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Shirley Manson: An alternative icon

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Forget Liam Gallagher! Shirley Manson receiving the Icon Award at the 2018 VO5 NME Awards last month was the highlight of the night.

Immensely deserved and an acknowledgment that should have come sooner, Manson utilized her acceptance speech to acknowledge the insane realities of harassment, violence, and representation of women in the industry.

“The fact that women at my level enjoy under seven percent representation is unacceptable," Manson implores. "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.”

With a career spanning nearly 40 years, Manson has consistently relished in her rebellious and forthcoming nature to benefit female and alternative empowerment, striving to enable teens and young adults that feel different to feel normal. From a young age, Manson was bullied due to being ‘different’, leading her to develop depression, body dysmorphic disorder, and self-harm.

Eventually, Manson decided to rebel against her peers, leading the bullying to stop. She used these experiences to create a strong persona for herself; a confidence that she utilized whilst fronting her second band Angelfish, and eventually Garbage.

Angelfish formed as a side-project to Manson’s first band Goodbye Mr. Mackenzie in the 1980s, after Manson moved from keyboardist/backing vocalist to lead vocalist to bypass Mackenzie’s existing record contract. Releasing a self-titled studio album in 1994 that included the successful single ‘Suffocate Me’, Angelfish began to gain traction after the music video aired during MTV’s 120 Minutes, where it – and Manson – were seen by Steve Marker, co-founder of Garbage. Manson was then asked to join the forming Garbage as the lead vocalist, to which she accepted.

Manson joined Garbage in their formative year of 1994, after a self-described ‘disastrous’ first recording session due to Manson’s inexperience as a session player. She, Marker, Butch Vig and Steve Marker eventually found their footing and began work on demos for what would become ‘Vow’, ‘Stupid Girl’ and ‘Queer’.

After sending out demo tapes with no information on the band (due to Vig’s notoriety with producing albums such as Nirvana’s Nevermind and The Smashing Pumpkin’s Gish), eventually signing with British record label Mushroom UK (now A&E Records).

Garbage enabled Manson to begin songwriting, which she had not done prior to joining the band. Coinciding with the band’s effort to avoid sounding wholly grunge. Marker has stated that Garbage wanted to ‘take pop music and make it as horrible sounding as we can,’ by encompassing a variety of genres popular in the 90s, such as trip-hop, industrial rock, alternative rock, shoegazing, grunge, techno and power pop.

In turn, Manson adopted a writing style that focused on moody, self-deprecating, and depressing subject matters to garner more emotion and meaningful lyrics against the backdrop of heavy, industrial pop that the band introduced on their debut self-titled album in 1995. You only have to read the title of ‘I’m Only Happy When It Rains’ to gather the style Manson and the band strived to explore.

The band injected life into the alternative scene of the 1990s, which was beginning to be overpopularized with angst-filled anthems. They showed their contemporaries that not only is okay to laugh at your own misery but to also embrace other genres rather than ‘sticking it to the industry’ and rebelling against the mainstream.

Fully embracing the technology developing within the manufactured pop that began to emerge, utilizing drum loops, audio processors, synthesizers and sequencers. Bands like The Cardigans, Curve, Lush and Sneaker Pimps all utilized a similar approach that ultimately gave the 90s its unique glow that is often yearned for in the present.

What also propelled Garbage into the forefront of the alternative scene was Manson’s image, beautifully snarly voice, aesthetic and spirit. The rebellious attitude Manson carried through her school years transferred into Garbage’s songs and music videos, along with a distinctive style and voice that Manson wore with forthright pride.

She championed being ‘different’, demonstrating to young teens and those following a similar path to herself that you can be anything you want to be, regardless of how other people view you. ‘Looking back, I didn’t say or do anything particularly wild or crazy,’ Manson told Dazed in two years ago. ‘I’m actually pretty fucking together. It was just a way for people to undermine me, but that’s life.’

Manson certainly never let that get in the way of her prominent, integral stances against sexism in the industry, her continuous support of female empowerment and her acceptance as a role model for kids in the 90s and today who did not/do not have a voice. Manson has continually articulated the change that she wanted to see and that needed to be done and has been more than successful in doing so.

Music hasn’t been Manson’s only platform to propel her creativity and influence, either. Never one to continually do one thing, Manson has made her name in acting through Garbage’s infamous music videos and as a regular – and series favourite – of the 2008 television series Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles as the T-1001.

Her contribution to Terminator occurred in a period in which Manson decided to step away from music, citing that she ‘didn’t want to make music and didn’t feel creative’, after her mother was diagnosed with dementia and later passed. It wasn’t until she was asked to perform at a friends’ son’s memorial that she realized the power that music has, and how much it can sustain and comfort people.

Even though Garbage where amidst a hiatus at this point, Manson continued to collaborate with multiple artists around that time and throughout her career, including Queens of the Stone Age (backing vocals on ‘You Got a Killer Scene There, Man…’ alongside Brody Dalle), The Bird and the Bee (backing vocals on ‘Maneater) and Brody Dalle (vocals on ‘Meet the Foetus/Oh the Joy’).

It took NME long enough to recognize Shirley Manson’s importance, but Manson has always been at the forefront fighting for change and it looks like there’s no stopping her. The recent Garbage records Not Your Kind of People (2012) and Strange Little Birds (2016), along with a tour this year to celebrate their second record, Version 2.0 that turns 20 this May indicates that Manson isn’t going anywhere just yet, thank God.

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