If my blurry memory doesn’t fail me, I believe the first time I heard No Doubt’s “Don’t Speak” I was with my cousins at a family party, huddled around a radio. It was the late 90s and I’d only been in the U.S. for a couple of years, so my gay teenage brain was absorbing every single piece of pop culture it could. I was just coming off another obsession: The Spice Girls. During this time, unless you had the coins to buy CDs, you actually had to wait for the radio to play your favorite song. Friends would actually get together with the sole intention of playing each other’s CDs or listening to the radio, anxiously waiting for your favorite song to come on. And this is exactly what me and my cousins were doing, one Saturday evening, away from the main family party.
Then the song came on.
“You and me/We used to be together/Everyday together/Always.” Who was this voice? Why did she sound so sad? What does she look like? Who is she singing about? I wanted to know everything. One of my cousins informed me that this was a band called No Doubt and that the name of that song was “Don’t Speak.”
I ended up getting my first No Doubt CD from an 11th grade English classmate, who’d bought two used Tragic Kingdom CDs in Mexico. This was the first year I was in a regular English class. From 7th grade (the year we moved to the U.S.) to 10th grade, I’d been enrolled in ESL classes. My ESL classmates in high school came from mostly Spanish or Khmer speaking households. If you showed a little bit of interest beyond doing the assignments, the mostly white teachers tended to root for you. This meant they paid closer attention to your education, which meant you got to move up the academic pipeline, and didn’t get left behind. I lived for this acceptance! Me going beyond any assignment usually meant adding illustrations or some type of art to any class projects. The teachers ate it up. This meant they were inspiring us. I supposed that’s any good teacher’s goal. But honestly, I was just happy to finally be enrolled in a regular English class by my Junior year. To be honest, I looked down on the classmates who got stuck in ESL classes. I felt like they didn’t try as hard as me. The competitive asshole inside of me felt like I had something over them. Finally, I wasn’t part of the minority. I was normal. But of course, this feeling didn’t last long. As soon as I started talking to my new classmates, I felt the heaviness of my accent. I tried so hard to fit in with these students, whose vocabulary felt far superior than mine just because they read more books by white people. So when one of my classmates found out I’d just discovered No Doubt and gave me a free CD, I felt embraced.
I played this CD to scratching death. I ordered a new Tragic Kingdom CD through one of those Columbia House penny club deals schemes. I remember going into my parent’s room–the only one in our one-bedroom house– and stare at the CD sleeve for hours. Gwen’s look–most of it appropriated from Mexican Chola culture–felt so cool and edgy. I would draw Gwen, Tony, Adrian, and Tom over and over. Redesign the orange groves theme of their album art. I would devour all the lyrics from songs like “Just A Girl”, “Spiderwebs”, “Happy Now” and “Sixteen”, which became anthems for the rest of my Junior year.
My love for No Doubt’s music followed me after high school. But it definitely wasn’t the same. By the time I got to college, my music tastes changed a bit. Rage Against The Machine. M.I.A. Bikini Kill. Le Tigre. Sleater-Kinney. System of a Down. You know, more political shit. No Doubt had become a little cheesy by then. Problematic even–accusations of Gwen being the queen of cultural appropriation lingered and No Doubt even had to pull a 2012 music video, which “featured a Wild-West theme, replete with tee-pees, feather headdresses and smoke signals.”
The question I ask myself now is, why this band? What did a new wavish band from Orange County have anything to do with this immigrant baby queer who was trying to understand The Crucible, The Scarlet Letter, and The Adventures of Huckelberry Finn? I mean, I have some theories. No Doubt’s Tragic Kingdom was their sophomore album–technically their third, but unless you’re a No Doubt stan you’ve never heard of The Beacon Street Collection– and it came out in 1995. This was the same year that my family decided to make this country our new home. Gwen wrote an entire album about getting her heart broken by her bandmate Tony. I was a confused gay boy who kept getting hearbroken by my straight boy classmates.
Tony Kanal’s parents are immigrants from India! I’m an immigrant!
But these reasons are purely coincidental.
Sitting around the radio with my cousins at that family party and discovering something new, meant a shift in something. Going from The Spice Girls to No Doubt felt like my music tastes were maturing. Leaving behind ESL classes and entering new literary territories felt like a challenge I was glad to accept. I suppose No Doubt’s music reminds me about a time when I was eager for new beginnings. A time when I embraced shifts in my life. So once in a while, I’ll belt out “Sunday Morning” and try to get excited about the unexpected life changes that I just have to embrace.