Standing in someone's kitchen just outside of Harvard Square, I'm entrenched in this conversation about what makes No Doubt's Tragic Kingdom album so great. I'm leaning on the bar separating the kitchen from the dining room, across from two comedians and a gay couple who are in their own conversation about the music on the playlist—was this long hair or short hair Rihanna? Miley before or after the fall?
At this point in the night, I had already assumed that the comedians were a couple. She is dressed for fall in her winter palette of white scarf, long brown hair pulled to one side with a barrette, rosy cheeks, white wine in hand while he's gripping a PBR but coming across as vaguely European with his V-neck and motorcycle reminiscent jacket and solemn, considerable nods. There is no disagreement between them; the question is a quest for why.
I jump in with "'Don't Speak' is a timeless rock ballad." The album was released on my birthday in 1995, when I was merely seven. And No Doubt's style is far more ska than it is any kind of metal, but I will not budge from this position. Its meaning is clean, crisp, and powerful. A nearly universal concept delivered in a way that's emotional without being temperamental. 12-year-olds can adopt it into their weltanschauung the same way 52-year-old-divorcées can. It's like a cheer, or a chant that hasn't lost its meaning in the babbling brooks of repetition.
It brings up the question, what other songs are like that? How did No Doubt score such a hit? (Among such other great songs on that one album?)
Lately I've been listening to a lot of Stevie Nicks & Fleetwood Mac. Only six or seven songs, but on what might as well be repeat. "Dreams," "Edge of Seventeen," "Rhiannon," "Go Your Own Way," "Stand Back," "Sara," all sort of churn away inside of me, as a sort of inner sanctuary—a talisman—against I don't know what. There is a sense of poetry in the lyrics that cannot be ignored, that require a certain meditation.
Are these timeless ballads? Most signs point to yes, the way many of Heart's songs or Carly Simon's songs point to yes. But are they on par with "Don't Speak"? I hesitate. I couldn't pick out any solid order in the same vain as Saussure asking us to consider how the word "house" means, "house." How gloriously complex human language and the soul's adaptability to music are. I've been human for what feels like a very long time and I still don't understand why we do the things we do.
The two comedians moved on to what "Spiderwebs" meant to them, and the gay couple considered Britney Spears. I poured myself another glass of wine, and listened.