After a lifetime on stage, musician Shirley Manson reflects on the extraordinary ways she sees the world today.
Of all the adjectives that could be deployed to explore, unravel and expound upon Shirley Manson’s universe of lyrics, this tends to serve as the blandest of catchalls: “dark.”
“People get uncomfortable when you tell the truth,” she told The Guardian earlier this year. “I don’t. I’m happy to feel. I wanna feel every single fucking thing. I want to feel the breeze, the punch, the disappointment. I want to feel love, lust and everything in between because I’m here for an infinitesimal amount of time. I wanna feel it all. I’m a greedy motherfucker. If that makes me dark, so be it.”
In the craft of fiction writing, one of the most basic tenets is that characters must change. It permeates our media, it permeates our lives. And so there’s something profoundly wonderful in the fact that Manson hasn’t—as she has mused, the person who sang 20 years ago about aging into a proper adult (“When I Grow Up”) never really did. Sure, she has evolved in different ways. But Manson has always been, simply, herself.
One of her earliest memories of growing up in Scotland is hearing her mother, a big band singer, crooning Sinatra on stage. She thought it was beautiful, and at home, she was reared on the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and other standards.
Meanwhile, the red hair and pale skin that would define her own stage presence as an adult found her bullied as a kid. She despised school. She suffered anxiety and depression. She toyed with drugs and drink. Later in life, her wild teenage stories would precede her—like, say, the time she broke into the Edinburgh Zoo to huff glue.
She wanted to become an actress, but when she was 16 the Scottish rock band Goodbye Mr. Mackenzie extended an invite to sing backup and play keyboards. That band evolved into the group Angelfish, with Manson stepping to the front, and they landed a video on MTV’s alt showcase “120 Minutes.” The video aired only once—but guitarist Steve Marker happened to be watching that night. Marker, alongside Duke Erikson and Butch Vig (of Nirvana/Smashing Pumpkins production fame), had formed a band and were looking for a singer. They found one.
The band’s self-titled debut exploded in 1995, offering a fresh evolution of sound in an era otherwise preoccupied with the styles Vig was known for producing. The instant success shocked everyone in the band. As for Manson, on tour and in press, she was brash and bold, a master cusser who in retrospect says that nobody could out-rude her back then. She’d often shock the press with her statements—a press that at times framed her merely as the hired face of her band. (“It was awful,” she told Spin. “I was finally allowed to be creative, to write and have input into something that people valued, and then I was treated like a piece of flotsam. I wasn’t undervalued; I was dismissed. To say it didn’t sting would be a lie. But I guess there’s a real pugilistic streak in me because I was just like, ‘Fuck it. I’ll show you,’ and I kept at it.”)
Version 2.0 followed, nabbing an array of Grammy nominations and living up to the stakes set by its predecessor. The band were bona fide superstars. In perhaps a moment of surreality, they recorded the theme to the 1999 James Bond film The World is Not Enough.
And then came the underrated album Beautiful Garbage, and the difficult era that accompanied it. The band was set to begin promotion on Sept. 11, 2001. Manson was going through a divorce. Constant touring was wearing on the group. After hearing emerging groups like The White Stripes and The Strokes, Manson instinctively knew that they had been cooped up on their bus for too long, and had missed what was happening outside of it.
Bleed Like Me followed, and Universal had bought the band’s label, meaning they were now controlled by a major corporate entity—and that entity demanded an album, leading to the greatest hits collection Absolute Garbage. Exhausted, the band went into hiatus, but Manson didn’t stop making music. She recorded a solo effort—exploring that trademark “dark” territory—all the while acknowledging that in the end, the label probably wouldn’t let her release it. She brought it to them. She was right. They found it “too noir.” They wanted a pop album instead.
As she recounted to The Herald, “[I explained to them that there] are some difficult things in my life that I want to talk about, and they are not necessarily radio-friendly topics. I want to write about things that are actually happening, things to do with my parents, with mortality, identity, those kind of ideas. I don’t want to write about feeling sexy and going to a club.”
“It made me determined to get out of my contract,” she told Spin. “I realized that I was incorruptible, which is great because sometimes you forget.”
The battles in her life extended beyond her music in a tragic fell swoop—her beloved mother died of a rare form of dementia. Then, a friend’s child died of cancer, and at his funeral, Manson found Vig.
The trauma had opened up new pathways for the band. They decided to create another record—and to do it on their own terms. After Garbage had originally disbanded, they hadn’t lived lavishly and squandered their various fortunes. Rather, their funds had sat dormant in a communal account for a moment just like this. So in 2012, Garbage released Not Your Kind of People on their own label. They were elated to be in business for themselves, without the stifling environment that had all but killed the first incarnation of the band. Strange Little Birds followed in 2016. As Manson said of Garbage’s resurrection, “We’ve always felt like outsiders. We were never electronic enough for electronica fans, never alternative-rock enough for alternative-rock people. We never fit into any scene, and we often felt a little apologetic about who we were.”
Now, “This is our sound, our world. Be part of it, or not.”
It took time, but Garbage eventually found where they were headed.
As for Manson, in looking at the arc of a life, one ponders what could have happened around different bends, different forks in the roads, and what versions of her might have come to pass. In quantum physics, one theory holds that whenever a decision is made, an alternate universe spawns off as a result—
Perhaps there’s a Manson who never strayed from her violin as a child, and plays in an orchestra today.
Perhaps there’s a Manson lost to a life or perpetual partying.
Perhaps there’s a Manson plotting her next move on Broadway.
Perhaps there’s a Manson still devotedly toiling away in local Scottish bands, Marker having fallen asleep and missed “120 Minutes.”
Regardless of what may exist in any number of curious worlds, we’re better off for living in the one in which she brings light through darkness.
—Zachary Petit, Design Matters Media Editor-in-Chief