Tragic Kingdom Turns 20
The mid-’90s were a weirdly great time for alt-rock one-hit wonders, for people like Lucas or Whale or Ruth Ruth who would come along and drop some obliquely perfect piece of music (respectively: “Lucas With The Lid Off,” “Hobo Humpin’ Slobo Babe,” “Uninvited”) before disappearing completely. People had figured out that there was money to be made in alternative rock, but they weren’t sure how to make it, and the radio was grabbing onto fun little curios and running them into the ground like they were “Jeremy.” Established bands were getting in on the act. People like the Butthole Surfers (“Pepper”) and Folk Implosion (“Natural One”) and former Orange Juice frontman Edwyn Collins (“A Girl Like You”) were finding their greatest commercial success by making what can honestly be described as very good novelty songs, and none of them were ever able to tap into that well again. While their former bandmate Walter Schreifels was chasing post-hardcore greatness with Quicksand, three ex-Gorilla Biscuits in the band Civ knocked out one perfect piece of percussive riff-pop with “Can’t Wait One Minute More,” and that’s really all you need to know about them. Some of the bands stuck around longer than they should have; I remember being incensed at the idea that anyone would give Better Than Ezra a chance beyond enjoying “Good.” (To this day, I still don’t understand how Better Than Ezra kept getting airplay with songs that sounded like “Good” but weren’t as good as “Good.”) And sometimes the bands had legs; Hum and Spacehog both found cult love after “Stars” and “In The Meantime.”
I liked all of it. My friends and I were all jumping into punk rock with both feet at the time, but I remember justifying liking these songs by arguing that they were the new new wave, that there was a grand pop-music tradition of bands landing one glorious hit and then going away. The first time I heard No Doubt’s “Just A Girl,” I thought something like this: Oh cool, some radio-pop band is doing riot grrrl. I did not imagine it would stick around. Instead, the woman who sang that song turned out to be the closest thing that era had to a Debbie Harry figure. You never can tell.
Looking back, there are all these different reasons why No Doubt succeeded and went on to massive, generational stardom where just about all their peers failed. For one thing, they were fun and colorful. During the grunge-hangover era, this was huge. They were on the radio alongside bands like Silverchair or (ahem) Bush, humorless chumps who seemed to be aping both the sonics and the aesthetics of the more organic bands who had come before. Meanwhile, No Doubt were willing to come out of the gate looking like some clowns. I remember seeing them play “Just A Girl” on Conan O’Brien, and they were a blur of bad peacocky hair and baggy jumpsuits and doofy synchronized dance moves and wallet chains. There were willing to look goofy, something the rock bands of today could stand to do a little more often. They also embraced polish and synthetic flash and energy in ways that felt new and exciting, ways that further set them apart from the alt-rock of their day.
And then there was the ska thing. Hard to remember now, but third-wave ska was once an underground sound, more or less. Before Tragic Kingdom’s second single “Spiderwebs” hit, the only ska songs on the radio were Rancid’s “Time Bomb” and maybe the Mighty Mighty Bosstones’ “Someday I Suppose” or Sublime’s “Date Rape.” “Spiderwebs” took that California ska-punk sound and cleaned it up until it was almost unrecognizable, and kids like me still wound up thinking it was cool that ska was getting onto the radio. Before Tragic Kingdom, No Doubt had been kicking around the major-label fringes for years, releasing two albums that didn’t really go anywhere, but they had deep connections within the California punk scene. When I saw them play a radio-station festival in 1996, they pogoed and skanked across the stage and climbed speaker cabinets, and all that motion seemed like the realest punk band on the bill. Looking back, this was a festival bill that included Jawbox and Lush and the Foo Fighters and the Afghan Whigs, as well as (on the second stage) Guided By Voices and Girls Against Boys, and I walked out of the thing thinking that No Doubt were the coolest thing I’d seen that day. That says more about my goofy ass than it does about No Doubt or any of the other bands, but it says something about that moment, too.
But those are outside variables, and No Doubt also had something to do with No Doubt becoming huge and then staying huge. After all, they had songs. “Just A Girl” pounds its facile-but-necessary fuck-the-patriarchy message with a stuttering Devo-esque riff and a chorus that more than pays off the tension in the verses. “Spiderwebs” is California ska-punk done as a big Broadway showstopper, with all these weird little keyboard whizzes and bass-pops, as well as a central melody that will get stuck in your head for days and days. “Don’t Speak,” the song that pushed the band all the way over the top and held rock radio in an absolute stranglehold for months, rewrote Aerosmith’s “Dream On” as a grandly heartbroken mall-pop power-ballad colossus. Even if you hated it at first (guilty), it became so omnipresent that you eventually had to give in, cheesy fake-flamenco guitar solo or no. There were more singles — seven in all before the album cycle ended — but those three were both big enough and great enough to ensure No Doubt a place in history.
But it wasn’t just the songs. This was a band with a sense of perspective, too. Immediately before the band made Tragic Kingdom, it lost keyboardist Eric Stefani, Gwen’s older brother, who quit to become an animator on The Simpsons full-time. Eric had been the band’s sole songwriter, and Gwen had to take over for him. She turned out to be way, way better at it. That’s because she knew what she was doing and because she had things to sing about. There were plenty of songs in the ’90s that took the same sort of feminist stand that “Just A Girl” did, and plenty of them even did it in a pop context. But “Just A Girl” did that forcefully and still made it register as an arena-singalong type of song. There were people — people who’d never hear Bikini Kill or Liz Phair or Yo Yo — who were waiting for a song like “Just A Girl,” and Stefani will always be the person who gave it to them. “Spiderwebs” is a fun song, but it’s also a damaged, stressed-out fuck-you to the assorted dudes who would not leave her alone. If it came out today, it would be about how you need to get out of Gwen Stefani’s mentions. And then there was the still-fresh breakup. Stefani and No Doubt bassist Tony Kanal had been a serious couple, but they fell apart shortly before recording Tragic Kingdom, and that immediate rawness probably lent even a ballad like “Don’t Speak” a certain urgency. There was plenty of shtick in Stefani’s singing voice; it does, after all, have a whole lot of cartoonish Betty Boop pout in it. But there’s also toughness and vulnerability in it, and on singles like those, she wrote powerfully and sold the sentiments. She was a powerful figure, and when so many other ’90s stars fell apart as soon as anyone paid them attention, she thrived in the spotlight.
Not that she had it all the way figured out yet. Half of the songs on Tragic Kingdom became singles, and all the singles are, at the very least, pretty good. But the songs that remained album tracks? Whoof. “Don’t Speak” sounds even better when heard shortly after a shitty and overproduced kinda-ballad like “The Climb.” Nobody needed to hear No Doubt dicking around with marching-band horns on that song or with blaxploitation-funk on “You Can Do It.” Tragic Kingdom ends with its title track, a song of Mr. Bungle-esque circus noise that I find damn near unlistenable now. For my money, No Doubt didn’t make a truly strong end-to-end album until Rock Steady six years later. By that time, they’d basically given up any pretense of being a cool alternative rock band. Instead, they were a mercenary pop group by then, one that was free to gleefully mess around with dancehall reggae and sleek British techno-pop. Tragic Kingdom remains an awkward transitional record, but it’s an awkward transitional record that blew the fuck up and introduced an absolute star. That star turned out to be one of the defining pop figures of the next decade, and she also turned out to be a vital presence with things to say. As legacies go, that’s not bad.