Shirley Manson: "I was a tortured young woman"

Eva Mackevic

BY Eva Mackevic

20th Jun 2018 Music

Shirley Manson: "I was a tortured young woman"
Shirley Manson of Garbage talks to us about navigating the music industry as a woman, ageing, and their seminal album,Version 2.0
RD: What does Version 2.0 mean to you when you look back on it today?  
At the time that we made this record, we had a specific intention and we did our best to fulfil that. Looking back on it now, I think we were successful in our venture in that we wanted to make a forward-thinking pop record. At the time, in our minds, “forward-thinking” meant utilising a lot of the new technology that had become available, and merging a lot of musical influences together in one pot. I think we were pretty successful at doing that.
I suppose I should just speak for myself and not the band but for me, Version 2.0 has always been the quintessential Garbage record and what I mean by that is that if somebody had never heard of us and asked, “What do you guys sound like?” I’d probably point them in that direction.
RD: Garbage was a band that embodied the voice of a generation. Would you say there are any bands fulfilling that role today?  
When we emerged, it was a moment in musical history when the alternative side was predominant and if you weren’t coming from an alternative perspective it was very difficult to get covered by the media, on TV, or get played on MTV. But for us, we just enjoyed this moment in time. Currently it’s very difficult for bands that come from an alternative perspective to enjoy that kind of attention and support. So I’m not entirely sure if I can think of an equivalent currently.
However, I can see a lot of young pop stars speaking up and pushing up against certain norms and that in itself is wonderful to witness. Whether it’s Beyoncé talking about race or Cardi B talking about immigration, they’re all trying to use their voice in the same way that we were. And we were pushing against the establishment, so in that regard, Garbage enjoyed a moment in the mainstream culture and we arguably made the best of that attention.
RD: Do you think being a female artist in the current climate is easier than it was some 20 years ago?  
With the advantage of hindsight, you realise how weird it was… an alternative perspective coming from a woman in the mainstream. It’s only now that I realise, Oh my god, me and my generation really did put our shoulder to the wall and we pushed. And as a result, more traditional female pop stars—who back in my day wouldn’t dare to open their mouth and speak out—are now using their platform. I think that is a result of my generation and I take a lot of satisfaction in that.
"People don't like a mouthy, confident woman"
Of course, my generation was built on what the performers were doing back in the 1960s and so on. We’re all part of this tapestry pushing for evolution and improved circumstances for women. It’s heartening to see that evolution continues even despite the setbacks that we keep encountering.
My opportunities were better than my mother’s and my grandmother’s and so on. And I think that women who are emerging now, despite the current climate in general, are enjoying more representation, and I hope that it continues.   
RD: Have there been times when you were talked down to by men over the course of your career?
Of course. Any smart woman, and you’re a smart woman yourself... I think any woman who has the “audacity” to expect to be treated on an equal level as her male peers, will encounter a certain pushback from certain men, but also some women. You know, people don’t like a mouthy confident woman. They just don’t like them. They love smiley, people-pleasing characters. That’s why we see a lot of the biggest pop stars in the world who are, generally speaking, always willing to smile. And as a result, they advance.
It’s no wonder that Kim Kardashian is as powerful and successful as she is, because she’s incredibly conformist, and appears to the old template of a patriarchal-pleasing figure. And she has benefitted from that. So anytime you push up against the grain as a woman, you’ll be punished for it. Thank God, they don’t burn opinionated women at the stake anymore. [laughs] But we are punished in other ways.
RD: When was the worst time that ever happened to you personally?  
The most extreme version for me was when I made a business decision in my own favour that involved a very powerful figure in the music industry. The amount of verbal abuse I attracted shocked me and made me very aware that a man in my position would not have been spoken to in that fashion. I was treated like a little girl being naughty.
"I was treated like a little girl being naughty"
It offended me deeply and really shook me—I was shaken by the things that were said. I was told I wasn’t talented, I was told I would fail, I was told that I was nothing, it was an absolute tirade of abuse. And all because I made a business decision that this person didn’t agree with and was offended by it. I was treated like a child. Luckily, I bounced back.
When I look back on my career, I’ve had record company bosses talk about my haircuts, the clothes I’m wearing, and just stuff that’s none of their business. Men don’t get involved in other men’s business like that, you know? But they think it’s perfectly ok to get involved in women’s business. As I got older and older, I learned that my business is my business.

During the Rage and Rapture tour, 2017. Image via Getty 
RD: How long did it take you to figure that out? Would you say you were complicit to begin with? 
By default, the way our society is structured, you find that you are complicit to a certain degree because those are just the laws of convention—they exist and they’re real. I’m fortunate because I’ve always been a rebellious spirit, confident in my own ability to articulate myself and to speak up for myself. So I have thrived despite working in a predominantly male-dominated business.
What concerns me is that I know for sure that there are millions, billions of women around the world who have not enjoyed the kind of education that I’ve enjoyed or the family support that I’ve enjoyed. And so, it irks me terribly to think that the establishment is still built in favour of a male perspective instead of a female one. I want that to change, I want it to shift, to accommodate all genders and all perspectives. We must continue to push for change.
RD: You recently won the NME Icon Award. Do you identify with the role of an icon?
[laughs] No, of course not! Who does? It’s a terrifying idea. But also, at the same time, I understand that it’s a position of great privilege. You know, when I hear artists talk about what a role our music played in their life, or that something I said has pushed them to go and achieve something on their own terms, that is the greatest compliment anyone can ever pay. It’s an extraordinary role to be able to participate in.
RD: Do you feel like there’s a certain set of responsibilities that comes with that title though?
Nope! [laughs] Not at all. I’m lucky—I don’t take all that stuff too much to heart, you know? I don’t take it too seriously. You know what media’s like, within five minutes they’ve moved on to someone else. It’s intangible and it’s not something that you can really build on.
As I get older and older I realise that I have to focus on building my life on something that’s tangible and real. Otherwise, it’s just a waste of time, it’s a kind of cloud that’ll dissipate with the wind. [laughs] I’m very poetic this morning. I’m so sorry you have to endure this drivel.
RD: Going back to Version 2.0, tell me a bit about what kind of state of mind you were in at the time of the making of the album and how you have evolved since then.  
It’s open to debate whether I’ve evolved at all! [laughs] I mean, who knows? I can’t really be objective when it comes to myself. I know I have changed, but how I have changed, I’m not entirely sure. I’m certainly happier than I was. I was a really tortured young woman. Like a lot of young women in our society, I felt a lot of pressure, I didn’t believe I was good enough, talented enough, beautiful enough, slim enough, smart enough—the list is endless. And I see it amongst so many other women—this stance where you’re trying to achieve the impossible and it drives you slowly insane.
"The longer you’re around, the more challenges there are—you become a little like an old slipper"
And unfortunately, I also believe that it’s a rite of passage for many women—just something you have to endure and you push through it and if you’re lucky, you recover from that and are able to put things more into perspective and go easier on yourself.
I was so hard on myself it was terrifying. I was ambitious and I understood that the position I was in was so rare and I didn’t want to blow my chance. I knew that this wasn’t going to come round again so I really worked hard and pushed my band to come along with me and they pushed me in other ways—we appreciate each other.
RD: What’s your dynamic with the guys in the band been like over the years?
I’m very lucky in that I always had a voice. And I think that was one of the reasons they asked me to join the band in the first place. I wasn’t a shrinking violet—I had a position. And they were looking for that, they were smart enough to know that they were looking for somebody like that. They needed me. And I needed them. It was like the perfect merge in some regards. For the first decade of our career, we didn’t have any real obstacles in our way. We were very lucky and we enjoyed basically a decade of insane success. As an alternative band, that was certainly a surprise for all of us.
When that trajectory began to fold and go into a decline, as all careers do eventually, then we began to experience some friction in the band. When things get tough for a band, you have numerous ways of dealing with that and in our case, we sort of turned on one another and started to hurt one another—internally. Externally, we always functioned really well and I don’t think anybody knew there were problems.
We worked through that, we took some time off, that ended up stretching out for seven years before the next record, as it turned out. And since then, it’s been an easier working relationship. But we’re definitely in a very different place than where we were when we first started.
RD: So what’s on your bucket list?
Well, I’d love to survive. And have a happy life. As I get older and older, it becomes more of a creative challenge. It was so easy when I was young to go on tour and make records. You get into a van and you ride around Europe with your band smoking cigarettes in the back of a closed transit van and sleeping on people’s floors—that’s easy.
When you get older it’s not so easy anymore. The longer you’re around, the more challenges there are. You become a little like an old slipper. Everybody’s used to hearing you, seeing you. Particularly now, in this culture, everybody wants whatever’s the new thing. And of course, I’m not the new thing. I’m the old thing. [laughs] I guess I’m aware that I must go on some kind of a quest for myself. I can’t think in big strokes anymore. I have to discipline myself to think along the small strokes. And that takes a lot of patience and a certain level of grace which I’m not entirely sure I’m good at practising. I want to be creative and I want to have a creative, adventurous life. 


The 20th-anniversary reissue of Version 2.0 is out on June 22 

Read our review here

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