Here – in Australia, in July 2021 – it’s easy to romanticise the notion of an Italian summer. As gloomy storm clouds roll overhead and the Delta variant of the novel coronavirus spreads from unvaccinated suburb to unvaccinated suburb, all we can really do is ponder and reminisce on simpler, warmer, non-deadly-virus times.
How fitting, then, that this month also marks 16 years since Gwen Stefani dropped her simple, warm, non-deadly hit “Cool”. A notable anniversary because, in my humble opinion, “Cool” is the best pop break-up song ever written.
“Cool” marked only one of two instances where Stefani collaborated with super-producer Dallas Austin – which is truly a damn shame. In case you’re not familiar with Dallas Austin’s work, let me take this moment to remind you that you are, you just don’t know it. This is the man behind P!nk’s “Just Like A Pill”, Brandy and Monica’s “The Boy Is Mine”, Anastacia’s “Left Outside Alone”, Sugababes’ “Push The Button” and basically half of TLC’s catalog. The man knew how to make a hit.
“Cool” was the fourth single taken from Stefani’s monstrously successful debut solo album Love.Angel.Music.Baby. It followed the earworm “What You Waiting For”, the tacky “Rich Girl” and the all-conquering “Hollaback Girl”. All three songs were packed with Stefani’s frantic energy that helped make No Doubt as successful as they were, and all of them had very obvious and very well-executed hooks. “Hollaback Girl” had more hooks in it than some pop stars manage in a lifetime.
But “Cool” marked a change of pace for Stefani. It wasn’t exactly a ballad, but it wasn’t as energetic or as hook-driven as its predecessors. Instead, over new wave synths and bubblegum essence of the 1980s, Stefani poured her heart out in an ode to an acceptance of lost love.
“Cool” came out at a time where break-up hits were filled with either angst or melancholy. Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone”, Dido’s “White Flag” and Mariah Carey’s unstoppable “We Belong Together” all either waved exes off, or begged them to come back.
But break-ups aren’t always charged with those emotions, and “Cool” recognises that middle ground: “It's good to see you now with someone else/And it's such a miracle that you and me are still good friends/After all that we've been through/I know we're cool.” Stefani barely sings over a purr throughout the song. She’s not hitting the rage of Clarkson or the power of Carey, but she doesn’t have to. “Cool” doesn’t need to do too much in order to be convincing. Stefani’s voice, while soothing, is one that echoes of coming to terms with something she never thought she would, running over the hill she never thought she’d be able to climb.
Conversely, even if the song doesn’t convince you of its message, that only adds to how great it is. The song’s Aperol spritz-ed, Mediterreanean music video shows this clearly. The video sees modern day Stefani meet with her ex and his new lover, interspersed with images from the past of Stefani falling in love with that same ex. But, in moments where Stefani is singing directly to the camera, she’s rarely seen smiling. In fact, her eyes often avert the camera and when they do meet, there are tears welling.
There’s a suggested undertone that Stefani doesn’t actually believe the words she’s written, and that she’s just telling herself she’s over her past love because, for all she knows, her past love is over her. It’s a duality that is not only realistic, but one seldom seen in break-up pop songs, even to this day. You only need to take one look at Olivia Rodrigo’s music to know that she is PISSED. Sure, she might explore different themes throughout an album, but never in one song, as subtly as Stefani before her.
“Cool” isn’t great because it tries to paint a ‘mature’ ending to a break-up. Break-ups are meant to be emotionally volatile and confusing, and most music about them reflects that. “Cool” is great because it acknowledges that volatility, but still shines the light on another path: growth. Documenting the end of a relationship as it’s happening is one thing, but doing so years after the fact is another beast entirely.
Since “Cool”, we’ve seen multiple acts try and re-create this formula. Beyoncé’s “Best Thing I Never Had”, while certainly not as forgiving as “Cool”, still displayed Beyoncé at the end of a tunnel, as she realised things could be better. Ariana Grande’s “thank u, next” was as autobiographical as songs come (“Cool” itself is rumoured to be written about Stefani’s relationship with fellow No Doubt member Tony Kanal), and sees Grande acknowledge the way her past relationships made her grow as a person.
Yet, “Cool” does all that and more. Gwen Stefani finds the light at the end of the tunnel – “It's hard to remember how it felt before/Now I found the love of my life” – and she recognises her growth as a person – “Memories seem like so long ago/Time always kills the pain”. But, most importantly, she’s not about to publicly harbour venom towards her ex. In fact, the video never shows the reason why the two lovers broke up in the first place. Maybe she’s hoodwinking us and she’s still concealing pockets of hurt. Or maybe, just maybe, things did indeed just get better.
And, when you look outside at our cold, COVID-ridden society, isn’t that just the reminder we all need?