I speak to Garbage frontwoman Shirley Manson the morning after she’s collected an “Icon Award” from British music magazine NME. The word “iconic” is overused in 2018, but surely receiving this kind of award is still a head-fuck.
“It is,” Manson tells INTO. “It feels bizarre and surreal, but wonderful. I’m not complaining, trust me! It’s very gratifying but not to be taken too seriously.”
But the Edinburgh-born singer (who now lives in L.A. with her husband and dog) is surely an icon. She’s a feminist icon who recently urged men to “start policing their own” to help eradicate sexism and society-wide misogyny; she’s also a proud LGBTQ icon who appeals particularly to queer people who prefer a more alternative kind of female idol. Somewhere between Siouxsie Sioux and Lana Del Rey, between Grace Jones and Robyn, there’s Shirley Manson, a tough, outspoken, and glamorous woman who’s been fronting a spiky, tricky-to-categorize electro-rock band for 25 years.
“We had incredible support from the LGBTQ community rightfrom day one,” Manson says. “I’ve learned that your greatest ally as a nonconformist woman really is this community. I mean, they understand what it means to be nonconformist and they live with the whole notion of breaking down boxes and opening cages and living free.”
Manson says she’s felt like a nonconformist, an outsider, ever since puberty struck. “Something just occurred when the hormones hit. I felt very self-conscious about being a redhead,” she says. “I was teased and bullied a little because of it. And I didn’t feel attractiveconventionally attractive.”
Many of us feel like outsiders growing up, but few will rally and unite outsiders the way Manson has. From the moment they broke through with mid-’90s hits like “Stupid Girl” and “Only Happy When It Rains,” Garbage set themselves up as a band of misfits, for misfits. They didn’t look or sound like most groups (most of the time, they were too pop to be rock, and too rock to be pop), but still built a loyal tribe of fans who rightly recognized Manson as a fierce and unique queen. So, where does she think her strength and inherent sense of rebelliousness comes from?
“I don’t know, to be honest,” she says, refusing to serve up some easily digestible BS. “I don’t know why my makeup is such that I tend to retaliate and push back when I’m feeling under duress. I don’t know whether it’s a Scottish thing, or something that’s specific to my familymaybe it’s how I learned to survive in the family unit? But I do know that I always believe in the push-back. And I think I always will.”
These days, Shirley is still pushing back against the toxic combination of ageism and misogyny that limits women in the music industry. “You just need to look at the way Madonna is treated to this day to understand the patriarchal system under which women have to operate,” she says. “There’s definitely this idea that gets floated by the media constantly that somehow a woman loses her dignity because she’s got a wrinkle on her skin. But now, I think that’s an old idea that women are beginning to push back against.”
She also continues to push back against intolerance and prejudice by working with AIDS awareness charities and advocating for the LGBTQ community. Though it wasn’t explicitly written as one, Garbage’s ‘90s hit “Queer” has for obvious reasons become an LGBTQ anthem. Released in 2001, the band’s tracks “Androgyny” and “Cherry Lips” showed an ahead-of-the-curve grasp of different gender identities.
“I’ve always been fascinated by gender and identity politics,” Manson says. “And I’ve always been invested in sexuality and sex. These have been big topics in my life, so we’ve touched upon them in our music. When we started playing some of our older songs recently, we realized just how poignant they are, and how they’re speaking to the times we’re currently living in. And honestly, we’re so glad we have songs like that in our arsenal.”
To what extent does she think things have improved for the LGBTQ community since the ‘90s?
“For sure, things have gotten better over the last 20 years. I’ve definitely seen a big change and I’m very grateful for that. But we’ve got a long way to go, and, unfortunately, the trans community, in particular, is still under immense pressure and lack of acceptance,” she says. “Black trans women are murdered at an alarming rate and there’s still a lot of intolerance towards them. Improvements still need to be made, and perhaps they always will be. Those of us who are nonconformist will probably be pushing for the rest of our lives, but I do think things are slowly improving.”
Because she’s always so well-informed and straight-talking, in a way, Manson has also become a kind of icon of candor. I remind her that when we met a few years ago, she made me howl by branding a famous older actress a “cunt” because she’d been rude to her at a Hollywood party.
Manson laughs. “You know, my tongue is my greatest asset and my greatest enemy. I’ve talked myself into a lot of corners in my life, but I’ve also been able to talk myself out of a lot of corners. I just try to be as authentic as I can possibly be. It’s all I can do, right? I want to live my life with integrity and truth. I feel like there’s such an assault on truth at the moment, partly because of the times, partly because of people in power like Donald Trump. And so it feels like an act of resistance a lot of the time just to be full of candor and speak in a straightforward way. At this point, that feels like resistance to me.”
I wrap up the interview by asking Manson a slightly pious question: what does she want her name to stand for? Appropriately enough, her response is both admirably honest and a little bit iconic.
“I honestly couldn’t give two shits what people think of me,” she says. “I’m not looking to war with anybody, I take people as they are, but I at this point, I honestly couldn’t give a toss.”