Navel Gazing: Looking Back at No Doubt's 'Tragic Kingdom' 20 Years Later
We reassess No Doubt's breakthrough album and celebrate the moment Gwen morphed from ska-punk singer to a bonafide trendsetting pop star.
When No Doubt were promoting their self-titled debut album in 1992, a program director at LA’s most influential station, KROQ told their label: “It would take an act of God for this band to get on the radio." Three years later, the overlooked ska-punk group from nearby Anaheim released their third album, Tragic Kingdom, which went on to sell 16 million copies worldwide, spawning the huge radio hits "Just a Girl," "Spiderwebs," and of course, "Don't Speak." The latter spent 16 consecutive weeks at number one on the Billboard Hot 100 Airplay chart, which remained a record until the Goo Goo Dolls' "Iris" came long.
Tragic Kingdom celebrated 20 years this past Saturday, and although it would be an exaggeration to suggest it's been forgotten in the interim, it's certainly not remembered as fondly as it should be. Admittedly, it's not too tricky to work out why—even when they were ruling the radio, No Doubt were never the coolest group to temp-tattoo on your bicep, and if you're still keeping your fingers crossed for a ska-punk revival—good luck with that. Then there's the fact that these days, Gwen Stefani is better known for her short but glittering solo career, not to mention her coaching role on The Voice, than as frontwoman of a rock band; No Doubt's largely unremarkable 2012 comeback album, Push and Shove, did little to change that.
But now, as the band’s breakthrough record celebrates a somewhat shocking birthday (where did the years go?) the time is right to revisit, if not reclaim it. Listening to Tragic Kingdom today, it's obvious that 59 minutes is about 10 too many, and whoever decided to place its longest and least melodic song, "The Climb," smack bang in the middle has been waiting for a slapped wrist for two decades. These gripes aside, Tragic Kingdom is a total blast. It retains the frenetic energy of the band's earlier ska-punk material, but injects it with post-grunge scuzz, more danceable rhythms, and a much stronger pop sensibility. "Sunday Morning," "Spiderwebs,""Just a Girl," "World Go Round," "Happy Now?" and "Hey You!" all boast choruses that’ll bounce round your brain for days, and most of the rest is almost as catchy. But even as No Doubt were sharpening their songwriting skills and streamlining their sound, they weren't afraid to goof out a bit. "You Can Do It" is a horn-fuelled disco tune that shares some DNA with Barry Manilow's 70s cheesefest "Copacabana (At the Copa)"—listen again and you'll see what I mean.
Infectious as the band's music frequently is here, what makes Tragic Kingdom truly gripping is Gwen Stefani coming into her own and doing so with that wonderfully weird voice of hers. Initially, her distinctive mezzo-soprano split opinion. Was she being choked while she sang, but, like, only very slightly? Nevertheless the Gwen-yelp demands attention and she sounded exactly like nobody else of that era, or, come to think of it, even now. Back in ’95 the UK all about Britpop (male heavy apart from the likes of Elastica, Echobelly, and Lush), and post-grunge, R&B dominated the American charts, with Coolio, TLC, Mariah, and Boyz II Men battling it out to claim the crown of the most popular song of 1995 (“Gangsta’s Paradise” won, by the way). Sure there was Garbage and Bjork, but in terms of alt leaning female artists crossing over, alongside Alanis with her airwave-slaying debut Jagged Little Pill, Gwen was a lone bleating frontwoman. Over a year after Tragic Kingdom hit the shelves, it went to number one in the Billboard Charts where it held fast for eight consecutive weeks.
These days no one would question Gwen’s fashion credentials—she’s deftly navigated nearly 30 years in the biz, skillfully using her image to amplify her music and launching fashion label L.A.M.B. and Harjuku Lovers. Meanwhile her personal style continues mix retro shapes and cutting edge silhouettes, flitting between playfully audacious outfits and her tomboy roots. But circa 1995 no one in the spotlight was dressing like her—baggy ska-punk pants and a crop top or singlet was her uniform, and her exposed navel and washboard abs remain one of her signatures all these years later. Equally, the natural brunette has never let her roots see the light of day. Her commitment to platinum locks and bright lips remains steadfast, even if her penchant for bindis has thankfully fallen by the wayside—which, by-the-by, was an accessory Gwen adopted when she was dating the band's bassist, Tony Kanal, and wanted to acknowledge his family's Indian heritage at Kanal clan gatherings. Gwen looked glossy, but also badass and two decades on artists including Charli XCX and Rita Ora are still cribbing from her ’95 style file.
By 1995 Gwen had been fronting No Doubt for seven years, but most of the band's lyrics up until this point had been written by her brother and keyboard player Eric, with Gwen acting as the mouthpiece. Tired of touring, Eric quit No Doubt shortly after Tragic Kingdom was completed (he went on to become an animator on The Simpsons), and although he played on the album and wrote/co-wrote half its songs, Eric’s departure had a massive impact on the band's sound, as guitarist Tom Dumont explained in a 1996 interview.
"It was Gwen's first time really writing all the lyrics herself so to me, it went the opposite from selling out—we have done something that is even more personal," he told Backstage Online. "In the past, Eric was writing songs about his life and having Gwen sing them. Now we have Gwen singing and writing about her own experiences. It makes it more natural. She's a singer, she should sing about herself or sing what she wants to sing. I think that is the main reason why our musical style has changed."
What Gwen wanted to sing about was, and still is, incredibly relatable to anyone still figuring their shit out. On "Different People” she grapples with her place in a world full of "different people and all their different minds" as impending pop stardom beckons. "You don't have to be a famous person just to make your mark," she sings on the first verse, sounding as though she's trying to convince herself as much as anyone. She continues: "A mother can be an inspiration to her little son / Change his thoughts, his mind, his life, just with her gentle hum." Twenty years on, this couplet feels like the motherhood versus career conundrum neatly summed up for the TMZ generation.
"Different People" is one of several Tragic Kingdom highlights that could only have been written by a smart, ambitious, somewhat conflicted woman. "Hey You!" has Gwen suspiciously eyeing up a newlywed couple who are "Just like my Ken and Barbie Doll," while "Just a Girl" is a wickedly sarcastic feminist anthem inspired by a scolding she received from her father after she stayed out too late with Kanal and drove home alone. "Oh I'm just a girl / All pretty and petite / So don't let me have any rights," she sneers at the top before sighing, "Oh, I've had it up to here!" over the outro. Elsewhere, "Spiderwebs" is essentially Destiny's Child's "Bug a Boo" for the pre-cellphone era, while on “Excuse Me Mr.” Gwen casts herself in the role of a girl simply desperate to catch a guy’s attention, complete with a sonically slapstick middle eight. Funnily enough, the summer before Tragic Kingdom dropped, Gwen caught the attention of a man who would at least in part inspire her art for the next two decades: Bush’s Gavin Rossdale. Their fateful meeting and instant attraction occurred when both bands toured with the Goo Goo Dolls. They began dating soon after and married seven years later, with Rossdale inspiring numerous future No Doubt and solo songs including “Don’t Let Me Down” and “U Started It”—can you guess what those two are about?—before Gwen filed for divorce this past August citing “irreconcilable differences.” Both personally and professionally, 1995 was a massive year for La Stefani.
But nevermind Rossdale, a selection of Tragic Kingdom’s best songs hinged around another key relationship for Gwen: her long-term boyfriend and No Doubt bassist Tony Kanal, and aching power ballad "Don't Speak" became the summation of her heartbreak in the wake of their split. At the time it was utterly inescapable, but perhaps because it's been dimmed by over-familiarity, the album’s lesser-known breakup songs hit harder today. "Happy Now?" is filled with bitterness and defiance, "Sunday Morning" documents an unexpected role reversal—suddenly he wants her back—and "End it on This" sees Gwen finally throw in the towel. But far from becoming subsumed by, "You Can Do It," is Gwen’s stop-wallowing-and-get-yourself-together song.
No Doubt would go on to make a more sophisticated album with 2000's Return of Saturn (the lion’s share of the lyrics for which are dominated by the rollercoaster early days of her relationship with Rossdale), followed by 2001's Rock Steady, which was precision-tooled by The Neptunes and William Orbit for chart success, before Gwen made her inevitable solo move in the mid-aughts. But Tragic Kingdom remains the band's defining moment, a career-altering record that’s earnest, passionate, and reassuringly flawed. An album about breaking up, growing up, and thinking about shit; about not always knowing the answer and getting on with it anyway. It shouldn't take an act of God for you to give it another listen, but the passage of 20 years seems a perfect excuse to dive back in.
Nick Levine enjoyed Stefani's navel gazing while gazing at her navel. Follow him on Twitter.