“it’s going to be a tsunami” – garbage’s shirley manson on music’s #metoo movement

Fresh from winning the inaugural NME Icon Award, we speak to Garbage’s Shirley Manson about music, #metoo and forever feeling fucking iconic.

by Matthew Whitehouse
23 February 2018, 10:46am

Shirley Manson is describing the moment she arrived at last week’s NME Awards in London. “I was on the red carpet and a photographer goes to me, ‘Smile!’,” she says. “Years ago I probably would have smiled. But last night I was like -- ‘Are you paying me?’. He’s says, ‘no’. So I went, ‘Well, this is what you get’.”

“His sense of complete privilege that a) he could tell me what to do and b) a woman is only of worth if she’s smiling and looking pretty and enjoying the attention,” she continues. “Luckily, last night I had the cognisance to just say, “No, I will not be smiling for you, go fuck yourself.”

You can rely on Shirley Manson to use her voice whenever bullshit rears its head. In the 23 years since her band, Garbage, released their eponymous debut album, the Edinburgh-born musician has spoken out in the name of feminism, gay rights, transgender rights. She’s used her position as the front person of a properly huge arena rock band to champion, well, pretty much anyone who finds themselves marginalised by society. It’s no wonder she was presented the inaugural NME Icon Award at this year’s ceremony.

“Historically speaking, I’ve not enjoyed award ceremonies,” she laughs in a meeting room of her publicist’s west London office the next morning. “But last night, it was hard to be cynical. At my age, after such a long career, to still be able to mingle with creatives of all ages in British music felt like a privilege.”

Does she feel iconic? “Do I feel iconic? Fuck yeah, I feel iconic.”

Shirley used her acceptance speech to demand change for female-identifying people in the arts. She said: “Any decent person is shocked by the statistics surrounding not only the harassment that women face, not only the violence that we face, but the lack of representation that we enjoy in the industry.

“The fact that women at my level enjoy under 7% representation is unacceptable,” she continued. “I call upon any musician in this room to stand up and really call out festivals for not representing women, in particular women of colour, our black sisters. We need to make a change. It’s vital.”

While the #metoo movement swept through Hollywood following the public revelations of sexual misconduct allegations against producer Harvey Weinstein in October, any reciprocal action within the music industry has been conspicuous by its absence. And, I mean, this is the music industry we’re talking about. A world where, as i-D contributor Michael Cragg pointed out, “of the three women who performed [at this week’s BRIT Awards] only one (Dua Lipa) was allowed to perform solo, i.e. without an unnecessary male accessory.” That’s just the very tip of the iceberg. So, what happened to music’s #metoo movement?

“I think there are multiple issues at play,” Shirley says. “Female musicians are not as powerful as female actors, end of story. Actors have got much more income at their disposal, therefore their day to day existence is not under threat if they lose a job. With the music industry right now, it’s much more difficult for anyone to make a living so I think people are scared to lose their already tiny foot on the first rung. They’re scared to put their career in jeopardy. And also I think they watch what happened to Kesha [who accused her producer, Dr Luke, of rape and battery in 2014] and Kesha was fed to the lions.”

You get the impression that Shirley didn’t imagine she’d still be speaking about this kind of thing 35 years after she started her career as a member of ludicrously underrated Scottish outfit, Goodbye Mr Mackenzie. “I would have thought we’d be a little further forward by now,” she admits. She suggests the record industry's lack of conservatism compared to film, means that artists often find themselves “in situations that are not necessarily corporate or organised” or “parties where there are all kinds of forgetful experiences because people are blind drunk or messed up. It’s a more permissive environment so you don’t necessarily know that what happened felt wrong, or maybe it’s not till you get home and you’re like, that didn’t feel right, what the fuck happened.”

In 2016, Garbage announced a 20th-anniversary reissue of their self-titled debut and Shirley found herself revisiting a lot of the band’s early press coverage. “I was pretty shocked,” she says today. “When I look back on it now, I’m thinking, how dare these people talk about what boots I’m wearing or how kissable my lips were or what my body looked like? They certainly wouldn’t objectify a male musician like that. I was either the hottest, sexiest babe in town, or I was weird and freaky looking and I looked like an upside down broomstick. You know, really nasty, bizarre, cruel comments.”

She tells a story about running into her old music publisher in Germany last year. “The second I saw him I had this memory of this dude who grabbed my breast whilst we were having a band photograph taken in celebration of a platinum disc,” she recalls. “I remember the night distinctly and sort of laughing it off. Saying to my band, ‘Oh, he was such a creeper, he was touching my boob while we were getting the photograph taken’. And I think a lot of women don’t want to make too much of a fuss because they’re thinking, that didn’t feel right or that felt really gross, but maybe I’m overreacting. It’s only as an adult that I think, that’s outrageous, that you touch an artist -- or anybody -- like that.”

When she ran into him again, the music publisher took the opportunity to proudly recount the incident to a couple of his friends. “He goes, ‘Oh, you must know the story?’ We did this photograph and she had this tight little top on, real cute little titties, and I just made it my mission to get my hand on them’. And he’s saying this to me!

“Even in that moment, I just kind of smiled and turned my back on him. I didn’t even waste my breath on him. I was just thinking, wow, what arrogance. How sick are you in the head to think that it’s okay to say this to me? To do it in the first place but to revisit it 20 years later?”

Photography Joseph Cultice

So -- what happens now then? Shirley speaks passionately about the importance that all genders will play in music’s #metoo movement (“I find it heartbreaking that so few men have considered this their issue. It’s women speaking about your shit! Your shit! You need to clean it up”), but if she, a woman, who occupies a privileged position as a critically acclaimed artist who’s sold a shed-load of records, can still experience moments like this, where does it leave younger, emerging musicians?

“I feel like there's a whole generation of artists now who are much more willing to speak about ‘uncomfortable’ topics,” she says. “And I’m not just talking about women in alternative music. Women in hip-hop and rap are really fucking amazing and saying incredible and brave and provocative things. And the pop stars too. Someone like Halsey has been very vocal and Miley [Cyrus] has done some incredible things for people. I feel like the younger generation are, in some ways more political.”

After four decades in the music industry, does she see herself as someone who can perhaps light the way for younger musicians? “I don’t think about that too much,” she replies. “Although, I do believe that the more people speak up about abuse, the less abuse can exist. I don’t feel in service to anybody, but as I have gotten older, I’ve become more and more passionate about it. I can’t help myself. I care.”

“I’ve had a good career,” she continues. “I’m very articulate, for the most part, and I’m also not afraid of using my voice. But I know that 99.9 percent of my comrades are not necessarily like me. They are more quiet and more reticent and more uncomfortable in the spotlight and sometimes I see that they just need a little encouragement to push this through.

“But we all know it’s going on. We’ve all seen it. And when it happens… It’s going to be a tsunami.”

Shirley Manson is mega and Garbage are touring to celebrate the 20th anniversary of their second album Version 2.0 this September.

shirley manson
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