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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

"Spiderwebs" and the trouble of getting oneself free

This ska punk jam has one of the most unique origin stories for a track I've ever heard — one which makes me question my own life a bit.

Of all decades from which I could have a random song pop into my head, I was shocked for it to be the 1990s.

Despite being immersed in sounds from every decade surrounding it, my knowledge of 90s music is severely lacking. I’d assume some of you reading my blog have figured this out by now. I tag posts by decade, and up until today only two posts could be seen under the 1990s label: my entries on "Semi-Charmed Life" and "Love Rears Its Ugly Head." Well, today that number becomes three with another rock-based tune, because for some reason a song by No Doubt got stuck in my head.

No Doubt are a band that have always stood out for me, among those from the era I know the least. Against the backdrop of a dark, grunge-laden rock scene, their bright quirkiness and ska-derived sound set them apart. Combine that with the distinctive voice and presence of Gwen Stefani as their lead singer, and you’ve got a group that were sure to get and keep a following long past their heyday. The No Doubt song that got stuck in my head today — perhaps fittingly, with the language I’m using about it being 'stuck' in there — is "Spiderwebs," from their third album, Tragic Kingdom (1995). Combining the horns and energy of emergent third-wave ska with new wave influences, "Spiderwebs" is seemingly inspired by a real-life occurrence in which Gwen Stefani struggled to get out of an irritating, entangling chain of communication. It's not a usual topic for a track in the popular scene, but then again, not much about No Doubt was usual for their time to begin with.

"Spiderwebs" wastes no time in stating itself as a ska track at its core, with trumpeter Phil Jordan and trombonist Gabrial McNair opening the track in the limelight. The opening establishes the song being firmly grounded in the key of B-flat Major, and the common "Axis" progression (I-V-vi-IV — think U2's "With or Without You" among others) as the main chordal motif. While the progression isn't constant, those four chords are the only ones used in the entire song.

Following the horn intro, drummer Adrian Young switches from half-time, and the pop punk side of the track begins to take hold. Tony Kanal jumps around in octaves on his bass, which is very forward-sounding with a lot of high end, while centering his line around downbeats. Meanwhile, guitarist Tom Dumont also leaps up and down, but on the upbeats, largely in between Kanal's short runs. Adding some flavor in the background are short, filter-sweeping figures from Gwen Stefani's brother Eric on his keyboard. This sound carries through the verse on the tonic B-flat Major chord, before a short pre-chorus driven by power chords from Dumont. The "Axis" progression then returns for the chorus, amid layers of Gwen's backing vocals.

As much as the sound of "Spiderwebs" is refreshing, both for its time and now, and as much of a harmony and chord nerd I am, the lyrics and their origin may fascinate me even more. While I struggle to find a definitive source for the story, it seems to be widely accepted that the song grew out of Gwen Stefani's frustration with a suitor who called her at all hours and read her badly-written poetry. Firstly, who the heck would do that? I feel sorry for Gwen for having to put up with that. Secondly, spiderwebs are an apt metaphor for the situation. While Gwen uses "walking through spiderwebs" as an excuse to not answer her phone in the chorus, it also perfectly reflects how the situation with the man calling her was above all else a nuisance. It just got in her way and irritates the hell out of her, and she didn't know how to mitigate it other than by "screen[ing her] phone calls" — waiting to pick up until the answering machine can tell her who it is (reminder: this song was released in 1995). The seeming permanence of the suitor's attempts can explain Gwen's bridge lyrics:

Now it's gone too deep
You wake me in my sleep
My dreams become nightmares
'Cause you're ringing in my ears

Yeah, those lyrics are perfect for a shift to the relative minor (the bridge marks a temporary shift into G minor). As much as Gwen wanted to try and make nothing of the repeated phone calls, the fact that she couldn't avoid them pushed her over the edge. It's noteworthy that the lyrics don't ever resolve the matter; the fade-out repeats a condensed form of the chorus over the same half-time drums and horns that began the tune.

Through its lyrics, "Spiderwebs" honestly makes me second-guess how I interact with my friends. I tend to be the one to message people first, and I probably carry on some conversations with them over Snapchat and the like for too long. I hate seeing myself as the clingy / needy friend, but... it's how I've thought of myself for a bit, even before giving this song a close reading. As a result, I've considerably backed off from reaching out to a lot of people, because I didn't want to be a nuisance to them. I hope that isn't the case, but I also don't think it's wise to ask them a question like that to their face; it would just lead to an(other) awkward conversation. As I figure out how to navigate the adult world while keeping the friends I had from childhood, I just hope I'm not spinning webs that they have trouble getting out of, and I also hope that — very much unlike the song — the friendship and love I feel for them is mutual.


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