Was anyone hotter than Shirley Manson in the mid-90s? Because even in that stupid denim tank top, if I could look like anyone it would STILL be her in 1995.
It was because of her I started wearing eyeliner. It was because of her I figured out girls could rock. It was because of her I began an ill-advised high school-long stint of dying my hair red. Sure, Gillian Anderson and The X-Files only cemented the color red as the only choice for awesome kill-you-in-an-instant-if-I-have-to females, but it was my love of Shirley that started it.
And it’s no coincidence that the beginning of this entry has been about the lead singer of Garbage’s looks rather than her music. The three Americans who hired this Scottish lass to front their band hired her because of her music chops (she was in Scottish indie favs Angelfish for much of the early 90s), and because, goodness, look at her! Garbage are a slick band, a calculating band. Nirvana producer Butch Vig put them together to have commercial success and his formula worked. They were hitmakers from the outset, with 6 major singles from their eponymous first album getting heavy radio play (“Vow,” “Supervixen,” “Only Happy When It Rains,” “Queer,” “Stupid Girl” and “Milk”). They were on the radio all the time, and Butch Vig got what he was after.
But I think for me, personally, the salient point about Garbage was that in the mid 90s on the radio, you didn’t hear a lot of women singers. It was all lingering Nirvana hits, Soundgarden, tons of Eddie Vedder (who I HATE with the fiery passion of ten suns), early Radiohead, Smashing Pumpkins (who had a girl bassist, true, but the vocals were VERY male). You know, your basic sausage fest.
In 1995, if you wanted a mainstream rock singer who was female and could be easily found on the radio, you had your choice of Courtney Love or Shirley Manson, and despite her “sordid beauty” as iTunes calls it, Shirley Manson was a good girl. She rocked, but she was polite and even giggled in concert. They say in the 80s, you were either a Madonna girl or a Cyndi Lauper girl depending on your level of badness, and in the 90s, I knew I was definitely NOT a Courtney Love girl.
(That’s not to say I don’t love Hole. I DO love Hole, but when choosing to idolize a particular rock star, I think it is not too imprudent to say that I chose Shirley wisely).
Even at 12 I knew any song called “Supervixen” was the song for me, and I played this album over and over and over again. I wish now I had known about riotgrrl or The Breeders or, hell, even Blondie to go back to the 80s because I think my love-bordering-on-obsession of Shirley was due to this particular void of female rock stars. Still, I’m glad Shirley came into my life, and here’s why:
Yes, Garbage is a glossed up, commercial version of the riotgrrl/rock/punk message. No, I would not consider them revolutionary in any way and yes, they are maybe not the most progressive band in sound. But for mainstream radio, Courtney Love and Shirley Manson WERE revolutionary. And for suburban good girls like me, Garbage’s songs were even more of a revelation. Garbage taught me that sexiness and rock are not mutually exclusive in females. And that wearing your sexuality on your sleeve might be using the same marketing technique as the latest poptart, but remember, in a time before Britney Spears, it was revolutionary to me that I, as a young woman, was allowed a powerful sexuality, even if I was using it to move a product. Now? Not so revolutionary, but do remember this was the time of oversized flannels.
So when Shirley vamps “I will be your religion / This thing you’ll never doubt” in “Supervixen,” she was teaching me that not only could I use sex to sell, I could use sex to overpower.
A good lesson for a 12 year old? Maybe not, but a practical one that I would have learned eventually. In no song on Garbage was this idea more prevalent than in “Vow,” where the narrator compares herself first to Joan of Arc and then to Jesus, bragging over the swagger of pulsing guitars that she’ll “tear your little world apart”:
The fantastic thing about Manson’s vocals on “Vow” is that you really believe she could hurt you, but probably would do it after seducing you. That’s the great thing about Shirley. Even when she’s vunerable, as in “Milk” from the same album, she’s got that sexy-breathy thing down pat. And it works well on her and for the music. And those are some talented musicians back there, so I think while Garbage wear their commercialism on their collective sleeve, you can’t fault the talent.
I am struck that both the Music Memoirs that have focused on my early teen years have been about bands that I thought were sexy (Garbage & Smashing Pumpkins). Though I probably wouldn’t have called them “sexy” at the time, it seems music had a lot more to do with my sexual development than I had thought. Writing these blogs has been kind of a path of self-discovery in that way. I suppose that puberty + sexual development + discovery of music that annoys your parents all go hand in hand, but I’m almost positive now writing this that Shirley Manson is one of the reasons I managed to develop a nice, healthy sexuality, unafraid to be sexual (when the situation requires it).
To drive home the point, here is one more sample. Garbage’s last album was 2005’s Bleed Like Me which is honestly pretty mediocre. But, on it was this little gem of a song that has become an anthem of sorts for me and a song that I wish I could have sung at a “Karaoke For Choice” NARAL event late last summer and sums up nicely what Garbage taught me (albeit in a slightly more subtle way) and why that message was important for a 12 year old girl to hear from a female rocker instead of a male one:
I don’t feel guilty
No matter what they’re telling me
I won’t feel dirty and buy into their misery
I won’t be shamed cause I believe that love is free
It fuels the heart and sex is not my enemy
Is the solution
Is the solution
True love is like gold
There’s not enough to go around
But then there’s God and doesn’t God love everyone?
Give me a choice
Give me a chance to turn the key and find my voice
Sex is not the enemy