Grunge Icon Shirley Manson Is Not Here For Your Selfies
Garbage frontwoman Shirley Manson has been revered for over 20 years, becoming a flame-haired beacon of hope for the maladjusted, the weird, feminists before the movement became essentially mainstream. “Icon” is a gross word that is second in annoyance only to teenagers’ use of “mom” on social media, but Manson is one. Generations of fans have connected to her pleading, gut-wrenching lyrics; her frankness both about serious topics (feminism, body dysmorphia), and the hilarious (the time she took a shit on her boyfriend’s Corn Flakes); and of course, her style, which looks a bit like Deelite’s Lady Miss Kier, a 1930s movie star, and heroes of the Riot Grrl movement jumped in a blender.
Now 49 years old, the Scottish-born Manson, who recently swapped out her famous red hair (she’s directly descended from Vikings) for pink locks, has been on a promotion kick for Garbage’s latest album, Strange Little Birds. She’s managed to turn what’s typically a boring press cycle into a riveting treatise on sexism, ageism, and the essentials of being a badass, loudmouth woman in music. And the music itself is better than ever. Birds has oft been described as Garbage’s darkest, most romantic album yet. It’s being hailed as their best since 1998’s seminal Version 2.0—although my favorite is actually 2001’s Beautiful Garbage, but I have often been told that my opinion, which by definition can’t be wrong, is wrong.
Garbage has always been a versatile band—they’ve done electronic and sad and poppy and happy. They even do jazzy, like on their James Bond theme, “The World Is Not Enough,” which, according to an official straw poll taken in my mother’s car, is the best Bond song since Shirley Bassey’s “Goldfinger.” So Garbage switched things up with Birds, putting aside their typical infusion of electronics in favor of a guitar-heavy LP.
As Manson has been pointing out, Birds feels deliciously emo in comparison to most of today’s mainstream music, which is heavy on self-esteem. If you put together a mish-mash of lyrics from the record, you get something resembling a demented love letter from a torturous relationship. “I’m magnetized by you.” “I’m so empty/You’re all I’m thinking about.” “And even though our love is doomed/And even though we’re all messed up.” “Our sex, our power, our drive/We lose ourselves inside/So we can feel alive.” It’s so deeply satisfying.
I have a lot to say about Shirley Manson. But it seems like we should let her do the talking.
My favorite story I’ve ever read was about when you shit in your boyfriend’s Corn Flakes. What happened?
He was a fucking asshole. I should never have been with him in the first place. I can’t actually remember the sin being committed, but just knowing him as I do, I know that he had infuriated me to the point of words being pointless. Actions speak louder than words, let’s put it that way. And he was utterly gobsmacked, disgusted, and didn’t know what to do. It was such a glorious revenge. He deserved it—trust me.
You’ve always been so frank and honest about insecurities and body issues. But then you’ve also been a really successful model. Do you ever think about that dichotomy?
I am aware of the contradiction of my personality. I used to feel like I had to explain it, and now I don’t at all. I think you can be a really strong, intelligent, fulfilled person and still have these moments when you’re second guessing yourself or struggling to feel good. And I wanted to be frank about it because I felt like, right now in our culture, there’s so little honesty about being in the public eye.
“I just feel so disengaged from how people present themselves now. I can’t connect with that—all I see is phoniness.”
I realize how lucky and privileged I am—I’ve had an incredible career, I’ve really enjoyed a lot of attention, and I’ve had a lot of success. And now it’s my job—particularly as I’ve gotten older—to help instruct other young women who are struggling with their self-esteem. I feel [it’s] my privilege to highlight stuff a lot of people don’t talk about. I think some people find it off-putting; a lot of people have criticized me for saying that I was very unhappy when I was at my most successful.
I think that’s common though!
I think that’s really common too. I’m only here for such a short time, what is my purpose? To me, my purpose is now making things easier for people who are following behind me.
It’s very inspiring.
[Laughs] I don’t know if it is! It seems so old fashioned, sort of out of step with whatever is going on right now, but I just feel so disengaged from how people present themselves now. I can’t connect with that—all I see is phoniness.
The SLB single, “Empty” also echoes a lot of things you’ve always said in interviews regarding self-doubt and self-consciousness. I feel like it really stands up against a lot of popular music these days that’s like, “I’m a superstar.”
Ugh. “I’ve got so much money. I’ve got a great ass.” I just don’t relate to any of that—I never have. And I feel like, less and less, do I find a voice like mine in our culture. I’m desperate to find someone else that thinks like me. I look at everyone in modern culture right now and think, God everyone is so full of themselves. But they don’t seem to have any of the self-doubt or worries or anxieties that I do. Like, what the fuck am I doing wrong? But, I know for a fact, just by the response that track has had, that there are millions of people out there who feel the same way.
And is it true that you used the first take from the recording of [the track] “Even Though Our Love Is Doomed?”
That is true. And I didn’t have a hand in that song, not one iota of that belongs to me, which breaks my heart. I can’t take any credit for it whatsoever.
Butch [Vig, Garbage drummer and co-producer] told me he had this title “Even Though Our Love Is Doomed.” And for months and months and months, nothing arrived. And I kept saying to him, “What about that great idea you had?” And he was like, “Oh, it’s not good, it hasn’t gone anywhere.” and I just nagged him. [Eventually] he finished it and brought it into me and said, “Look I know you feel uncomfortable singing other people’s words, but just listen to it.” And I heard it once, and I was like, “I fucking love it, I’m going to go in and record it right now.” So I did and it was a joy. It’s so well-written that it could be a monkey singing it and it would sound great.
Throughout this press cycle, you’ve talked about how we haven’t been vigilant enough with feminism. Could you elaborate on that?
Women were not vigilant. And as a result, the global eradication of women’s rights really is terrifying. I got an email from Amnesty International the other day about a woman in Argentina who was being prosecuted for having a miscarriage. Wasn’t it Donald Trump who said women should be punished if they have abortions? I think people are not reacting to that kind of rhetoric in the way that they need to. To punish a woman for a miscarriage, something that is entirely out of her control, because the male seed is more precious than a living, fully formed, conscious woman—it pisses me off. I feel like women’s rights globally are sliding back to almost Victorian times.
So when you see celebrities wearing waist trainers, and all these appendages that women fought to escape from, and you see how women are willingly getting back into those cages—these actions have really dangerous implications. When I look at my beautiful niece, who is six years old, I panic, and it makes me want to engage in the struggle to be treated equally around the world. I feel frenzied about it!
What about pop feminism? It’s never been bigger.
Taylor Swift and Beyoncé and Rihanna, when I hear them talk about feminism, I think that’s fantastic. I think Beyoncé’s last record is an incredible piece of work. I feel so grateful to her for having the balls to be that honest. It was a really powerful move, and she can affect way more women than I ever could. Taylor Swift too, she’s an incredible role model to young women. And yet, she attracts a lot of venom, and I [don’t understand it]. She writes all her own music, she hasn’t displayed her naked anus on Instagram.
Beyond that, a lot of current feminism seems to be about supporting other women no matter what, when a lot of the time, women fuck up, too.
If you’re with a woman and she’s being an asshole, you should completely call her out in the same way that you would a man. Don’t bolster whatever somebody decides to do because she has a vagina. It’s tedious, and it’s weak.
There was the recent horrifying attack in Orlando. Have you been playing “Queer” on tour?
We’ve actually been playing “Sex is Not The Enemy,” as we thought it was more appropriate. We were horrified by the Orlando attacks, and at the same time I’m immensely grateful that throughout [Garbage’s] career, we’ve been extremely supportive of the LGBT community. In any situation where we see inequality, we want to speak up. There are so many people these days that want to piss on people’s joy, and I don’t understand it.
“We’re not better than animals, and it seems to me that we’re regressing even further, and we’re just becoming really unpleasant to live with. It really is quite depressing.”
I’m not saying you have to accept it, I’m not saying you have to love it. Just tolerate it. It drives me crazy. What difference does it make to you if somebody wants to kiss a bloody monkey? Let people be, as long as they’re not harming any living thing. There’s so much anonymous criticism that goes on nowadays, people thinking they can say anything they want without any consequence. And when there are no consequences, people behave badly. Human beings are not good beasts. You’ll find a much sweeter version of beasts in the wild. We’re not better than animals, and it seems to me that we’re regressing even further, and we’re just becoming really unpleasant to live with. It really is quite depressing.
I’ve always wanted to talk to you about sex.
I [wasn’t] really aware of my attitude towards sex until I was older. My mum always used to say, “Nice girls don’t talk about sex.” And I remember thinking, “What? Why not?” I was in a peer group where men were very sexual, and for some reason women were expected to sit there mute. I would hear men make comments about women over and over again, and then one day I just did the exact same thing, like, “Wow, look at the cock on that, that makes me want to fuck his brains out.” The entire [group] went quiet. The men were sickened. But women are subjected to this every single day.
And then I realized that our sexual experiences—or certainly my generation—always revolve around the male orgasm. Why are we just allowing ourselves not to be gratified in that way?
Now, I’m sure some women don’t give a fuck. They enjoy the sexual act regardless. But there’s plenty of women who want orgasms, and we should expect them, and ask for them, and not be embarrassed about it. Men certainly aren’t embarrassed about it! I realized that as I’ve gotten older—women are encouraged not to be sexual. It’s seen as something trashy, something disgusting, something to be ashamed of. And I think, “Fuck that.” And what I do love about the new generation of Rihannas and Lady Gagas is that they are really sexual, and I’m really grateful to them for it. They’re educating an entire generation of young women to feel unashamed, and we didn’t really have that.
And I read once that you make great cakes and give good head.
I do make really good cakes. And I think I give pretty good head.
All photos shot exclusively for Milk by Adrian Mesko
Styling & Creative Direction: Paul Bui
Art Direction: Kathryn Chadason
Hair: Aleksandra Sasha Nesterchuk at The Only.Agency
Makeup: Amber Amos at The Only.Agency
Styling Assistant: Sonia Edwards
Shot in Studio A at Milk Studios New York.
Strange Little Birds is available on iTunes.