In an era of chastity-signaling songbirds, Gwen Stefani was a woman who did push-ups in a crop top and bellowed about getting dumped so powerfully that it knocked the wind out of her. She was a game-changing influence on my adolescence and remains the root of my genesis as an intimidating sad girl. Stumbling on No Doubt’s Tragic Kingdom in grade school was a revelation; Gwen’s raw strength juxtaposed by her consuming and seemingly perpetual state of heartbreak was captivating in a way I’d never encountered. In my pre-pubescent eyes, Gwen eclipsed her band and her contemporaries simply by singing about trying and failing to be loved—and won my heart in the process.
I snatched up No Doubt’s Return of Saturn as soon as it hit the shelves in April 2000. As one of the maybe four or five CDs I owned, the album earned a permanent place in my Discman and I remember bringing the lyric book with me everywhere, committing it to memory a little bit more with each listen. By the end of the school year, I could recite every word by heart. But like all relics of youth, Return of Saturn faded into a distant memory over time, its lyrics only coming back to me a few tracks and wine glasses in.
Over the years, Gwen launched her solo career, rejoined No Doubt, and eventually settled into her celebrity status with a Las Vegas residency and judging gig on a reality competition show. And I grew up alongside her, evolving from an emo princess into a regular woman who found her sad sistren in Fiona Apple, Jenny Lewis, Karen O, et al. Now, 18 years since the album’s release, I find myself in my own return of Saturn, rekindling my fascination with Gwen and the transformative power of heartbreak.
In the two years it took to write and record the album, Gwen says that she became obsessed with depression and Sylvia Plath (same), and that her then-boyfriend Gavin Rossdale told her that she was in her Saturn return. For the unindoctrinated, Broadly staff astrologer Annabel Gat says this generally starts when you’re 29 and ends at around 31. Saturn return refers to the time when the planet completes its 29-year orbit and ends in the same position as the time of your birth.
"The planet of rules and boundaries, Saturn’s return is thought of as a moment of reckoning and coming to terms with your path in life," Gat writes. Gwen (a Libra born on October 3, 1969) was 29 when she started making the album; a fact that grows more evident and dear to me with each listen.
"Saturn return is more than just a time of reflection… Everything you’ve been avoiding catches up to you, but at the same time, everything you’ve been working really hard for also comes up," Gat tells me. "There’s a saying in the astrological community that once Saturn return is done with you, you end up with some kind of gift or reward. Saturn does reward people who work very hard, so it’s not all pain and strife. Saturn is the planet of limitations, obstacles, and fears—and also the planet of time and mortality. So this is when we go through a dark night of the soul, but when we’re done, we usually master that fear and are given some tools to work with our future."
Return of Saturn lands precisely in line with Gat’s explanation; Gwen laments her failures in love while pondering her successes in life. Like the rollercoaster of emotions wrought by your Saturn return, the album is an unpredictable journey, melding No Doubt’s ska and reggae past with its new wave and alt rock future. Gwen is a different singer on every track, purring demurely before careening into a melodic scream; emitting effervescent gasps and sighs before trying her hand at rapping. She seems both old and wise and young and petty. She contemplates death as she sings about carrying on her maternal lineage—and then dedicates an entire song to staring at her ex’s hot new girlfriend.
As someone who’s just entered her Saturn return and is fresh out of a long-term relationship, the challenge of embodying these contradictions is especially relatable. Like Gwen, it seems the foundations I’ve built are stronger in work than in my personal relationships. Though I didn’t grow up fantasizing about becoming a wife or mother, I did imagine a life nebulously greater than the one I currently live.
For years, I was in a wonderful relationship that gave my life potency and texture. I had a kind, brilliant, and beautiful partner who loved me like no one ever has. And though we still love each other in some ways, I can’t help but feel indicted by the "failure" of our relationship. Did I sabotage us and myself? Do I find a way to ruin everything good?
Though relationships aren’t the only way to find depth in life, I find that intimacy is my biggest source of inspiration, and subsequently, purpose. I chase that unnamed shine it brings. The difference it makes is like going to work after a sleepless night: If you were kept up by loud neighbors, you’re crabby, but if you’ve been fucking all night, you float to the office on a goddamn cloud. And so, I run full speed towards the prospect of intimacy every time it presents itself. I often feel like I’m on the precipice of a breakthrough, and become paralyzed by the fear that I’m making the wrong decisions. I’m often sad and confused while simultaneously thrilled and reckless.
As a salve to my crisis, I decided to revisit my most potent Return of Saturn memories to see what I could learn from Gwen’s evolution as an artist and person.
In the album’s first track, Gwen lashes out, pissed at herself and her ex for behaving exactly how she’d predicted. Growing up, much of this song’s appeal was that it was a banger rather than one of the album’s many ballads. I didn’t think too deeply about its lyrics and merely treasured the song for delivering the same Gwen I loved: a crying, angry girl singing about her breakup.
Now, I appreciate that she’s at once brazen—essentially daring you to make her your ex—and broken, earnestly singing, "I hope I hold a special place with the rest of them." I hear myself in Gwen’s insecurity, wounded by how much and how quickly things can change. One minute, you’re someone’s world and the next, you’re an "ex," a label that seems to rob your relationship and memory of it of any depth.
"Ex-Girlfriend" is sonically and visually jarring, with Gwen running hot and cold lyrically and literally murdering her ex-boyfriend, bassist Tony Kanal, in the music video. I don’t have the urge to murder my ex, but when I think about the prospect of being nothing but a footnote in their life, it does feel like part of me has been killed.
"Simple Kind of Life"
Like a fine wine, this song only gets better with age. Gwen dives into her crisis of self, and sounds like she’s resigned herself to living a life without her dream of starting a family ("I always thought I’d be a mom / Sometimes I wish for a mistake"). The milestones she thought were simple ambitions, like getting married and having kids, are actually quite complicated to achieve. It’s beautifully ambiguous whether she blames the world for selling her the wrong fantasy (the domestic one she craves rather than the celebrity one she lives), or blames herself for not being happy with what she has.
Sometimes I believe my rut could be cured if only I had simpler desires. If I could find fulfilment in meaningless tasks, I could be content in most jobs. Likewise, if I could will love into any convenient relationship, I’d always have a partner. But hearing Gwen, I realize that we’ve both made a critical error in the naming of our desires: They’re not simple, though they are clear. We want something great, and think that because we name that, it’ll be easy to find—but it’s not. It’s never easy to find something extraordinary.
Like all of us in Saturn return, Gwen wonders which fantasy is "real": the one she’s living, or the one that feels just out of reach?
"Why do the good girls always want the bad boys?" Gwen asks. I wonder the same thing every day, though I honestly waver on whether I’m the good girl or bad boy. "Bathwater" was a thrill in my youth and remains one today; Gwen is playfully self-deprecating and the song undoubtedly bangs. At this point in my life, singing along feels like a cheeky celebration of my self-sabotaging tendencies.
This song is the equivalent of getting back on Tinder after a breakup: I’m overwhelmed by the uncertainty of my future, drowning in the feeling of being insignificant and unloved, yet somehow still excited and willing to jump in.
This is possibly the greatest and most underrated No Doubt song in history. Sonically and emotionally, it has the most momentum of any track on Return of Saturn. Over pounding drums and electric guitar, Gwen expresses the cathartic terror and joy of finally catching something you’ve been chasing ("Don’t let it go away, this feeling has got to stay"). This was one of the rare songs my pre-pubescent self set to repeat.
"And I can’t believe it, can’t believe it, can't believe it," Gwen sings. She can’t believe she’s finally found love again; she can’t believe just how good it feels. And she can’t believe she did enough (of anything or nothing, of searching or waiting) to get what she wanted. Even if you’re not in Saturn return or excited about someone romantically, the song is a relatable ode to the agony and ecstasy of starting a new chapter in life.
"Why am I so curious? This territory’s dangerous. I’ll probably end up at the start, I’ll be back in line with my broken heart," Gwen sings—but instead of sounding like she’s scolding herself like she did in "Ex-Girlfriend," she’s smirking. Even if everything crashes and burns, she’ll revel in it while it lasts.
When I listen to this album now, I wish I could meet 2000-Gwen and tell her that in the future, she gets the family she desperately wants—and that things will be wrong until they’re right. But I can’t. Instead, I just tell it to myself, and I’m surprised to find that it actually helps.
My privilege of hindsight makes Return of Saturn that much sweeter today. Though the album captures Gwen in mourning—lost and hopeless—I hope that like her, I can emerge from my dark night to build something I didn’t expect; something better than I’d ever dreamed.