“Excuse Me Mr.” … can you believe No Doubt’s Tragic Kingdom turns 25 years old on October 10?
Back in 1996, ska burst into the mainstream music scene thanks to No Doubt and lead singer Gwen Stefani’s spunkiness. Considering Tragic Kingdom was only released because the scrappy band independently recorded and sold the successful The Beacon Street Collection during the time Interscope Records had Tragic Kingdom shelved, it’s incredible that the album landed on the Billboard charts, yet alone be the second biggest selling album of 1997 behind the Spice Girls’ Spice and go on to sell over 16 million copies.
In hindsight, it is hard to believe Gwen Stefani resisted any notions that she was No Doubt’s breakout star and hated any press coverage that left out ex-boyfriend and bassist Tony Kanal, guitarist Tom Dumont, and drummer Adrian Young. At the time, she insisted that No Doubt be featured as a band and that she had no interest in a solo career. Looking back on Tragic Kingdom is bittersweet, during No Doubt’s first hiatus, Gwen Stefani became a huge solo star with pop hits like “Cool” and the chart-topping “Hollaback Girl.”
When No Doubt reconvened in 2011 to record Push and Shove, the album missed the mark for fans because it stripped away the ska-punk and rocksteady vibes for the fairly straight-forward hip hop/80s pop sound that mark much of Stefani’s solo catalogue. While Push and Shove isn’t a bad album, Stefani admitted she felt obligated to release something. As a result, it doesn’t have the personality of the eponymous debut, The Beacon Street Collection, Tragic Kingdom, The Return of Saturn, or Rock Steady and doesn’t feel like a No Doubt album.
So, why did I go into No Doubt’s post-2011 history first?
Tragic Kingdom is the album that created the Gwen Stefani we know today and needs to be understood in context. Prior to 1996, No Doubt was a local Southern California band from Anaheim that performed at local dive bars, gaining fans one at a time with their raucous shows. They had gone through several members, weathered losing their original lead singer John Spence, and almost broke up before they were even signed to Interscope. By the time No Doubt finished recording Tragic Kingdom, Interscope lost faith in the band (because its 1992 debut album severely underperformed), the band regained the record companies confidence, Tony broke up with Gwen, and founding member Eric Stefani quit the band in the middle of recording to animate The Simpsons, leaving his younger sister and three friends without a keyboardist. Had the band not gone on to be megastars, no one would have thought twice about No Doubt breaking up, yet Gwen, Tony, Adrian, Tom, and even Eric put everything they had into Tragic Kingdom.
Early No Doubt fans dismissed the record because it was a stark departure from the bands previous releases. However, No Doubt never stayed in one genre. Tragic Kingdom is often hailed as the record that brought ska mainstream and opened doors for The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Save Ferris, Less than Jake, and Reel Big Fish to swim in the mainstream for about six months. While that statement is true, it ignores the fact that the album combines ska, new wave, psychedelic rock, pop, punk, and disco into something that sounds dated only because Gwen has not been in the band for 12 years and is now singing pop country ballad’s with Blake Shelton.
For all its uniqueness and cultural relevance, Tragic Kingdom is defined by its five most successful singles and by the romantic breakup responsible for its creation. The album even starts off with the three most successful: “Just a Girl,” “Spiderwebs,” and “Don’t Speak.”
For those like me, who entered their pre-teens in the early 2000s shortly after Rock Steady’s dominance, “Just a Girl” was the ’90s feminist anthem you missed growing up because you were busy listening to the Spice Girls. Sadly, Gwen has repeatedly said that the song has no feminist undertones and was written because she was mad at her dad, but that didn’t stop us from embracing “Just a Girl,” “Spiderwebs,” “Sunday Morning”, and “Excuse Me Mr.” as rallying cries alongside deep cuts like “Happy Now?,” Sixteen,” and “Hey You!” We were young, frustrated with the world, and idolized Gwen Stefani.
Since Tragic Kingdom’s release 25 years ago, the world’s moved on from ska except for the Jersey Shore and California where ska lives on. The eponymous song, which blasts Disneyland for being superficial, is a difficult listen now that the Magic Kingdom struggles to survive. It’s also unlikely that No Doubt will get back together because Gwen’s a bigger star without Tony, Adrian, and Tom. Besides, the three men have moved on the side project Dreamcar with AFI’s Davey Havok. At least, we will always be able to revisit Tragic Kingdom.