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It's hard to get a handle on Gwen Stefani. With a ubiquity paralleling only Madonna in her heyday, the red-lipped, white-haired propagator of the Orange County warble-whine has achieved a certain distance from standard industry criticism. Instead, the whole world politely watches as she parades her signature just-shy-of-smug smile down red carpets, from the covers of fashion magazines and through the projections of both silver and flat screens alike. She is, in short, untouchable.

But heavily touched. Ostensibly more of a marketing campaign than an inspired artist, Stefani still manages to transcend the packaging juggernaut occupied by Britney and Ashlee by keeping good company and avoiding controversy. One gets the sense that there's an extensive credential check outside the velvet rope of Gwen's inner circle, one that leans largely on street credibility and record-buying influence. She's been at it long enough to know, after all.

With self-professed ska influences from her brother's collection of Madness and Selecter records, Stefani eventually hit pay dirt with the feminist sloganeering of "I'm Just a Girl," fronting the haircuts of No Doubt and pasting a dot to her forehead. Tragic Kingdom proved a worldwide smash, launching obvious "solo" rumblings, especially after the heart-on-sleeve breakup (with bandmate Tony Kanal) balladry of "Don't Speak."

But No Doubt trudged on, mining new wave, ska and eventually dancehall to mixed effect. Then she married Gavin Rossdale, effectively sucking the life out of his career with Bush and reshaping it into a tabloid celebrity all her own. Then she did a song with Moby to similar effect.

With Love.Angel.Music.Baby, Stefani aimed to launch in a different direction, claiming that her solo debut would be a one-off "dance record" reminiscent of her other scripted influences. The album's bio name-drops The Time, Club Nouveau, Debbie Deb and, yes, early Madonna. Naturally, the results aren't so much vintage as they are very expensively contrived, with Dr. Dre, The Neptunes, Andre 3000, Linda Perry, Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook of New Order, Nellee Hooper, Dallas Austin, Wendy & Lisa, Tony Kanal, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis all propped up against a giant hit machine somewhere in the sky.

But the alchemy of overdoing it does work sometimes. Who else could get away with spelling "bananas" while sitting at the top of the charts?

Still, with her Asian-club-kid posse and members of David Bowie's band to provide necessary distraction on her solo tour debut, it's difficult to say exactly where to look to find Gwen Stefani herself. Maybe that's the point. Just stare straight ahead and look for the blond hair. Odds are it will be somewhere between the smoke and the mirrors.

Gwen Stefani
with Ciara

7 pm Tuesday, Dec. 20
TD Waterhouse Centre

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