I was in my local grocery store the other night. As I reached for a box of frozen waffles, I heard the familiar bow-wa-wow intro to “Hella Good.” The second single from No Doubt’s Rock Steady is grocery store music. I mean, of course it is. Nearly every No Doubt single is in the grocery store playlist rotation, and most of them can still be heard regularly on certain adult contemporary radio stations. Ever since these songs came out, they’ve been ubiquitous. (I’m primarily referring to the SoCal band’s 1995 breakthrough Tragic Kingdom, Rock Steady, and most of Gwen Stefani’s solo singles. Return Of Saturn is kind of an outlier, but we’ll talk about that a little later).
If you were around for Rock Steady, you will remember how everywhere the album and its creators were. This went way beyond just radio, TRL, VH1, and such. At one point, No Doubt appeared on a 2002 episode of Dawson’s Creek, aptly titled “Spiderwebs,” where the whole cast, in character, attends a stadium show. (Great rewatch, highly recommended.)
In a lot of ways, Rock Steady, released 20 years ago this Saturday, cemented No Doubt’s mainstream career. By the time Stefani, Tom Dumont, Tony Kanal, and Adrian Young exited the ’90s, the band’s legacy was in a state of flux. They’d started the decade as a scrappy California ska/pop/punk project, mostly unsupported by their label, Interscope, which was more interested in the burgeoning grunge movement a few states to the north. Eventually, they became a pop radio staple on the strength of Tragic Kingdom — the ultimate breakup album — which dissected the dissolution of Stefani and Kanal’s seven-year relationship.
Fans waited five years for a follow-up, the hugely underrated Return Of Saturn, a darker album with more mature lyrical themes about a now late-20s Stefani’s hunger for true love, marriage, and children. At the time of its release, Return Of Saturn wasn’t a flop by any means, but it wasn’t a major success either (“Simple Kind Of Life” was the only single to chart on the Billboard 100, where it peaked at #38). It was Stefani’s one-off collaborations with Moby (“South Side”) and Eve (“Let Me Blow Ya Mind”), released in 1999 and 2001 respectively, that moved the pop-culture needle and laid a foundation for both the more freewheeling Rock Steady and Stefani’s eventual success as a solo performer.
Compared to the half-decade between Tragic Kingdom to Return Of Saturn, Rock Steady barely took any time at all to record. After sessions in Los Angeles and San Francisco, the band relocated to London and Jamaica. For two months, the band stayed at the Blue Lagoon in Port Antonio, where they swam, drank rum and Red Stripe beer, ate jerk chicken, and leaned hard into making their most party-hardy record to date. They stacked on the producers but chose wisely, looping in Nellee Hooper, Sly & Robbie (R.I.P. Robbie Shakespeare), the Cars’ Ric Ocasek, Prince(!), Steely & Clevie, and the Neptunes. Sometimes, producer-heavy albums run the risk of sounding disjointed. Here, though, you can tell who’s running the show.
Largely inspired by the after-parties the band threw while touring Return Of Saturn, Rock Steady leaned all the way into Jamaican dancehall culture, and the band brought in local genre influencers such as the aforementioned Steely & Clevie (“Start The Fire”), Sly & Robbie (“Underneath It All,” “Hey Baby”), singer-songwriter Lady Saw, and reggae and dancehall DJ Bounty Killer. Now, I’m fully aware that a mostly white band standing on the shoulders of Black artists to make a Jamaican dancehall-inspired album hasn’t aged particularly well. But for the sake of this retrospective, I won’t get into the muddy ethics of that move, except to remark that it probably wouldn’t go over super well today.
Rock Steady hit a soft reset on No Doubt’s career. This record sounded shiny, new, and energetic, thanks to Devo-like electronic flourishes. It caught whatever was left of the new millennium optimism that was sinking away in the wake of 9/11 and the Iraq war. Synthy first single “Hey Baby,” featuring a verse from Bounty Killer, is a straight-up party song, with Stefani narrating a PG version of the type of debaucherous behavior the band would engage in while on tour. The Neptunes-produced “Hella Good” follows in that vein, with Stefani in celebration mode (and, in turn, popularizing a SoCal slang phrase to the point of oversaturation).
And Stefani sure had a lot to celebrate in 2001. The year before, Rolling Stone named her the Queen Of Confessional Pop. Tragic Kingdom was still selling in the millions. “South Side” and “Let Me Blow Ya Mind” were everywhere. I’m guessing Interscope had started whispering sweet nothings in her ear about a possible solo album, which she’d do a few years later on 2004’s Love. Angel. Music. Baby. Plus, Stefani was half of a serious rock ‘n’ roll power couple with Bush frontman Gavin Rossdale.
There’s also a darker, more anxious side to the album: For all of its bravado and fanfare, Rock Steady, similar to Return Of Saturn, is a fascinating portrait of the Stefani-Rossdale relationship, which lasted for about 20 years and was heading toward marriage at the time of the record’s release. (The pair finalized their divorce in 2016 after Rossdale was found cheating with the nanny. How cliché.) For all of her excitement around Rossdale, Stefani (rightly) had a lot of angst. The reggae-styled “Underneath It All” sounds like a cooing love song about someone who sees the real you, but a closer look reveals the singer questioning how compatible she really is with Rossdale (“There’s times when I want something more/ Someone more like me/ There’s times when this dress rehearsal/ Feels incomplete”) before deciding that the relationship’s inconsistencies are ultimately worth it.
A number of other songs — “Making Out,” “In My Head,” “Waiting Room” — outline an up-and-down relationship where one party is seemingly eager for the other to just get their shit together and commit already. “Making Out” finds Stefani counting down the days until she can physically reunite with Rossdale, while “Waiting Room” and “In My Head” express impatience, paranoia, and distrust around that distance. Take it from me, girl: Oftentimes the stuff you worry about the most at the start is exactly what ends up dooming a relationship.
Revisiting the album recently, I had forgotten how much of Rock Steady has Stefani wringing her wrists over Rossdale. On the Ocasek-produced, very, very Cars-y “Don’t Let Me Down,” Stefani again grapples with her BF’s avoidant-sounding behavior. “Your mistakes I keep in the back of my mind/ So hard to let go, but I’m coming ‘round/ The scars are still fragile, don’t let me down.” On the album’s fourth and final single, though, Stefani embraces hope, and it could be for either long-term relationship: the one with Rossdale or the one with her bandmates. The Mario Kart-blooping “Running” asks, “Do you think we’ll make it?” before reassuring herself, “Keep holding my hand/ So we don’t get separated.”
Is Rock Steady a portrait of a classic avoidant-anxious attachment pairing? Twenty years later, it seems like a resounding “yes.” Lyrical close-reads aside, Rock Steady is also a No Doubt swan song. It would be 11 years before the band released a follow-up, 2012’s Push And Shove, and even then the band members were not really in sync anymore, Stefani later lamented. By that time, she had evolved into a global force in pop music on the strength of Love. Angel. Music. Baby. and 2006’s The Sweet Escape. No Doubt, while still a household name, would be regarded by a younger generation as the launching pad to Stefani’s numerous A-list projects and bourgeoning tabloid celebrity.
Rock Steady therefore marks the last time No Doubt were united around what kind of music they wanted to make. If you go back and watch VH1’s Deeper With No Doubt special, which captured some fun behind-the-scenes moments during the making of Rock Steady, it almost looks like the band is in their senior year of high school — laughing, joking, swimming, throwing back Red Stripes under the Caribbean sun. They’d grown a lot, and plenty had changed in the 10+ years they’d been together. Everyone’s going off in different directions, but the magic is still there — for now, anyway.