The first teen temper tantrum I remember having was over a No Doubt concert. I was 10, and was hanging out a lot with this epically cool girl named Megan. We were obsessed with badass female musicians in platform boots, and “let’s play Spice Girls” was a common battle cry.
However, the lady we loved above all others was the inimitable Gwen Stefani. As front-woman to a motley crew of dudes, she wore what she wanted and screamed into a mic, and I was in love.
The Tragic Kingdom tour was set to come to our town in late August, during our annual state fair, and Megan was going to go sans parents. Looking back, WE WERE 10, but at the time I literally thought I would die if I couldn’t see her in person. Visions of pot smoke and casual sex probably filled my parents’ heads, and I got a resounding “no.”
The night of the concert, I sulked and blared “Spiderwebs” over and over. I’m sure I filled copious journal pages with hatred of Megan and her No Doubt ringer tee, which she wore for months afterwards.
Last night, Gwen’s most recent single, “Used to Love You,” dissolved me into a pile of tears and mush on my couch. I probably watched the video ten times, reliving all the times her raw emotions have helped me through tough times.
As I ugly-cried at my boyfriend to stay in his room, that he didn’t want to see me like this, I remembered each gem that helped my teen-to-adult heart, in various states of distress and sob fests.
Just a Girl
I had just been called a slut for the first time. The chubby class clown in math class (let’s call him Mark) was always flirting with me, but I always brushed him off. He would regularly steal and eat my Victoria’s Secret Beauty Rush lipgloss.
When he got on one knee in front of dozens of people and asked me to be his girlfriend, I couldn’t breathe and my face turned purple. I mumbled something about wanting to focus on my schoolwork, perhaps the least “me” thing I could have said. He laughed shakily, and returned to his seat.
A week later, I was dating a kid who practically lived at Hot Topic and kissed me against my locker. ("Dating" then meant mostly phone calls and a few notes during study hall.) It was obvious that I had lied to Mark. For weeks, he followed me across the football field to swim practice, throwing snowballs at my head and calling me every name in the book.
When I told my mom, she cried. “To be called that so young,” she said.
I put a pillow over my head and blasted “Just a Girl,” because Gwen got my anger and hurt about the pain and confusion of being born stuck as a girl. A world where men could make you feel a certain way that was impossible to reciprocate.
Trapped in a Box
It’s 1999 and I’m trying to figure out what ska is. Boys invite me to shows in basements, ask me if I was into “the scene,” and I nod boredly, roll my eyes, and go back to painting a mural of Kurt Cobain. One of the cool kids in art class mentions that No Doubt used to be ska before they “sold out.”
I agree, “Totally,” then run to the local library to see if they have the band’s first eponymous record. They do.
I memorize it, every word. “Trapped in a Box” encapsulates how I feel – I WAS trapped in a box, trying unsuccessfully to escape. That summer I had bought a ton of Electric Amethyst Manic Panic at a head shop called Spank the Monkey on Cape Cod and doused my dark brown hair in it. If I stood in direct sunlight it was kind of visible, but then it all came out in the pool. SEE? I WAS SO IN A BOX.
This is ska, I said to myself. I’m cool, I know what ska is. The next show I go to, accompanied by my best guy friend who was adorable so everyone assumed we were dating, and no boys would talk to me.
“Go AWAY, Travis,” and I push him to the other side of the dank, loud room. My plaid tartan skirt, a black fitted tee covered in glitter blue stars, a choker, Doc Marten knockoffs – I keep adjusting everything. The cutest boy I had ever seen, with hair over his eyes, skinny, “skanking” around the dance floor sweaty and alive, stands next to me and asks how I liked the show.
“It’s awesome,” I say. “It’s no early No Doubt, though.”
He looks down at me, scoffs, and snorts, “No Doubt isn’t ska,” before walking away.
Boy from Hot Topic (an on-and-off tumultuous teen romance that lasted a year) dumps me for a born-again Christian who agreed to have sex with him. We are supposed to meet at the Tri-County Mall dollar movie theater on a Saturday. My mom dropped me off. It’s freezing. The movie is Snow Falling on Cedars with Ethan Hawke.
I really hadn’t planned on watching the movie, but he never shows up, so I am subjected to two hours of slow shower sex scenes and lots of stills of snow. Falling. On cedars. I yell at him from a pay phone.
That Monday, he has Aubrey from Earth Science pushed against the lockers with a hand up her shirt.
“I kind of always knew I’d end up your ex-girlfriend/I hope I hold a special place with the rest of them.” I play this every Sunday during the slow shift at the local ice rink, where I hold the illustrious title of Skate Guard. I fight angsty tears while breaking up couples that make out in the stands, then angrily slurp on Slush Puppies from the snack stand.
Simple Kind of Life
I’m living in my first New York City apartment and mourning the death of my first real relationship. I broke up with him for the city, but I miss my 6’ security blanket who always wore the softest t-shirts and wrote songs about me.
I scrawl pages and pages of love letters that I never send. I keep them like secrets inside a box I cover with magazine cut-outs. The last time we have sex, in the parking lot of a cheap hotel, he tells me he’s started dating someone else. He tells me that she isn’t pretty.
I walk around Brooklyn alone, because I have no friends. I become resentful that I chose this lonely life, and I start listening to Return of Saturn over and over as I walk from Greenpoint to Williamsburg to Bushwick and back, hoping to see him sitting on a porch stoop, waiting for me.
“Simple Kind of Life” is about regretting your decision to follow your heart’s independence, because you might miss out on the little conventional things. This roaring lion of a woman with pink hair just wanted to get married and have babies. “How’d I get so faithful to my freedom?” She echoed my doubt, that I had given up my first love for an unsure, lonely career.
I walked, in threadbare black boots, on the dire verge of booking a train ticket, begging for a different path, when “New” would come on, and I would keep walking. And I would stay.
Used to Love You
I’m sitting on my couch, the day after receiving heart-wrenching news that has left me raw and open like a wound. I feel unable to function, and my eyes won’t stop streaming. Work that day was a struggle, my skin was crawling, and I need help. The emergency Xanax a friend had given me is gone, and all I can do is breathe into my knees and let my boyfriend rub my back and bring me water.
As I sit waiting for phone calls that take hours to come, I randomly decide to watch the video for “Used to Love You.” I forgot how beautiful her face is, and there’s that raw emotion she’s always given us so fearlessly. There’s so much pain in this song. “I don’t know why I cry but I think it’s because I remembered for the first time since I hated you, I used to love you.”
I lost it. Her face is my face; her expressions are how I feel. The words didn’t reflect my exact feelings at that moment, but the tone, the sharing of something ugly. That was me.
Gwen has always been strong, vulnerable, intense, and beautiful. When her heart breaks, yours does too. Thank you, Gwen, for always being there for me, and for being so real it hurts.