Grunge. Wu-Tang Clan. Radiohead. “Wonderwall.” The music of the ’90s was as exciting as it was diverse. But what does it say about the era—and why does it still matter? On our new show, 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s, Ringer music writer and ’90s survivor Rob Harvilla embarks on a quest to answer those questions, one track at a time. Follow and listen for free exclusively on Spotify. Below is an excerpt from Episode 16, which explores the history of No Doubt’s “Just a Girl” and ’90s ska with help from Pitchfork editor-in-chief Puja Patel.
I vividly remember John Norris, from MTV News, reporting on the hot new musical subgenre sweeping the nation in 1996-97, and just the incredulousness in his voice as he said, “Ska!” Like that. “Ska!” Just flabbergasted. Also disgusted, possibly. This was technically third-wave ska. First wave was Jamaica in the late ’50s and ’60s, predating reggae; second wave was the two-tone revival in late-’70s England, mixing with punk; third wave was the world, or Orange County invading the world and spicing up “alternative rock.”
Why did ska get popular again at this exact moment? Maybe it was subconscious backlash to “electronica,” yet another hot new musical subgenre: Chemical Brothers, Prodigy, Crystal Method. Maybe ska sounded more physical and tactile and real by comparison. I don’t know. Maybe there’s no explanation at all. Couple bands get super popular, they sound vaguely similar, and boom: hot new subgenre. In any event, the mid-’90s third-wave ska boom was so bizarre, so violently random, so obviously ephemeral. You just knew, even at its height, that it was destined for immortality, in terms of how ephemeral it was. You just knew that Thanos—comic book Thanos, at this point—would snap his fingers, and forget 50 percent, like 89 percent of people who loved ska would disavow all knowledge of ska. Like just their porkpie hats would disintegrate. But in this moment—in this glorious, fleeting, two-tone, porkpie-hat-wearing moment—Reel Big Fish could have a minor radio hit. A cult live band like Boston’s Mighty Mighty Bosstones, who were so dedicated to the ska lifestyle that one guy in the band’s only job was dancing, could, in 1997, have an even bigger hit radio hit with “The Impression That I Get.” A little wordy, but they made it work.
What a baffling and lovely moment this was. Too lovely to last. Lovely because you knew immediately that it wouldn’t last. True fans of these bands, of this music, would of course be fans forever, but as a national mainstream phenomenon, as an MTV News topic, third-wave ska was a blip. A closed loop. The exit velocity required to power through it, to thrive beyond it, to achieve and maintain true superstardom—that took something more than an explosive chorus, or a dedicated Band Dancer, or a clever meta conceit. One strategy—maybe the only successful strategy, as it turns out—was to goad your sister into joining the band, and then let her overpower you, and then the band, and then the patriarchy.
No Doubt hailed from Anaheim, California. Orange County again. Breeding ground for so many rad ska bands, pop-punk bands, alt-rock bands, synth-pop bands, new wave bands. What were, what are, No Doubt? Were No Doubt ever a ska band, primarily? What did No Doubt want to be, primarily? Doesn’t matter. A breakout song as striking, as cheerfully confrontational as “Just a Girl” decides, for you, what your band is, and also decides if the rest of your band even matters. “Just a Girl” was the lead single off No Doubt’s third album, 1995’s Tragic Kingdom. That’s a pun, on Disneyland, on the Magic Kingdom. Did you know Tragic Kingdom has sold more than 16 million copies worldwide? It went diamond—10 million copies—in the United States alone. I had forgotten that. The mid-’90s ska boom is not quite the reason No Doubt happened; No Doubt are not quite the reason the mid-’90s ska boom happened. But there are parallels. There are overlapping Venn diagrams. But mostly there is lead singer Gwen Stefani, who took a while to emerge as No Doubt’s driving force and focal point and breakout star, but once she did, look out.
It took No Doubt nearly a decade to become an overnight success. The band was Eric Stefani’s idea. Young Eric was intense, and hyper-talented as both a musician and a cartoonist. Young Eric and his little sister Gwen were enamored with second-wave ska, a big deal in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Madness, the Specials, the Untouchables nearby in L.A., et cetera. It was young Eric who goaded his little sister Gwen into cowriting their first song, which was called “Stick It in the Hole.” It was about a pencil sharpener. “My brother made me do it,” Gwen later recalled, in a Rolling Stone cover story. It was young Eric who first goaded his little sister Gwen onstage, where she sang the song “On My Radio,” a big hit for a second-wave ska band called the Selecter, at a school talent show. Gwen did so in a tweed dress sewn by her mother and patterned after Maria’s dress when Maria sings “I Have Confidence in Me” in The Sound of Music, because according to Rolling Stone, The Sound of Music was and is Gwen’s greatest obsession.
Early No Doubt history is convoluted, and emotionally messy, and a little harrowing. The band formed, technically, at a Dairy Queen—in my opinion, the best place to form a band—in a scheme hatched by three DQ employees: young Eric, his little sister Gwen, and a Black punk rocker named John Spence, who was the singer, and loved the iconic punk-reggae band Bad Brains, and did backflips onstage, and used the phrase no doubt a lot in conversation, hence the band name. Eric would later say that John Spence was “the inspiration for the whole band.” Early No Doubt had a full horn section; soon, they added bassist Tony Kanal, and soon thereafter Tony and Gwen, who back then was mostly a background vocalist, started dating. They’d stay together for seven years. In December 1987, just days before a show at the Roxy in L.A. that No Doubt hoped would be their big break, John Spence took his own life. The band broke up but immediately reformed, soon adding a metalhead guitarist named Tom Dumont and a wild-man drummer named Adrian Young who considered himself a huge No Doubt fan.
No Doubt signed to a flashy new label called Interscope Records. The band’s self-titled debut album came out in 1992. Ehhhhh. It’s … chaotic. No Doubt played some early shows with the L.A. band Fishbone, who were ska, and punk, and funk, and metal, and reggae, and anything else they were into, and Fishbone are one of these bands beloved and iconic in their own right, but mostly famous for clearly influencing other bands that got rrrrrreally famous. The Red Hot Chili Peppers, for example. And No Doubt, for example.
No Doubt the album didn’t sell so hot, but the band pressed on, and in early 1995, with minimal label support, released their second album, The Beacon Street Collection, which was better, and sold better, and including a song called “Total Hate ’95”—it’s probably nothing—that featured one Bradley Nowell, whose own band Sublime was soon destined for punk/ska/reggae/whatever superstardom in their own right. You get the sense Gwen and Bradley are really enjoying themselves.
The Beacon Street Collection was recorded quickly and cheaply and independently, with Eric Stefani more or less still running the show, but by the time this record came out Eric had already left the band. Because by this point No Doubt were already deep into recording their third album, with what seemed to the band like too much label support. It’s time to really Go For It, in major-label parlance. And so Interscope has suggested a hot-shot producer named Matthew Wilder, who had poofy/curly hair and tight pants and a big hit in 1983 with a little ditty called “Break My Stride.” Yeah. That one.
Eric was not into the “Break-a My Stride” guy futzing with his precious—and frankly pretty chaotic—songs at all, so Eric quits his own band, and gets another job, as an animator, on The Simpsons. Decent rebound, but he’s still gonna regret this. The postmortem here is that Eric basically pushed his little sister Gwen into rock stardom, and drew her as a cartoon character: a little Jessica Rabbit, a little Jem from Jem and the Holograms, Cher from Clueless which was a huge hit in 1995 (live action but cartoonish in spirit), I keep wanting to say Daria for ’90s MTV zeitgeist purposes but Gwen’s so blonde and bubbly she’s basically the anti-Daria. In any case Gwen gets so good at rock stardom that she blows her older brother offstage, and in short order blows pretty much the rest of the band offstage. Now No Doubt is just Gwen, and Tom, and Adrian, and Gwen’s ex-boyfriend Tony, and Gwen’s writing lots of heartbroken songs about her ex-boyfriend Tony, and we’ve got a Fleetwood Mac/“Silver Springs” situation brewing here, and the songs are getting simpler and poppier and catchier and better and better, and the “Break-a My Stride” guy is at the helm, and Tragic Kingdom was apparently recorded in 11 different studios, and sounds like it, but also now Gwen Stefani sounds like this.
Tragic Kingdom comes out in October ’95. “Just a Girl” is the lead single. Gwen Stefani, who by now is in her mid-20s, is on MTV. The rest is history. To many of the 11 million people in the United States who will buy this record, the very notion of No Doubt as a band with three other people in it is history.
To hear the full episode, click here, and be sure to follow on Spotify and check back every Thursday for new episodes on the most important songs of the decade. This excerpt has been lightly edited for clarity and length.