How Tragic Kingdom Saved My Life


When I heard that No Doubt was releasing Tragic Kingdom for Rock Band last Tuesday, I immediately downloaded the entire album and then waited for my boyfriend to leave the house, so that I could scream along accordingly.

It’s not that I care what my boyfriend thinks of my Gwen Stefani impression, it’s just that Tragic Kingdom the kind of album that is meant to be belted out from the confines of one’s bedroom or one’s car, with tears running down one’s face and defiant kicks being awkwardly delivered in between sessions of hopping up and down and throwing one’s fist into the air. In other words, it’s the kind of album that saves your life simply by giving you something to dance out your heartache to:

I was 15 years old when Tragic Kingdom dropped, and though I liked the album (and worshipped Gwen Stefani), it wasn’t until I was 16, and I’d been dumped by my very first boyfriend, that the album became a staple in my CD player. It is the quintessential break-up album, after all, written by Gwen Stefani after her relationship to bandmate Tony Kanal, whom she assumed she’d grow up and marry someday, suddenly fell apart. The other CD that took up prime stereo real estate was Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville, a seminal album for many, but though I felt a connection with Phair, most of her songs were over my head and experience level and I knew it, and I viewed her more as a heroine for a life I had not yet lived, while Gwen Stefani, on the other hand, whose entire album was about the loss of her first big love, was singing songs that directly hit me in the heart.

If there was ever an album that encapsulated teenage heartache, it is Tragic Kingdom: it covers every emotion from anger to sadness to hope to vindication, stopping along the way to comment not only on the difficulty of overcoming a broken heart, but the difficulty of being a teenage girl in general: nobody listens to you, nobody expects much of you, nobody seems to understand you. Stefani covers everything from demanding independence in “Just A Girl” to lamenting that her “name will never change” in “Hey You” to pulling herself out of depression in “The Climb”:

The entire album is essentially a step-by-step guide to How It Feels To Be 16 And Dumped, right down to the title, which is a play on the band’s Anaheim roots, but can also be construed as a nod to the fact that a bit of the fantasy and magic that surrounds love is destroyed as soon as that first heartbreak comes, leaving you in a Tragic Kingdom, indeed. The album is filled with contradictions: Stefani sings about wanting to be on her own, sings about wanting to be married, sings about being over it, sings about being deep in it, and in doing so creates a narrative that is as honest as it is confused: mostly, you get the sense that she is heartbroken, and still coming to terms with the idea that her future is not what she envisioned it to be, and that finding the path out of the haze is going to be a difficult but ultimately worthwhile one.

Between the years 1997-1999, I probably played Tragic Kingdom approximately 9 million times. Whenever I felt sad or defeated, I’d put the bright orange cd in my stereo and start jumping up and down until I was exhausted, letting all of the sad energy become, well, rad energy as I let Gwen Stefani, someone who had been there before and had come out on the other side, victorious, tell me that she’d been there too, and she knew how it felt, and that it wasn’t weird or stupid to have the kinds of emotions I was having, even though I was “only sixteen”:

The album became a life-saver for me, a voice singing things I understood, a bright, sparkly hand guiding me through fairly dark days. I always felt better after listening to Tragic Kingdom, and though I eventually outgrew it as a life-changing album and listened to it more for nostalgic purposes, it has always kept a special place in my heart. And yet despite my connection to the album, I did not expect to have the emotional reaction I had on Tuesday, when I started singing my favorite No Doubt song, “End It On This”:

I was completely fine until I got to the section where Gwen starts to sing “I open up/you ignore me/oh you’re not the same at all/nuh uh.” And then, to my surprise, I totally lost it and started bawling with the microphone in my hand. I wasn’t thinking of my dumb high school boyfriend: I was crying because I remembered myself as a 16-year-old girl, and how much that heartbreak hurt, how that first time you lose someone you love cements itself into a tiny corner of your heart and never lets you view things the same way again, and how it can be both a blessing and a curse. 15 years after that breakup, I don’t really remember the boyfriend much at all, but I remember the sadness I felt, and how I thought for a while that that kind of sadness would never go away. But of course, it had. And standing in my living room at 29-years-old with a video game controller in my hand singing the soundtrack to that period, I realized that I, too, had come out on the other side, victorious, just as Gwen had made it seem like I would.

And then, of course, I finished the song, just like I always used to, with tears in my eyes, my feet continually bouncing off of the floor, and my heart getting stronger by the minute.

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