señorita, Like I Love You, Rock Your Body) and Snoop Dogg on Drop It Like It’s Hot.
Then, in 2004, Gwen Stefani came calling for The Neptunes to produce several songs on her first solo album.
What Does Hollaback Mean?
“Hollaback Girl,” the chanted hook to the Williams & Stefani song, turns on the term hollaback. And while the lyric is well known, the meaning of the word isn’t as much.
Hollaback refers to someone who responds to rude sexual or romantic overtones. If someone catcalls you while you walk down the street, a hollaback is what you respond with.
In the song, the singer repeats the phrase, “I ain’t no hollaback girl,” throughout. Traditionally catcalls are not delivered by the most classy types. So, for the singer, a hollaback girl is a dig. She’s ensuring that people understand she won’t respond to petty disputes or personal attacks.
So, Who Was Hollaback Girl About?
As we discussed earlier, the 90s and early 2000s had plenty of beef to go around in the music biz. Competing genres, in this case, grunge and ska/pop/new wave. However, one thing they had in common was the desire to be outsiders.
More aggressive, edgier, and hardcore usually meant more record sales. Heroin chic dominated fashion and music, a far cry from the 1980s and their “girls just wanna have fun” vibes.
Two singers ruled in the battle of the blonds: Courtney Love of the band Hole and Gwen Stefani. Love’s gritty, abrasive voice and confrontational style gave grunge its queen. It didn’t hurt that she married Kurt Cobain, the undisputed king of grunge with his band Nirvana.
Until the early 2000s, an uneasy peace existed between the two women. They both were on their own, having left their bands, and it seemed like maybe the world was big enough for them both. Then in 2004, something changed.
A Rift Forms
In an interview with Seventeen magazine, Courtney Love had some choice words for Ms. Stefani. Love said, “Being famous is just like being in high school. But I’m not interested in being the cheerleader. I’m not interested in being Gwen Stefani. She’s the cheerleader, and I’m out in the smoker shed.”
Ouch. Bullies don’t ever stop unless you put them in their place.
In later interviews, Stefani discusses the incident without using Love’s name. In a 2005 interview with NME, she said, “Y’know someone one time called me a cheerleader, negatively. And I’ve never been a cheerleader. So I was, like, ‘OK, f*** you. You want me to be a cheerleader? Well, I will be one then. And I’ll rule the whole world, just you watch me.”
And so, with the help of Pharrell Williams and the Neptunes, Stefani wrote a song about it.
What Was the Creative Process for Hollaback Girl?
As Stefani started writing material for her debut solo album, she hired The Neptunes as collaborators. They worked on several songs together in the early stages of the process, but something was missing.
Stefani felt uninspired and walked away from the process due to writer’s block. The juice was gone, and the fruits of their labor lacked the spark Stefani wanted.
With her album nearly complete, Stefani felt inspired again and called The Neptunes back to work with her in the studio. After writing and recording two songs in a week, the session seemed to have reached its end.
But Pharrell thought there had to be at least one more song. Stefani returned to the studio with Pharrell, where he played his debut album for her. Inspiration struck again, and the two got back to work.
They discussed the bullying incident and agreed that it provided the perfect starting point for the song. Using the metaphor of high school, Stefani and Williams imagined a situation where she was a cheerleader. Leading a squad of misfit girls, Stefani challenges the unnamed person talking bad about her.
When they finished the song, both artists jumped around the studio, screaming. They knew they had a hit.
Who Is Naomi Campbell?
One of the legends about the origin of the term hollaback involves supermodel Naomi Campbell. The story goes that a guest tried to speak over her on her YouTube talk show.
Campbell responded, “I’m sorry, I have a name. I ain’t no hollaback girl.” In a 2021 interview, Williams confirmed the true inspiration for the chorus, none other than Naomi Campbell.
Naomi Campbell is no stranger to bullies. The British supermodel had plenty of critics when she began her modeling career at 15. But she made her way in the modeling world.
The first Black woman on the cover of both French and British Vogue, she broke new ground in the industry. But she’s also known for her quick temper. And it’s this quickness that grabbed Williams’ attention.
Tell Me More About Courtney Love
Courtney Love’s early life seems like a pulp novel. Born to hippie parents in San Francisco in 1964, her parents divorced in 1970. In court, it came out that her father had dosed her with LSD as a toddler.
Her mother moved her to Oregon and remarried. Then, she divorced again and moved to New Zealand with her new husband. When Courtney became too much to handle, she sent her back to live with her ex-stepfather.
Love ended up in a juvenile correctional facility for shoplifting in 1978. There, she discovered music by legends Patti Smith, the Runaways, and The Pretenders.
She became legally emancipated from her mother upon her release and worked odd jobs. She worked as a topless dancer in Japan, in a strip club in Oregon, and as a DJ in a gay disco.
After a few years studying theology, acting, and costume design, Love taught herself to play the guitar. She relocated to Los Angeles and placed an ad in the paper looking for bandmates.
Hole formed and recorded their first album, Pretty on the Inside. In 1992, Love married Kurt Cobain on the beach in Hawaii, but it didn’t last. Cobain died in 1994, Love went to rehab, and their daughter went with Child Protective Services.
By the time Love threw shade at Stefani, she had dissolved her band and devoted herself to an acting career. In 2003, she started working on her first solo album, America’s Sweetheart, and decided the time had come to reclaim her throne.
What is Gwen Stefani Doing Now?
Since 2005, Stefani’s been plenty busy. Between 2005 and 2014, she toured on her solo material and reformed No Doubt.
In 2015, Gwen appeared with Pharrell Williams at the Coachella Music Festival and performed Hollaback Girl. She also signed a contract to appear on the seventh season of The Voice, replacing Christina Aguilera.
In August 2015, Stefani announced her split from now ex-husband Gavin Rossdale. In November of the same year, she and co-host Blake Shelton announced their relationship.
The couple married shortly after on Shelton’s ranch in Oklahoma. Together, they’ve written several songs, including You Make it Feel Like Christmas and Go Ahead and Break My Heart.
As an artist, Gwen Stefani impacted a whole generation of singers. Her music continues to inspire from Paramore to Pentatonix, Katy Perry to Olivia Rodrigo.
And Hollaback Girl ranks as the first single to sell more than a million digital downloads. On the Billboard Hot 100 decade list from 2000 to 2009, it ranked forty-one. In fact, most fans consider it Stefani’s signature song.
Hollaback Girl Inspired By Love
Now we know the inspiration for the Stefani & Williams collab that rocked the early 2000s. Perennial bad girl Courtney Love. And in life, like high school, there are always people who want to see you fail.
But I think it’s clear who came out on top in this case. The true winner in the story comes in the lead into the chorus of Hollaback Girl:
That’s right I’m the last one standing Another one bites the dust.
Do you have a favorite Gwen Stefani song? Let us know in the comments below.