Shirley Manson interview: ‘At this point, I know I can handle a bully’

Written by
Nick Levine

Garbage are a band like no other. Though they broke through in the Britpop era, their heavily layered blend of grunge guitars, trip hop beats and sleek pop hooks stood out from the likes of Oasis and Elastica. ‘We’ve always been confusing to people because we’ve never quite fit in, and misfits love us for that,’ says frank and fabulous frontwoman Shirley Manson.

These days Manson is rightly hailed as a rock and feminist icon, but back in the ’90s, press coverage could be reductive. ‘It was either “she’s sexy!” or “she’s crazy!” and it was just stupid,’ she says in her usual plain-speaking Edinburghian way. But obviously, she’s far too smart to let the icon thing go to her head. ‘It’s lovely, but do I take it seriously? Do I fuck!’

As a woman in the notoriously sexist and ageist music industry, does it feel more radical to be doing this now than it did 20 years ago?

‘Not just more radical, but incredibly rewarding. I think a lot of people assume we’re attached to the “glory years” when we were massively commercially successful. But back then, it got to the point where I felt like I was working for a record company. They were making more money than God while we were on a bus for two fucking years struggling to keep our minds and bodies and marriages together. Now, we’re on our own independent label and don’t get pushed around any more.’

Why do you think Garbage have lasted?

‘We have tremendous respect for one another and it’s very much a democracy. We’ve been blessed with a certain kind of toughness; we can endure quite a few smackdowns and somehow be stupid enough to stand back up and take another swing.’

Where does your personal toughness come from?

‘When I was young, I was bullied, and it drove me to the point of madness. I eventually decided I would physically confront my bully because I couldn’t stand the mental torture any more. I figured that if I stood up to her, I’d get a kicking and then it would be over. But when I did stand up to her, she just backed off. That was a major life lesson: you have to put your shoulder to the wall and push back. Also, I come from an amazing line of women. My grandmother had a double honours degree in the ’20s when it was practically unheard of for women to go to university. So I’ve been well-educated in how to stand tall in a patriarchal system.’

That first experience with your bully must have helped in the music biz.

‘Oh, without a doubt. There’s tremendous pressure placed on artists signed to these massive corporations because they don’t give a shit about integrity or your mental health – they just want to make money. A current example is Demi Lovato. Clearly, that kid was showing signs of struggle, to the point that she released a single about falling off the wagon. And still these bastards out there put her on the road and she nearly died as a result. That’s not right, it’s morally wrong. But all they care about is the bottom line: let’s put the pony down the pits and make her run. It’s vile.’

You’re known for being straight talking. But isn’t that harder in the era of Twitter trolls?

‘Not really, because at this point, I know I can handle a bully. If I comment on social media about a hot topic that drives people insane, the amount of verbal abuse I get just falls off my shoulders like raindrops. I really don’t absorb it, and I can’t explain how I’ve got to this point. It doesn’t raise my blood pressure; I’ve grown accustomed to it. And I think people are entitled to their own opinions. If they disagree with me, so what?’

If only people in politics could think like that!

‘Yeah, I think politics has devolved into kindergarten spats. I’m disappointed that the conversations haven’t been elevated. These are trying times and our politicians, for the most part, don’t really act as though they’re representing the people. I find it really disheartening and laughable – though the stakes are so high, it’s not laughable at all. It took me so long to understand that people perceive the world differently and it doesn’t make them evil. So I do think we should all be a little more tolerant of the opposition.’

How do you think politicians can do better?

‘The problem is, if you want to be a politician, you’re probably already corrupt – unless you’re coming from a position of disempowerment or struggle, like a black candidate or a lesbian candidate. But generally speaking, it attracts power-crazed people coming from money and they just enjoy toying with people. And that fucking pisses me off!’

Would you ever consider going into politics?

‘I know I talk well, but I’d rather shoot myself between the eyes than go into politics. I’m deadly serious about that. Yuck!’ 

Garbage play the 2019 edition of Zagreb's INmusic Festival, which takes place from 24 to 26 June.

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