Before the blurring mixing bowl of the internet, the 1990s contained a few truly pronounced aesthetics. As the frontwoman of Garbage, Shirley Manson embodied the alt-rock of the era with her mercurial style that was somehow full of bravura and yet entirely understated. However, her individualistic ways were acquired the hard way, as the defiant tale of her life attests.
Born in 1966 in Edinburgh, she was exposed to the arts at an early age through her mother, Muriel, a one-time big band singer. The safe sanctity that music offers would become a heavily frequented refuge for Manson as she was incessantly bullied during her school years. The effects of this would be tragic. The young Manson developed body dysmorphia and suffered from depression from an early age.
In adulthood, the trauma of a tortured youth led her to self-harm, drugs, sex, and mental health issues. However, music would remain that safe haven it had been for her during school, and what’s more, Garbage would eventually give her a chance to celebrate her own individualism and transfigure the pains of her troubled past into music that brought comfort and escapism into the lives of many.
First, starting in Goodbye Mr Mackenzie and Angelfish, her future Garbage bandmates spotted her in a music video for the latter and identified her as the perfect fit for their band from the off. As Butch Vig once told the Los Angeles Times: “We wanted someone who could sing in an understated way, at the moment, a lot of these alterna-rock singers have a tendency to scream. Shirley is just the opposite. By using understatement, she can sound even more subversive.”
This level of tact was central to the success of Garbage. Simply put, they seemed to understand the era and, as such, were able to capture the zeitgeist. Even their name just has that quintessential nineties ring to it. The Scottish alternative rockers would score instant success with their self-titled debut and become one of the most seminal bands of the era. Manson’s restrained yet moody style was central to their success. Her stage presence and voice had a lived-in feel that disavowed the notion of any bandwagon-jumping and instead placed the group behind the wheel while imitators hopped aboard.
Within Garbage, she would pen strange lyrics for the band. They tackled dark themes in a mocking tone that she describes as a typical Scottish psyche. When you couple that inherent nature with an outsider’s nurturing, even within the band for that matter, you have a very singular songwriter. As she explains herself: “I’m the odd one out by default. I’m the only girl, I’m younger than they are, they’ve all known each other for 40 years, or something crazy like that. So I always felt, like, off the centre of things.”
Despite the huge influence of Garbage and the success of their releases, they were never what you might refer to as a prolific band, but for Manson, this allowed her time to pursue other interests. Over the course of her career, she has modelled for Calvin Klein, acted in Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles and has collaborated with everyone from Iggy Pop to Kings of Leon, as well as a slew of solo releases.
This fearless creative capacity has led her to pioneer a highly influential artistic oeuvre. Always being on the hunt for her next creative avenue, she became one of the first prominent musicians to ever run a blog, a trend that has now joyously been picked up by Nick Cave and the likes as another way for artists to welcome you into a bohemian realm and extoll the wisdom acquired from their ventures and life experiences.
Manson’s courageous creative pursuits and defiant backstory have led her to be celebrated as a feminist icon. When you couple this with tireless charitable work and the magnitude of her impact, you have yourself a benevolent trailblazer who proves greater than the sum of her parts. Manson continues therein to this vein, with a new Garbage album on the way, she remains a figure of great fortitude, saying that as a frontwoman of, ahem, not quite spring years: “You can still have an amazing career, you can still have amazing sex, you can still have amazing adventures, you can still do crazy things, you can do whatever the fuck you want!”