No Doubt- “Don’t Speak”
PEAK: #1 on December 7, 1996 (Radio Songs Chart)
SONG AT #1 THAT WEEK: Toni Braxton’s “Un-Break My Heart” (Hot 100)
During the holiday season of 1996 and much of the early part of 1997, Americans were apparently very into big sweeping ballads of heartbreak when you look at the top songs on the Billboard Hot 100 and the Radio Songs Chart. On the Hot 100, Toni Braxton’s effective Diane Warren written adult-contempo belter “Un-Break My Heart” had gotten to #1 the week ending December 7th and would hold its spot there for the next 10 weeks. That same week, the hot new rock group No Doubt had gotten the top song on the radio with “Don’t Speak,” a song that became a power ballad about frontwoman Gwen Stefani’s breakup with bassist Tony Kanal. Both songs aren’t really anything alike aside from their general ballad nature and utilizing Spanish guitar solos. These songs may have come from different worlds but it’s easy to imagine them getting played together on the radio and for a while, that was what was happening.
On the airplay chart, “Don’t Speak” was just as big, probably even bigger than “Un-Break My Heart,” as it spent a then-record 16 weeks on top with Toni Braxton’s song interrupting its reign for a couple of weeks. Over on the Hot 100 though, “Don’t Speak” was nowhere to be seen thanks to No Doubt’s label Interscope withholding the song from a single release to persuade people to purchase the song on the group’s album Tragic Kingdom which would pay off big time. But as a result, one of the biggest songs of the entire ‘90s was not allowed by Billboard to chart on the Hot 100. When people talk about how screwed up the Hot 100 was in the ‘90s, “Don’t Speak” is often the top song that’s brought up and for good reason. With a 16-week #1 run on radio, there’s no doubt that well No Doubt would have had a massive #1 Hot 100 smash. But today we’re left dreaming of what could have been.
Despite the song’s well-known breakup lyrical nature, it didn’t start out as a song about a breakup. “Don’t Speak” went through a bunch of iterations over a long period to become what we know it as now. As the band tells it, Gwen Stefani’s brother and bandmate Eric wrote the song early on in the sessions for Tragic Kingdom as a standard love song complete in a different style. Even before it was finalized, No Doubt performed early versions of “Don’t Speak” in shows as shown in this 1994 clip.
“Don’t Speak,” like with the rest of Tragic Kingdom, was produced by Matthew Wilder, the music business journeyman who had a brief taste of pop chart success in the ‘80s with the chintzy 1983 hit “Break My Stride.” (“Break My Stride” peaked at #5. It’s a 4. Between Tragic Kingdom and Puff Daddy around this time interpolating “Break My Stride” on him and Mase’s #1 Hot 100 hit “Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down” where Wilder was given a writing credit, the late-‘90s were a great time to be Matthew Wilder.) But Eric Stefani wouldn’t participate in the completion of the song and album as he left the band to work as an animator on The Simpsons. Not long after, Gwen had ended her long relationship with Tony Kunal helping to form the basis for “Don’t Speak” and Tragic Kingdom as a whole with the song rewritten to reflect her feelings on the experience.
With Wilder’s production, “Don’t Speak” is a major musical departure on Tragic Kingdom. Even with the breakup factoring into other songs on the album, it’s still mainly an album full of fun uptempo songs. “Don’t Speak,” on the other hand, is the sole outlier in the tracklisting. The song is basically a power ballad starting out quiet with a pretty guitar riff that many have noted sounds a lot like Aerosmith’s “Dream On” before the drums come in on the first chorus with more rocking guitars alongside strings and the aforementioned Spanish guitar solo. All of this makes “Don’t Speak” sound like a combination of both ‘90s alt-rock and ‘90s adult contemporary styles, a combination I usually wouldn’t enjoy but works for what the song is.
In the lyrics, “Don’t Speak” acts as Gwen Stefani contemplating her breakup. She knows the inevitable is coming but doesn’t want to believe it. It’s all hurting for Stefani to the point where she doesn’t want to hear anymore about it as she sings on the chorus, “Don’t speak/I know just what you’re saying/So please stop explaining/Don’t tell me ’cause it hurts.” It’s all heartbreak melodrama but Stefani sells it for me with the hurt and vulnerability she brings to her performance. Listening to the song, I especially like how as the song fades Stefani ends it all in a murmur saying lines like “Hush, hush, darlin’” almost like after the whole song she can’t bring herself to say anything more than what’s already been said.
In making the video for “Don’t Speak,” director Sophie Mueller strays away from depicting the real-life breakup depicted in the lyrics but instead dramatizes the growing real-life tension in the group as Gwen Stefani begins to usurp the other band members in people’s minds. Amid clips of the band performing both in a studio and on tour at New York’s now-closed Roseland Ballroom, No Doubt gathers for a photoshoot in some kind of orange advertisement. The photoshoot starts out with all the band members before the photographer begins focusing on Gwen and soon it’s just her up there looking glamorous with an orange as the other members look on. After the shoot, Gwen and the guys in the band argue and eventually vote to break up. Obviously, No Doubt did not break up but the video does act as a good metaphor for how they would be perceived in the public eye from here on out.
Tragic Kingdom spun off seven singles but technically only one of them was given a commercial release making it eligible for the Hot 100. That was the lead single “Just A Girl,” a rocking feminist anthem that along with “Don’t Speak” is probably the No Doubt song that most people recognize today. The song was released a month ahead of Tragic Kingdom’s October 1995 release but despite it being undeniably great only peaked at #23 on the Hot 100 after a long climb in May 1996 even though it feels much bigger today than a #23 peaking song.
The relative underperformance of “Just A Girl” led Interscope to change strategy and withhold the rest of the Tragic Kingdom singles from a commercial release. After “Just A Girl” came the ska-influenced rocker “Spiderwebs” which without a single release didn’t chart on the Hot 100 but got decent airplay getting up to #18 on the Radio Songs chart. Realizing the massive potential and public appetite for personal breakup ballads, Interscope soon pushed “Don’t Speak” to radio as the third single where it and the album exploded by the end of 1996. Along with being the biggest song on the radio, “Don’t Speak” was #1 on charts in almost every country turning the band into global superstars. With that worldwide performance, there is no question that “Don’t Speak” would have been #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 had it been given the chance.
A couple of weeks after “Don’t Speak” went to #1 on the airplay charts, Tragic Kingdom hit #1 on the album charts the week before Christmas 1996, over a year after its release and nearly a year since its chart debut at #175, and stayed there for nine non-consecutive weeks. Tragic Kingdom continued to sell like crazy eventually being certified diamond in the US. It also wound up as one of the biggest selling albums of both 1996 and 1997 with Nielsen SoundScan naming the album as the 4th biggest album of 1996 while Billboard named it the 2nd biggest album of 1997 behind only the Spice Girls’ Spice on its year-end list. All of this largely thanks to a massive power ballad you couldn’t buy without buying the whole album
BONUS BEATS: Here’s Ice Cube rapping over a “Don’t Speak” sample on his 1998 track “War & Peace:”
(Ice Cube’s highest-charting single, 1993’s “It Was A Good Day,” peaked at #15.)
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Craig Mack sampling “Don’t Speak” on his 2006 track “Together:”
(Craig Mack’s highest-charting single, 1994’s “Flava In Ya Ear,” peaked at #9. It’s an 8.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Rakim utilizing a “Don’t Speak” sample on his 2009 track “Dedicated:”
(As a solo artist and part of Eric B. & Rakim, Rakim doesn’t have lead artist songs on the Hot 100 but with Eric B. peaked at #9 with the 1989 Jody Watley collab “Friends” and as a solo artist also peaked at #9 with the 2002 Truth Hurts collab “Addictive.” “Friends” is an 8. “Addictive” is a 6.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s one-time #1 artists Bone Thugs-N-Harmony sampling “Don’t Speak” on their 2009 song “Every Day Together:”
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the cover of “Don’t Speak” recorded for a 2020 episode of the short-lived NBC musical comedy-drama show Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist: