On The Download: Fergie & Gwen, The Ladies Come Home

Band reunions, blockbuster tours, big albums and breakthrough new artists often mark the summer music season. Notable in the former category for summer 2009 are the “semi-reunions” of No Doubt and The Black Eyed Peas.

Moreover, fans are excited for the return of these groups’ respective female lead singers to their otherwise all-male bands. Gwen Stefani and Stacy “Fergie” Ferguson have come home to roost.

I use the term “semi-reunion” because neither of these bands ever broke up. Instead, their leading ladies put out huge hit solo albums (two for Gwen, one for Fergie). But surprisingly, they didn’t ditch the bands that made them famous, a pattern that we’ve seen in the music industry all too many times. The results of these re-gatherings should make for a very dynamic time in pop music.

I’ll admit that I never foresaw the success that Fergie would have as a solo artist. Her 2006 album, “The Duchess,” was strong from start to finish though, and produced no less than 5 huge hits. Fergie was able to capture an old-school feel (“Fergalicious” anyone?) that bridged the gap between the early days of female hip-hop and the modern intersection of R&B and pop.

Fergie was, in fact, the perfect female solo artist for the 21st-century. And, she had a story that proved that she had paid her dues. A childhood actress, she hit the lows brought about from self-admitted crystal meth addiction (following the failure of previous girl group Wild Orchid), and then joined up with the (at the time obscure) Peas for a resurrected career. She had the drive to be a huge star and hers was a case of “hard work + talent x opportunity = success.”

But in the Peas she had an equal talent in de facto bandleader & producer Will.i.Am. So, she wasn’t leaving behind lesser talents. She had something great to return to with Will. The results come out June 9, with the release of “The E.N.D. (Energy Never Dies)” – the band’s 3rd studio album with Fergie attached, and their first in four years. Highly addictive lead single “Boom Boom Pow” is currently a Billboard #1 and shows that the group hasn’t lost one bit of their mojo. It also has the best line in a pop song in quite some time (Fergie’s now infamous, “I’m so 3008… you’re so two-thousand-LATE”) Expect big things from the rest of the album.

Will.I.Am just debuted his acting chops in “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” and Fergie returns to the big screen (in her first major role), in this fall’s Rob Marshall-directed musical “Nine,” in which I’ve heard she’s more than holds her own alongside five Oscar-winning women. It’s exciting in the nexus of pop culture to think where both of these two Peas will head next. The sky seems to be the limit for them.

Fans of “American Idol” watched a reunited No Doubt play live last Wednesday night during “Rock Week,” singing the song that made them famous – 1995’s “Just A Girl.” Last Friday, on the “Today” show, they also played 1995 classics, “Spiderwebs” and “Don’t Speak” as well as their remake of 80’s Talk Talk hit “It’s My Life” (their last single together as a band). Watch for them also on the upcoming Lily van der Woodsen spin-off episode of The CW’s “Gossip Girl.”

For me, Gwen’s voice didn’t sound in top form during either of these performances. Then again, she puts on a helluva show – dancing around the stage the whole time (on “Idol” even doing push ups in the middle of her routine). And that being said, she sounded a lot better during “Don’t Speak” than in the other songs. Frankly, being a little pitchy is a lot better than enduring folks who opt to lip-sync. I can easily forgive Gwen for her vocal cords seeming a bit rusty; especially after five years apart from her band mates, with two small children at home.

Rather than putting out a new album, Gwen and her Orange County-bred band mates opted to tour first (for inspiration) before heading back in to the studio to record new music. Everyone knows that the real money’s in touring anyways – not album sales. Their tour kicks off Saturday, May 16 in Las Vegas.

I, along with many others, have heard a leaked version of what may (or may not) be a No Doubt remake of another 80’s anthem – British emo rocker Adam Ant’s “Stand & Deliver” – although it by no means is an official release from the label. What I heard felt uninspired, but it also was unlikely finished. I’ll be excited to see if they play it live on tour. And along with many fans, I am hoping that a full album of new music will soon follow their tour.

Both Gwen and Fergie remain female pop culture icons, however, who speak to millions of fans through their music, fashion and larger-than-life personalities. They are also style icons – Gwen with her unique sense of alternative-SoCal-meets-Japanese Harajuku future looks, and Fergie with her uber-feminine pop princess bold colorful fashion statements. Both have launched into fashion – Gwen with her own L.A.M.B. line and Fergie with her self-designed high-heeled shoe line through Brown Shoe Company.

Both women, however, also appeal to the masses because despite their beauty and talent, they are able to “hang with the boys” in a way that’s admired by men and women alike. Neither demonstrates diva behavior and neither is in the tabloids for all-night partying or misbehavior. They are as talented at their image-creation and maintenance as they are at their chosen trades.

Pop music is blessed to have The Black Eyed Peas and No Doubt back on the scene this summer. Hopefully Gwen and Fergie will continue to alternate between their solo projects and their bands for many years to come.

The whole truly is, sometimes, better than the sum of its parts.

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