Shirley Manson on Social Media, Female Provocateurs, and the Power of Makeup

"I do have a MAC account, it’s true."

"I do have a MAC account, it’s true."

Photo: Autumn de Wilde.

Photo: Autumn de Wilde.

They say you should never meet your idols. I’m not actually “meeting” Shirley Manson though, rather I’m crouched in the stairwell of my office building about to call her in LA. In a way this seems preferable, as being a fan has repeatedly proven to be no obstacle for one of her infamous diatribes. And even being her boyfriend doesn’t guarantee she won’t poo in your cornflakes. The feisty Scotswoman hasn’t cooled it since her days as an Edinburgh club kid in the early ’80s, hence why her return to the helm of wildly successful rock group Garbage in 2012 was only unexpected because of the intensity with which the band first split.

But if there’s one thing Manson does better than yell or sing, it’s laugh. She does that frequently during our conversation, while also earnestly lamenting the current dearth of female provocateurs, lavishing praise upon Brody Dalle, and wondering why the hell we’re all calling her a style icon.

So what have you been doing since the Not Your Kind of People tour wrapped up last year?
Essentially, one week out of every month we’ve been writing. The rest of the time, I’ve been eating donuts, if the truth be told.

That sounds fantastic.
I don’t think it is fantastic, I think it’s actually endangering my life! But I can’t seem to stop.

Well, donut eating aside, you also worked with Brody Dalle on her new song.
Yeah, actually Brody and I worked together on two songs. One for her record, the track “Meet the Foetus,” and then she sang on a Garbage track which is going to be released exclusively for Record Store Day.

Cool. I’m obsessed with her. What was she like to work with?
Well, you know I’m very biased, because I love her as a woman, but I also find her a pretty exciting artist, and the kind of artist who hasn’t been given a lot of column space over the last decade. Girls like Brody, who are pointing their nose at the mainstream, are rare right now, and it was a privilege for me to work with her and hear her sing. It literally brought me to the brink of tears, because it was so wild and feral sounding. The thing people don’t really know about Brody is that she’s also a great guitarist. She can really play, she’s not just up there posing with a guitar. She’s a very talented musician, and a very generous one. I can’t say enough good things about her.

Are there any other women in music right now who you find inspiring? I saw that you posted on Facebook about Perfect Pussy and Cherry Glazerr.
It’s kind of what I was touching on earlier, I feel like there has been such a dearth of female provocateurs over the last decade. It’s been wonderful to watch women dominate the pop charts — to truly dominate — but unfortunately we’ve had to pay a price for that kind of success, which is that the less malleable female musician has really been pushed aside. We haven’t heard a lot from women coming from more of a “punk” ethos, for lack of a better term. So I’m excited to see an underground swell of girls with a lot of attitude and a lot to say. They’re using their intellect as opposed to their assholes. I’m so sick of over-sexualized imagery right now. When women first took it and ran with it it felt very exciting, but now it feels sort of tedious. I want to hear what women have to say as opposed to what they look like in a bikini.

Where do you look to find that sort of music? Are their any blogs you particularly enjoy?
Yeah, but word of mouth mainly. I’m a musician so I know a lot of other musicians, and people talk. So it’s really a mixture of websites, and word of mouth — the way anybody would find good music, I guess.

Why do think there’s such a dearth of young female musicians like Brody?
I think the focus has been on pop music for a decade or so. I have this theory which I’ve talked about a lot, which is that the world got really conservative after September 11, and so for a decade it just sort of shut down. Just wanted disposable, happy music. The status quo wasn’t looking to be challenged, because everyone had become so scared by September 11 and the havoc it wreaked around the world and on the world economies. Radio programming got conservative, and so pop music ruled supreme. I think people are a little sickened of sweet pop music and are looking for something different. They don’t necessarily know what for, but they’re looking for something different. And what’s different right now is something that we haven’t heard for a long time. We haven’t heard a lot of provocative ideas and music coming out for a long time.

How do you think social media has affected all that? This all took place during a shift towards social media being so prevalent and so powerful.
I don’t know if I could answer that very fairly. I don’t know, when all is said and done, that social media changes what we hear and how we hear it. I think social media in a way tends to drown us all in what is dominating. Things don’t happen slowly any more, they happen really fast. There’s a deluge of one thing until we are completely sickened by it, then there’s a deluge of something completely opposite. I think that’s the effect social media maybe has on us all. I don’t think it necessarily influences the way we fight against what is predominant culturally. I don’t even know if that sentence makes any sense, but I just think social media is another outlet for ideas. I don’t know if it’s as powerful as we think it is.

So power structures haven’t been changed?
I don’t think they have been, ultimately. It’s just social media has provided another one, but we already had power structures. I feel like it just runs along in tandem with all the other power structures. I don’t know, what do you think?

I don’t know, I think there’s a lack of gatekeepers as well. I was reading this article about Amazon and books the other day, about how it’s liberating, in a way, to not have professional reviews telling you which books are good and which are bad, but once you remove them and just have a deluge of things, there’s a tendency for people to settle for something that isn’t at all provocative. I feel like that could apply to music too.
I think you’re probably right actually, I mean there definitely seems to be a lack of gatekeepers in a way. It’s funny you use that term, because I was thinking about that the other day. It does seem just to be the war of popularity that we’re fighting against. Everybody seems to measure things based on how big they are and how successful they are, not about the merit of anything but just the size of things. I’ve just always thought that was such a shocking way to measure anything.

Or by the lack of size, like if they’re on only the cool blogs.
Well I think there are a lot of people hiding behind in the obtuse shadows and/or just jumping on the bandwagon of whatever is big and successful. I think they are scared to stand up and say, “Well I know you all hate it, but I think there’s some merit in this.” I don’t think that happens now, I think people are very scared to speak their minds and stand behind an opinion.


Who would your dream musical collaboration be with? Alive or dead?
I guess just so I could stand and look at that face for three and a half minutes, Elvis Presley. I mean, who wouldn’t want to stand and stare at that amazing face? But I fall in love with whoever I’m lucky enough to be making music with. Music is essentially just communication, so it’s just having a conversation. Generally, if you’re having a conversation with somebody and you’re on the same wavelength, you are in love with them for that conversation. They get you and you get them, and it just feels amazing. I’m a bit of a flirt that way.

Your style is also really iconic, and I’m wondering — going from a teenager with no money to someone who is gifted all these amazing designer pieces — which are the outfits you’ve worn that particularly stand out for you?
Well, when I first came out, all the alternative women were very grungy. Everyone was wearing plaid shirts and pants and boots, and I came out wearing neon mini dresses. I had come from a very different background, I was the club culture, I guess, to alternative rock. I guess I just looked at what everybody else was wearing and thought, “I need to stand out.” But you also want to dress to your body. It’s always mystified me that people call me a style icon. I have always just felt that I put things on and shamble along, and hope that people don’t point the finger at me and say, “Oh my God, what are you wearing!?” I’m really grateful for the love I’ve received from the fashion world. Like you said, I’ve been given heaps of gifts and been photographed by the world’s best photographers. It’s a great privilege, but something that I’ve never really given a lot of thought to, in a funny way.

I think the phrase “style icon” is tossed around far too liberally, but to me it means someone who’s style is consistent but consistently exciting. And with you, makeup has been a big part of it too.
Yeah, makeup has always been something that speaks to me. That’s my world. Because I’m a redhead and I’m so fair, if you take off all my makeup then I have no eyebrows and no eyelashes, so in order to have eyelashes and eyebrows I always relied on makeup. I used to work behind the makeup counter in the shop I worked at when I was a young woman, and I did that for five years. So makeup has always been a great tool of escape and transformation for me, and I still love it. And I’m going to be really sad when I get to the point when I’m so old that I won’t be able to wear it any more without being laughed at. I went to see the new Wes Anderson movie the other day where Tilda Swinton plays this kooky old crow, and I looked at her and thought, “That’s exactly what I’m going to look like if I’m lucky enough to live that long!” I can’t really see myself getting rid of makeup. I might just rock it anyway.

I heard you had a lifetime MAC account. What was the last thing you “bought”?
Yes, I do have a MAC account, it’s true. The last thing I bought was from MAC was quite boring actually, it would be my primer. They always have good primers. But I get all my red lipsticks from there — I always get Russian Red and their Lady Danger lipsticks. I wear them every day so I’m always having to get refills.

And when can we expect the next Garbage tour?
We’ve already started booking dates for next year, so that’s a definite. Unless some dreadful force of nature comes and takes us all out of the game, we’re planning to be out spring next year. If all goes according to plan.

Related links:
High Fashion’s Secret Hip-Hop Informer: Brian Procell
The 10 Most Stylish Women in Music Right Now
Perfect Pussy’s Meredith Graves on Fame, Overcoming Shyness, and the Genius of Kool Keith

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