Welcome to the Music Roundtable, a blatant rip-off of TV Club’s TV Roundtable feature. Here, music writers and fans discuss recent reissues, hot new releases, or just records we like. For this installment, we’re talking about No Doubt’s Tragic Kingdom, which celebrated its 20th anniversary earlier this month.
Alex McCown: It’s easy to forget just how goddamn massive Tragic Kingdom was, as both an album and a cultural phenomenon. To date, it’s sold more than 16 million copies worldwide, outpacing records like Pearl Jam’s Ten, which puts it in the pantheon of some of the biggest records of all time. It almost single-handedly (with an assist from Sublime) put ska and dancehall influences back into mainstream American pop and rock music, at a time when grunge was still the watchword for commercial success. Gwen Stefani was one of the few recognizable female rock icons embraced on a mass scale during a time when riot grrrl was still flying beneath most people’s radars. No Doubt was enormously influential, both musically and stylistically. I can name multiple artists that would never have been signed in a million years if the band hadn’t achieved such ubiquity. (Paging Bif Naked.) Every time I see Gwen Stefani on The Voice, I hear the band’s music in my head.
Yet this is a tough one for me, because from the very beginning, I’ve been simultaneously repelled and hooked on No Doubt’s messy mélange of ska, new wave, punk, and pop. I think Tragic Kingdom was such a massive success because the band, when it clicks musically, finds a perfect middle ground of its various influences, fusing those disparate styles into a pop-rock format that’s nigh-irresistible. But it’s an awfully easy formula to get wrong. When I first heard Gwen Stefani’s faux-powerful pipes, on the new wave punker “Just A Girl,” I was turned off by the overly affected style she wields on nearly everything she sings. Her smoky alto is often a poor fit with the sassy punk snarling of No Doubt’s early work, making it seem as though an actor was brought in front of a punk band and told to sound tough. But when applied to songs that straddle the line between the group’s rough-edged beginnings and its pop-focused aims, it works perfectly. (For the record, I think she excelled as a solo pop artist, exhibit A being the almost-flawless dance hit “What You Waiting For?”)
And Stefani’s specific vocal abilities work well as a metaphor for the band’s music as a whole. When slotted into the right sound, it’s undeniably effective, but when the band relies too heavily on any one style, the results can be almost unlistenable. Tragic Kingdom fits this pattern like a Jamaican-loving glove. The first four tracks are superb, blending the disparate musical styles into a four-on-the-floor pop-rock sheen, mostly by remembering to include the new-wave vibe that makes the best songs so appealing. From the earworm “Spiderwebs” through the bouncy “Happy Now?,” the group found a musical sweet spot. But then comes the dreadful and cheesy “Different People,” which kicks off four awful songs (“Hey You,” “The Climb” and “Sixteen” follow it), tracks I still find painful to hear, like some suburban kids stumbled upon a ’70s dancehall record and thought, “How hard can it be?” Luckily, “Sunday Morning” is there to remind you just how good the band can be when it gets the recipe right, but hell, most of the rest of the record falls back into the ska-funk rut to which even the Chili Peppers would’ve said, “Eh, maybe not.” I’ve actually grown more fond of the record since I first heard it as a kid, but the weaknesses still stand out. (The title track is basically an Andrew Lloyd Webber B-side.) Marah, are you convinced by the theatrical pomp and circumstance that characterized so much of this album?
Marah Eakin: Like you, Alex, I wasn’t a knee-jerk fan of No Doubt. Rather, I pretty much hated the group from the get go. I liked Britpop, and though I thought Liam Gallagher’s relentless whining was just pure genius, the way Gwen Stefani mewled through tracks like “Just A Girl” was too much for me. All that changed in college, and I’m not sure why. It could have been that solo material you mentioned, Alex, because, c’mon, “Hollaback Girl” is a really, really good track.
All that being said, I’m fairly sure that I’d never actually listened to Tragic Kingdom all the way through until I was working on this piece. I’d heard all the singles one million times, but I didn’t know the record’s deep cuts and, like you said, Alex, they are not good. (The harpsichord on “Hey You” is the worst, and “The Climb” is music for trapeze artists.)
As heavy and leaden as the clunkers on this album are, the record’s singles are still fucking good. The record’s opening four cuts—“Spiderwebs,” “Excuse Me Mr.,” “Just A Girl,” and “Happy Now?”—are back-to-back bangers, and for being over 20 years old, they’ve aged surprisingly well. Same thing with “Sunday Morning,” which I think is my favorite track on the whole record. “Don’t Speak” I can take or leave at this point, but that could just be because it’s been played to its absolute saturation point. If I ever got to take a break from it, I could learn to tolerate it again.
Listening to this record now made me think about why I didn’t like Gwen Stefani to begin with. This record came out right when I was going into high school, and not liking her felt like a political statement, like by choosing not to buy into her red-lipped pin-up schtick, I was taking a stand against… makeup? Blond people? Maybe I didn’t like her audible gasps in the tracks, and maybe I found her vocalizations annoying, but as the years have gone by I’ve come to respect not only her solo work, but her fashion and brand aesthetics. I’ve grown rather fond of her. I’m still never going to watch The Voice, though.
What about you, Evan? Were you on team Stefani from day one? And not just team Stefani, but team Kanal, Young, and Dumont—a.k.a. the other guys?
Evan Rytlewski: Shockingly, I have no thoughts or opinions whatsoever about the other guys. Even after word spread that Stefani had written “Don’t Speak” about her breakup with one of them, they always seemed less like a band and more like extras hired to play her band. The cover art says it all, doesn’t it? While Stefani poses proudly in the foreground, all alt-girl glamour as she relishes her close-up, they’re stuck in an indifferent background shot, each barely distinguishable from the other as they pose near a tree with their hands in their pockets. And really, that cover is a fair representation of their act. Stefani was the group’s clear selling point. Every ska band at the time had some dudes with checkered shirts and spiked hair, but not every ska band had a Gwen Stefani.
I share both of your quibbles about her voice. As an adult it’s hard to take in her exaggerated, theater-kid impression of a jazz singer in anything other than small doses, but I had a lot more tolerance for it at the time. In the ’90s ska was the backup choice for kids too into high school music programs to go full punk, and the genre encouraged its singers to run with their hammiest instincts. As somebody who listened to a lot of ska back in the day—I still have shelves of CD compilations with titles like American Skathic and Skarmageddon—I can say with authority that Stefani was far from the worst perpetrator. Plus, at a time when a lot of ska bands in my city were writing songs about playing ska music, her band was penning bona fide hits. Even with its spotty stretches, song for song Tragic Kingdom eclipses the records that The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Reel Big Fish, and the other heavyweights of the ska revival were putting out around the time.
So even if I wasn’t much of a No Doubt fan, I was always impressed by Stefani, and her knack for bringing strong feminist sentiments to the radio. I can roll my eyes at her ska moves, but whenever she’s singing about the shit she endures as a woman—being brushed off for her looks, or having to screen every single damn phone call, because men can be scary—any complaints I have about her theatrical delivery go out the window. She was tapping something real, and the outrage came across.
I wish I could make a stronger personal case for this record, because I know it meant a great deal to a lot of people. Were you by chance one of them, Annie? And if so, what drew you to the record, and did you keep following Stefani and the band after they left ska behind?
Annie Zaleski: It’s funny, Evan—once No Doubt left ska behind, I actually became a much bigger fan of its music. The synthpop-heavy 2000 Return Of Saturn LP and new wave/reggae hybrids on 2001’s Rock Steady were way, way more my speed. (I even convinced my then-roommate to drive me from Boston to Worcester to see the 2002 tour with Garbage, I was such a fan.) In fact, I had almost no emotional attachment to Tragic Kingdom when it was released—much like Marah, I recall being smug about not owning the album and not going to see No Doubt play our local shed. This was less about me disliking the band, and more about me being incredibly sick of hearing No Doubt everywhere—I mean, there were seven singles released from the album over a period of two-and-a-half years. It was cultural saturation.
Unlike everyone here, however, I actually liked “Just A Girl” when it was released. To my ears, it sounded like ’80s new wave, a genre I was heavily obsessed with at the time. I can absolutely see how Stefani’s vocals would be off-putting, but I think her exaggerated pouts and simpering were quite effective; she was playing up the role of the helpless female, in order to register her frustration with sexism. (She did something similar with age on “Sixteen,” in clunky and wince-inducing ways.) However, I’m in agreement with everyone that the record’s non-singles are super spotty: “The Climb” is awful, “World Go ’Round” can’t decide if it wants to be earnest folk-rock or mellow ska-soul, and I can’t believe nobody’s mentioned the disco-funk cut “You Can Do It,” which is a total cheeseball.
I do like “Hey You” more than everyone else—I’m a sucker for a big chorus and think the harpsichord and flute are kinda charming—and “Excuse Me Mr.,” “Happy Now?,” and “Sunday Morning” have just the right amount of pep. When I listen to Tragic Kingdom today, it feels more of a piece with fellow California pop weirdos such as Oingo Boingo than with contemporaries such as The Mighty Mighty Bosstones. I feel like that’s because the album’s producer was Matthew Wilder (y’know, the guy who did the ’80s hit “Break My Stride”), who was known for his pop ways.
But unlike, say, Save Ferris—a band I did adore who benefitted from Tragic Kingdom’s success—I always considered No Doubt more of a band unit than most people here. Maybe this is because the band always went out of its way to emphasize that it wasn’t just Gwen and some other dudes. (Although that was difficult: I saw Adrian Young drum with Bow Wow Wow some years ago, and he wore a T-shirt that said, “No, I don’t know where Gwen is.”) Or maybe the whole Gwen-Tony Kanal breakup seemed to overshadow so much of their narrative. I mean, in the video “Don’t Speak,” a song supposedly about their split—scandal!—there were so many meaningful glances and so much palpable dramatic tension.
So I guess, Alex, my question now is: What sort of impact does Tragic Kingdom have today? Is it just a flawed ’90s classic that helped usher in ska’s brief dalliance with the mainstream and got Bif Naked a record deal? Or has it had a notable influence on modern music and trends? And does Stefani get enough credit for bringing feminist statements to the radio, as Evan notes—or is this overshadowed by things like the band’s colorful image or association with ska?
AM: I’d be hard-pressed to list a bunch of contemporary bands I could point to and say, “Check it out—total No Doubt ripoff.” It’s certainly possibly to argue that it helped pave the wave for subsequent acts that likely wouldn’t have found mainstream success without them, but it’s equally possible to say bands like The Mighty Mighty Bosstones were already well on their way to more widespread popularity. Reel Big Fish, for example, probably owes a bigger debt to Sublime than to these guys. That’s the thing about ska: Those who adopt its musicality are pulling from a very large, very similar-sounding array of acts. And the band moved so quickly to more dancehall-derived and electronic music, the reggaeton and ska sounds on Tragic Kingdom still feel like outliers in pop music.
It seems far more probable that No Doubt’s influence can be found in the subsequent generations of singers and performers who drew inspiration from Stefani’s style, posture, and identity. Marah’s right to call out the bright lipstick and blonde bombshell aspects of the singer’s persona, but in retrospect, it seems like a canny bridge between traditional pop starlets and the third-wave feminism of 21st century female bandleaders, like Metric’s Emily Haines or Chvrches’ Lauren Mayberry. Do you see Stefani’s place in this genealogy as the group’s biggest legacy, too, Marah, or am I full of shit?
ME: I think you could be on to something there, Alex. Take, for example, Katy Perry, who once performed at Warped Tour herself. She came up blending coy femininity with passable feminism, making it clear that, like Stefani, she ruled whatever stage, bar, or house she inhabited at the time. You could also talk about a slightly less arena-friendly pick: Paramore’s Hayley Williams, who has both a signature look and random dudes backing her up on her rise to the top, à la Gwen Stefani. Both those women—and the ones you mentioned, Alex, and all the other ones we’re not mentioning but that I’m sure the commenters will—can probably tip their hats to No Doubt for helping them come up in the music world, though they can also probably shout-out Garbage, Bikini Kill, and countless other acts.
Personally, though, I’m most glad that No Doubt helped open the alt music landscape a bit, even if I didn’t like it at the time. Twenty years later, I’m collecting rocksteady records and trying to convince people that Bob Marley was more than just Legend, and I suppose that, in part, I have No Doubt and its ilk to thank for that. Had I come of age just a few years earlier, for instance, I might have been more into Pixies-style noise than I am world- and brass-influenced tunes. And I like the Pixies—I do—but No Doubt, along with bands like Kula Shaker and Cornershop and even Reel Big Fish helped me realize that rock wasn’t just guitars and distortion. It was about knowing what else was out there in the world and making something you liked, no matter what. Evan, what did No Doubt do for you?
ER: No Doubt did very little for me directly, but they meant so much to some of my friends that I’ve always felt a little protective of them regardless. In college I was lucky to befriend several strong, stylish, confident women who wouldn’t have considered themselves any of those things back in high school, and one thing they all had in common is they were unabashed No Doubt fans.
I always admired how proudly they wore that fandom. As many female music fans know all too well, men have a way of steamrolling over women during conversations about music, and in the early to mid ’00s, a time when tastes on college campuses started with whatever Pitchfork was riding for and ended with a few select pop hits that were fun to play at parties, No Doubt was about as far away from cool as you could get. They carried the stigma of not just ’90s but of ska, phases of our lives that many of us were looking to put behind us, but my friends didn’t care. They were inspired by Stefani’s assurance, by her balance of toughness and femininity—this was a woman who could rock a wife beater but also launch a line of designer handbags without making it seem like a contradiction. And while my friends weren’t necessarily trying to make a statement when they’d sing “Spiderwebs” or “Just a Girl” at the campus karaoke bar, I was inspired every time they did anyway. This was around the time that I was realizing nobody should ever have to apologize for their music tastes, and they set a fine example. In some small but meaningful way, Stefani had shaped that confidence.
Annie, as the closest thing this panel has to a No Doubt fan, it’s only right to give you the final word. We learned when you came on board with the band, but for how long were you on board? And how did you feel about Stefani’s mid-’00s pop sojourn? At the time I remember a lot of the press acted shocked—shocked!—that a singer who identified as rock could go so shamelessly pop, but in hindsight it really doesn’t seem all that surprising, does it? Revisiting Tragic Kingdom 20 years later, it’s impossible not to hear those same pop ambitions.
AZ: While I would still go see No Doubt live in a heartbeat—in fact, the last time I saw the band, it was its tour with Paramore!—I thought 2012’s Push And Shove completely sucked. After a few listens, I never wanted to hear it again because it sounded so labored-over and devoid of energy and inspiration. (So far, I’ve kept my word.) I’ll certainly give any future music a try, though maybe I’ll temper my expectations.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, however, I was a total fan of Stefani’s solo career, starting with the “South Side” duet with Moby and her Eve duet “Let Me Blow Ya Mind” all the way through 2006’s The Sweet Escape. (That album in particular had some choice album tracks, from the Depeche Mode-esque “Wonderful Life” to the sighing melancholy of “Early Winter.”) You’re right, Evan: In hindsight, Stefani’s solo career feels like a natural progression from No Doubt. The band was trending toward pop anyway—and when you think about it, they never shied away from that direction. Unlike a lot of groups, there never seemed to be a lot of angst when the band exploded into the mainstream. Everyone seemed genuinely stoked to have achieved that success, grateful that their years of hard work had finally paid off.
And, of course, in ’90s rock circles, visible ambition wasn’t necessarily the coolest trait. But No Doubt relished smashing expectations. I mean, Stefani was seen as a tomboy in the early days of No Doubt; her fashionista status came later. She never hid that she was a Catholic—in fact, she wasn’t lapsed, as this interview with the priest who married her notes—but didn’t make a big deal about it. Even after becoming a superstar, Stefani and the rest of the band seemed genuine and sincere, and not buying into their own fame. I think Hayley Williams is a perfect example of someone following in Stefani’s footsteps, from her stage moves to the graceful way she’s growing up in the spotlight, there are tons of parallels.
But I guess for me, No Doubt still resonates because even to this day, Stefani’s feminism and confidence seem relatable. Even at her fanciest, you always knew she was still slightly nerdy Gwen who rocked the combat boots, awesome vintage dresses, and red lipstick in the ’90s. (In that sense, she was just like any of us ’90s dorks who raided thrift stores for our fashion, and then grew out of it.) That her life was somewhat of a fairy tale was just icing on the cake: She married the heartthrob everyone else wanted, popped out equally adorable kids, and built an amazing career on her own terms. I feel like I grew up with No Doubt, and seeing those milestones over the years was like being happy for an old friend. And it all can be traced to Tragic Kingdom’s massive success.