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Shirley Manson: sex, straight-talking & strange little birds

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On a high following Garbage’s triumphant new album, the unapologetic frontwoman talks pricking pomposity, Rihanna and the insanity of sexual double standards

Taken from the autumn 2016 issue of Dazed: 

If you believe what you read in the 90s, Shirley Manson enjoys golden showers, is ‘sex on a stick’ and looks like Tina Turner on rhino tranquilisers when she lip-syncs. She’s also not the kind of girl you’d want to take home to your mother, more the kind of woman who’d serve cold rat to her crippled and imprisoned sister for a laugh.

“It wasn’t even slightly undermining terminology,” laughs Shirley Manson, recalling the obscenity of what the press (read: middle-aged music schlubs) have written about her. “Looking back, I didn’t say or do anything particularly wild or crazy. I’m actually pretty fucking together. It was just a way for people to undermine me, but that’s life.”

People tend to be intimidated by icons. The crazier the rumour, the greater the icon – and the bigger the threat. There’s no doubt that Manson is both. For three decades, the (formerly) flame-haired Garbage frontwoman has refused to compromise, subverting stereotypes and writing her own narrative in an industry still dominated by men. Manson, who began as an alternative voice for a generation of disaffected kids, has emerged as a true role model, speaking out against sexism and ageism while articulating the change she wants to see.

“I’ve always felt that the truth is powerful, even though it’s sometimes difficult to stomach,” says Manson. Today, the Edinburgh-born musician is back in her adopted hometown of LA (“I just love the dark, seedy underbelly of Tinseltown”) for a few days before heading out on tour with Garbage to promote their new album, Strange Little Birds. Here, she talks orgasms, Marilyn Manson, and giving as good as she gets.

You’ve always spoken so openly about sex. I remember reading that you bought a bright orange Fender guitar because you wanted it to match your pubic hair, which is amazing.

Shirley Manson: That’s true, I liked the colour of it. (laughs) I think I’m a truth-seeker, I’ve spent my entire life that way and I’m not entirely sure why. I think that when you’re seeking the truth, you want to explode all the bubbles. You see them and you just want to take a pin and burst them. I think I was probably bright and realised that sex was being used in an exploitative fashion – it was being appropriated and used in power-play. I didn’t like the power it had over me, so I decided to destroy it.

Did growing up in a ‘nice girls don’t talk about sex’ type of environment impact that? 

Shirley Manson: Yes, I think it’s only recently that I’ve become more and more outraged about the inequality regarding female sexuality. I guess it was spurred by the onslaught of celebrities who were posting photographs of their bums on social media. I wanted to examine what that meant. As ape-like as it was, it did make me very aware of how we weren’t encouraged to think of ourselves as sexual in any way, shape or form in my generation. In the 70s and 80s, it was seen as shameful that women had any kind of sex drive. If we did, we were called ‘sluts’ and ‘whores’, and really, really frightening terminology was used to describe any woman who had any sexual desire whatsoever. I’m grateful that I was rebellious as a young person and fought back against that.

“I realised that sex was being used in an exploitative fashion. I didn’t like the power that it had over me, so I decided to destroy it” — Shirley Manson 

Totally.

Shirley Manson: Now I’m really angry about it. Why is it that the entire sexual experience is couched in completely patriarchal terms? Why are we not expecting to have orgasms every time that we step up to the plate? Why is it a joke among women that we are somehow expected to fake an orgasm? I think women really need to start redrawing the playground in that regard. It’s important that we are sexually fulfilled – why should we be ashamed of our sex drives? Why shouldn’t the sexual act be pleasurable? It’s taken me a long time to get to this point where I’m truly outraged by it. I think of my teenage self and how we were almost conditioned by the idea that if we got into bed with somebody, as long as the male orgasm was achieved, there was success! It’s insanity. I’m grateful, particularly to Rihanna, who I think has changed the game in terms of how we view sexual women. To me, she feels completely equal with a male counterpart on a sexual level. She’s not being coy, she’s not playing power games, she’s not titillating and she’s not using her feminine wiles in a dangerous, dishonest way. I wish I’d had somebody like that when I was growing up.

What was your introduction to feminism?

Shirley Manson: Well, I read the Shere Hite report (on female sexuality) when I was 14. My best friend Jane gave it to me and that’s where I discovered the female orgasm. I’d never, ever heard of it before and my mind and body were literally blown by this discovery. (laughs)

What happened next?

Shirley Manson: I became very loud. We had a teacher who was very much like Miss Jean Brodie, who had a clique of girls. It really was like that movie, where she sort of developed our confidence and our curiosity and introduced us to sex in literature. It was crazy. I got involved in a drama group and a band and became a professional show-off. I was quite insufferable, truth be told. I wanted to embarrass people with my body. I would be in rooms constantly showing my tits off… I’m so grateful that social media didn’t exist back then.

There’s one thing that I have to ask because I’ve heard rumours and wasn’t sure if it was true – about your boyfriend’s cornflakes? (Manson reportedly shit on an ex-boyfriend’s cereal. If someone treats you like shit)

Shirley Manson: That is true.

“I’m grateful, particularly to Rihanna, who I think has changed the game in terms of how we view sexual women” — Shirley Manson 

Amazing! What’s the craziest rumour you’ve ever heard about yourself?

Shirley Manson: My favourite one is that I’m related to Marilyn Manson. It’s amazing because I’d love for him to be my brother! There’s always a myriad of things written about anybody in the press. Things get exaggerated, completely taken out of context or people get it wrong and write it down and then it’s fact. Welcome to the new world of Wikipedia.

Recently, you’ve said that you felt sexism was your generation’s problem. Why?

Shirley Manson: I don’t think that sexism is my generation’s problem, it’s a humanistic issue that has gone on since time began. But I do believe that the lack of desire to really stand up as a feminist has fallen out of vote and that is my generation’s fault. When my generation first emerged and broke out into the alternative music scene, we really pushed. We were vocal. We were passionate and we really fought to be heard. And we succeeded, but we just took our eye off the ball and a whole generation of young women came up behind us, thinking they didn’t have to be alert. I’m always saying to young women, ‘It would be wonderful if we lived in the Garden of Eden, but we don’t – so stay alert and fucking wake up.’ You cannot walk down the street naked and there not be consequences. I’m sorry, I’d love to tell you that you can, but you can’t. Be aware of what’s out there, be smart, learn what’s in the shadows and try to protect yourself at all costs against people who don’t want you to have equal rights. There are people who will look at you salaciously; people will objectify you. The thing is, I don’t entirely know what the answer to it is, either.

I think it’s about including both sexes. 

Shirley Manson: Yes… I really do believe more and more that feminism is not a female subject. It’s a human issue that we all need to work towards, together: the faster we get that message across, the better. There are so many men who feel threatened by so-called ‘feminism’, and feminism isn’t about threatening anyone. It certainly isn’t about stealing anyone else’s power, it’s about sharing. The entire word has been obfuscated, deliberately so. I’m convinced that it’s deliberate.

When I read the way male music journalists described you in the 90s, you came under so much criticism, it’s crazy! You must have always felt so misrepresented?

Shirley Manson: Yes, life isn’t easy so you have to hone your skills and figure out how you’re going to survive, and I did. They didn’t hold me back in the end, but there are so many women who are not as articulate as I am, or not as well-versed in how to push it, and that’s what concerns me. Again, just the influence on women’s currency is so skewed towards beauty and youth. People might say, ‘Of course she says that, she’s not young any more.’ And that’s right, but what’s happening to me is going to happen to all of you – every single one of you, male or female! I don’t think what I’m talking about is any less relevant as a consequence of me being older. I want to make it better for all of y’all because it’s too late for me! (laughs)

“I want all women to bloom, to be unapologetic and have confidence in their skills, intelligence and integrity” — Shirley Manson 

You’re just trying to help prepare the next generation.

Shirley Manson: Doing the press for this record, I’ve spoken about the importance of women understanding that they have more value than just the way they look. I really believe in it passionately and a lot of people say, ‘Oh, she’s just moaning,’ but I’m not just moaning – I’m protesting. It’s for you. It’s not for me because I’ve had a great career and actually, I’ve got a number-one fucking rock record in America right now (Strange Little Birds topped the Billboard rock album chart on release in June). I’m speaking out for you because I want all women to bloom, to be unapologetic and have confidence in their skills, intelligence and integrity – all the things that they can’t see inside, which are important. They’re tools at their disposal. Your appearance? You have no control over it, you can’t even take credit for it because it had nothing to do with you! (laughs)

Let’s talk about the new album. You’ve said that vulnerability has played a big role in shaping it?

Shirley Manson: I think anyone with half a brain is aware that we’re living in treacherous times. I mean, I really, genuinely feel that. It’s the most tumultuous time that I can remember. I’ve grown up through the 70s, which were not easy in the UK, but I feel somewhat scared – particularly by the level of denial which seems to be in operation right now about what’s actually happening. When we went to make this record, there were a lot of things at play. Obviously, I’m not the only person in the band so there were a lot of other agendas too, but my agenda was certainly that I wanted to be truthful about the world I found myself in and what that meant. It was an exploration of that, rather than a focus on just making people feel good. There are enough artists doing that. Now we need to really step up and start speaking out. If we don’t do it, who will? Unfortunately, the business side of music has distracted musicians from their task, and has only allowed those who play the game, conform and play happy-go-lucky pop music, to survive. I think you see fewer and fewer musicians willing to speak up. We just live in a cowed society right now, across the board – you probably see it in your world.

It will be interesting to see what happens to people like Rihanna and Beyoncé over the course of time.

Shirley Manson: For me, Rihanna has the voice of a generation. She’s like a Billie Holiday to me. She can sing until she’s an old woman like Aretha Franklin, she’s got something magical inside her. Beyoncé’s been very smart, and that incredible record that she’s just released has elevated her game. It’s taken her out of being just a pop entertainer and into the role of an artist. She’s like, ‘I can’t just keep being cute and pretty and dance for everyone,’ she’s been able to have a second act and that’s why I find those two women so exciting. Beyoncé’s Lemonade, to my mind, is unquestionably a masterpiece. Everyone says it’s this and that – it’s ‘calculated’. So fucking what if it is? She’s done a great job. Is she just supposed to be accidentally great? Like, she just stumbled into it? She fucking worked her ass off to get there, to get this smart, to know where to go. Meanwhile, someone like Jack White is called a genius. Well, they’re playing the same game but somehow, for a man, it’s cool to be a genius but for Beyoncé, she’s just got to be the cute little honey over there with a nice outfit, dancing all day for everybody. God forbid she think of herself in a more elevated way than just an entertainer. Fuck off! Everyone can fuck themselves.

Strange Little Birds is out now

Hair Nikki Providence at Forward Artists using Bumble and bumble., make-up Elie Maalouf at Jed Root using M.A.C, photographic assistants Adam Torgerson, Jake Schmidt, fashion assistants Ioana Ivan, Megan King