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Holy Hell!: Tragic Kingdom Turns 20

Holy Hell!: Tragic Kingdom Turns 20

Tragic Kingdom was irrelevant to the mainstream market in 1995 – and it exploded.

We’re 20 years removed from the release of No Doubt’s diamond-certified Tragic Kingdom. We’re 10 years removed from the last time No Doubt fans spun the record end-to-end without cherry-picking favorites. We’re five years removed since newly minted teenagers could vaguely remember Gwen Stefani’s career before her megastardom as a solo artist and entrepreneur. On top of all this, we’ve got a music market that’s turned over four or five times and a handful of misconceptions about the music we grew up with. 20 years after Tragic Kingdom, we’ve grown up, and it’s about time for a revisit.

Tragic Kingdom is easily remembered as a simple breakup record. That’s not a ridiculous claim to make. Every outlet from MTV News to VH1’s “Behind the Music” harped on the story that most of the lyrics were written in response to the breakup between Stefani and bassist Tony Kanal. In actuality, there’s a lot more going on.

“Spiderwebs” acts as one of the primary contributors to the mainstream’s embrace of the punk infused third-wave ska movement. This pop laced anthem deals with the rejection of pushy men using typically male tactics. The tune emphasizes the levels to which women must stoop in order to be heard, to untangle themselves from the webs of male stupidity and head games.

“Excuse Me Mr.” is about as punk as the album gets. Fast-paced and ripe with cross-genre experimentation, Stefani sings, “It’s almost as if I’m tied to the tracks/ And I’m waiting for him/ To rescue me/ The funny thing is/ He’s not going to come/ He’s not going to find me This is a matter of fact/ The desire you lack/ This is the way I guess it has to be.” Her words describe the modern feeling of wanting to be saved, but having the courage to move forward to save herself.

“Just a Girl” is full of sardonic wit. Stefani drew inspiration from arguments with her father about the infantilized, bubble wrap treatment of girls and women. Using that sentiment to her advantage, the song spouts the societal perceptions of women, parodying these outmoded concepts and calling out the ridiculous nature of patriarchal viewpoints.

Delving into the first few tracks, it’s not so easy to call Tragic Kingdom a breakup record anymore, is it? Tragic Kingdom is a manifesto about finding a place in the world without the need for a safety net.

The 1995 album’s relevance to the time period is a bit tougher to grasp. American radio was still filled with grunge acts vying for supremacy after Kurt Cobain’s untimely and tragic death. Green Day blew up the landscape with Dookie, and brightened it up as well in terms of what people were interested in hearing. But with Tragic Kingdom’s release, audiences took in everything No Doubt was offering. Not only was the album ska, it was funk, it was pop, it was rock ‘n’ roll. It also featured a frontwoman singing songs about the fun, the strength and the plight inherent in being a woman in the modern world. In a male-dominated rock radioscape, Tragic Kingdom was a longshot.

“Different People” features elements of ska, reggae and soul. “The Climb,” a soul shuffle beat with guitars would fit perfectly on a classic rock record. “Don’t Speak,” the track that inspired all the talk about the breakup, is more or less a generic ballad, but it’s release amidst singles like “Just a Girl,” and “Spiderwebs” turned it into another trick up the band’s collective sleeve.

Tragic Kingdom was irrelevant to the mainstream market in 1995 – and it exploded. It shot up the charts not for just being damn good, but also because it was the opposite of the dominant market. The funk/disco track “You Can Do It” is a fitting title because the track is as out of place on Tragic Kingdom as No Doubt was on the radio. But, somehow, it works. Just like the album.

Tragic Kingdom’s immediate effects came in the form of the mainstream acceptance of the third-wave ska revival. No Doubt wasn’t the first of this wave. They weren’t even close. Nevertheless, they kicked down the door and let everyone else inside the gates of multiplatinum status. The revival proved to be short-term, however. It slipped back underground within a few years, and No Doubt were the only ones left with their videos on MTV. At that point, No Doubt had spent two and half years on tour, spent another two writing and recording their follow up, Return of Saturn, but by then they were something else completely. The band would eventually go on hiatus after hiatus with periodic tours and lackluster albums.

By now I’m hoping you’ve given the album another listen. I’m hoping you got all warm and fuzzy. Maybe you danced a bit…or bobbed your head, at the very least. But is nostalgia all that Tragic Kingdom has to offer? For most folks, that is probably true. But consider this: Tragic Kingdom isn’t particularly groundbreaking. It’s mostly a collection of exploited genre tropes focused not on reinventing the wheel so much as getting said wheel spinning again for a renewed romp. Stefani’s voice, perspective and presence make Tragic Kingdom stand out, but it’s debatable whether her contributions are enough to make the album special.

Despite Tragic Kingdom’s lack of revolutionary choices, it was an album perfectly suited to its time and place. It cemented itself in ‘90s canon because of its underdog status and most of all, because of the guts it took for Stefani to step up into the boys club and take center stage. She wasn’t just a sex symbol either. She was a voice for a generation of girls. While most re-listen to Tragic Kingdom for the fond memories, it deserves more. For the album’s 20th birthday, it’s time to give it more than another spin. The album it made a huge mark in the musical landscape: it was different, playful and it was exactly what many people needed.

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