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The Last Word: Shirley Manson on Fighting the Patriarchy and How Patti Smith Inspires Her

The Garbage singer also talks racial justice, living for now, and why legacy is an inherently masculine concern

"I make mistakes. I fuck people off. I say stupid shit," Shirley Manson says. "But I do try my best."

Illustration by Mark Summers for Rolling Stone

Almost as soon as Garbage’s self-titled debut blew up overnight in 1995, their singer, Shirley Manson, became aware of the patriarchy running the music industry. Even though she was the group’s focal point — belting dusky electro-rock songs about making sense of depression (“Only Happy When It Rains”) and taking pride in nonconformity (“Queer”) — she was still a woman fronting a band of men, one of whom, Butch Vig, had produced Nirvana’s Nevermind. Almost immediately, she felt as though her role in the group was being devalued — not by the guys she worked with, but externally.

“There was a lot of stuff written about me in the music press, and that’s when I started to realize how I’m being diminished, how, in some cases, I’m being completely eradicated from the narrative because I’m female and not a man,” she says now. “I was talked over by lawyers; I was ignored by managers. The list goes on. It’s boring and tedious; there’s no point in me moaning about it now, but certainly, that was my awakening.”

That revelation emboldened her to speak out about equality and she quickly became a feminist icon, using her platform to bring attention to human rights, mental health, and the AIDS crisis. All the while, she wrote inclusive hit songs with Garbage about androgyny and reproductive rights (“Sex Is Not the Enemy”). On Garbage’s great new album, No Gods No Masters, she grapples with racial injustice, climate change, the patriarchy, and her own self-worth. But as weighty as the subject matter is, she approaches each song in her own uniquely uplifting way.

“I don’t think really the record is serious, per se,” the singer, 54, says, on an early May phone call. “I think it’s an indignant record. I think in indignance you can still carry humor with you, as well as softness, kindness, and love in your heart. I just felt it would be inauthentic to say anything other than what I was saying in my daily life across the dinner table from my friends and my family. I think as you get older as an artist, the challenge is, ‘How I can be my most authentic self?’ because that’s the most unique story I can tell. In an industry that’s just absolutely jam-packed to the rafters with ideas, opinions, melodies, and so on, you can’t afford to be anything other than your most authentic self. It won’t last.”

Authenticity and being true to herself are the qualities that have made Manson who she is. And those traits seem to guide her answers to Rolling Stone’s questions about philosophy, life lessons, and creature comforts for our Last Word interview.

What are the most important rules that you live by?
I’m 54, which is ancient for the contemporary music industry. At this point, I feel like if it’s not fun, then I’m uninterested entirely. If somebody’s treating me poorly, I have to walk away. Life is so fricking short, and I’m three quarters of the way through mine already; I just want to have a good life, full of joy.

Who are your heroes and why?
Patti Smith is a huge hero for me for a lot of different reasons. Most importantly, it’s because she’s a woman who has navigated her creative life so beautifully and so artfully, with such integrity and authenticity, and she has proven to me that a woman, an artist, does not have to subscribe to the rules of the contemporary music industry.

It’s very rare for other women to see examples of women actually working still in their seventies. That, to me, is really thrilling and really inspiring, and it fills me with hope. At times when you come up against the ageism, sexism, and misogyny that exists in our culture, I always try and picture Patti in my mind’s eye, and it always brings me back to center, like, “OK, adhere to your own rules. Design your own life. Be your own architect. You can continue to be an artist the rest of your life.” And to me, that’s life. That is a fully lived life.

You’re also a role model yourself. How do you handle that responsibility?
I’m a bit speechless if the truth be told. I realize that I’ve now enjoyed a long career in music, and by default, I think people are inspired by that. I think whenever you see an artist, no matter who they are, when someone can endure, I think that’s exciting to everybody else, because it’s a message that says, “You too can get up when you think you’re done. You too can brush yourself off and try again.” By just continuing, you can help other people continue and fulfill themselves in ways that they thought they wouldn’t be able to.

I try to be a decent person. I make mistakes. I fuck people off. I say stupid shit. I’m not all-knowing; I am ignorant in so many ways. But I do try my best. I think that’s really all I can ask of myself.

How others perceive me is absolutely out of my control. There’s always going to be people who think I’m an arsehole, and that’s just part and parcel of being in the public eye. People are just going to hate on you, so I try not to take too much of it in; I don’t let it absorb me too much. I have gotten to that point in my life when I’m able to just go, “You know what? Fuck it. You can’t win them all.”

You once said that the idea of legacy was a masculine construct that you don’t believe in. Do you still feel that way?
Yeah. I still very much believe in that. I know a lot of male artists who bang on about their legacy and their importance. Not to knock that if that’s what’s important to you but for me personally, what do I care? I’m going to be dead and gone and totally unconscious of any so-called legacy that I might leave behind. I want fun now. I want to have a good life now. I want to eat good food now and have great sex. It’s absolutely meaningless to me what happens after I’m gone. I want to use my time wisely, and that’s all that I really am concerned with, to be honest.

What is it about legacy that’s inherently masculine?
This is armchair psychology, so please forgive me, but I’m sure it has something to do with how women have this uterus that can bear children. I think that’s profound. One of the few gifts that men have not been given is that ability to create with your body, and your blood, and your heat and all these nutrients from your body. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why you don’t hear as many women banging on about the great legacy they’re going to leave behind. I think for women it’s their kids.

You’re Scottish. What is the most Scottish thing about you these days?
I’ve got a lot of grit, and it’s served me really well in my career. I think that is a really Scottish trait. The Scottish people are tough, and they also have a good sense of humor. So, grit with humor. I should say “gritted with humor,” in the same way we grit roads.

As you were saying “grit,” it occurred to me that a lot of your songs are about survival and moving forward, going back to “Stupid Girl” or “Only Happy When It Rains.” They’re about perseverance.
[Pauses] I think it’s funny you should say that because I’m just sort of like, “Wow, he might be right.” I do think that a huge theme for me is, “How do you overcome? How do we all overcome?” Things can be great for a while; things will not be great forever. And to every single life, these challenges appear. We all have to reconfigure ourselves in order to try to hurl ourselves over obstacles in order to have the kind of life we hope for. So I do think you’ve shocked me a little by discovering a theme for me. Yay, I feel thrilled. I have a theme. It’s exciting.

“Waiting for God” is one of my favorite songs on the album because of the way you address racial justice. How can we, as a society, fight white indifference?
You know, that’s a question right there. It’s interesting that you use the words “white indifference,” because one of the things that shocked me so greatly is the ambivalence and the apathy of white people all over the world who are seeing what we’re seeing on our TVs and on the internet, and yet not having the moral courage to speak up. I think the most important thing we can do is pull back the carpet to see the mess on the floor in order for us to actually start cleaning it up.

If we could curtail some of the brutality of police against black people, that would be a good start. I think it’s going to be decades and decades and decades before we can start to really equalize our societies so that everyone is enjoying the spoils of Western wealth over in the developing world. It’s necessary that we try and help these countries that aren’t as powerful or as wealthy. It’s good for the whole world if we start to improve situations for everyone. Nobody will lose anything, and everyone has everything to gain.

But if I had the answers to how we go about fixing it, I would be in politics and not in music. I just know what I believe to be right, and I’m doing my best to use my voice to try and encourage my friends, my little ecosystem, to start with paying attention and supporting black businesses and elevating black voices and black talent.

What’s your favorite book?
I have so many. The one that springs to mind would be American Pastoral by Philip Roth. I loved All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy. I loved The Collected Works of Billy the Kid by Michael Ondaatje. I loved Winnie the Pooh and Wuthering Heights. I’ve got so many that have really stuck with me that are classics.

My most favorite recent book that I’ve just finished reading is Dancer by Colum McCann about [Russian ballet dancer Rudolf] Nureyev. I was just absolutely mesmerized by it. It was just such a fantastic read, and he’s such a miraculous writer. He brought out Apeirogon last year about the struggle in between Palestine and Israel. He talks about this complicated mess with such clarity, kindness, and generosity. I couldn’t believe Apeirogon didn’t get more fuss made of it last year. Somehow it just seemed to get buried in the morass of other books, and of course the suffering that Covid had brought upon the earth.

What advice do you wish you could give your younger self?
“Take up your space.” When I was growing up, to be a girl was to be told to minimize the space you took up: “Close your legs. Don’t be loud. Smile. Be cute. Be attractive. Be pleasing.” I inherently balked against that as a kid. I was a rebellious kid, and I wasn’t going to sit in the corner and be quiet. I’ve never been like that. However, looking back, I still notice some of the patterns of my own compliance. It’s not that I hate myself for it, but I just wish I could turn around and say to my young self, “Take your seat. If there’s not a seat there, drag a seat up to the table and sit down.”

I’m still really aware of the sexism and misogyny that I have had to battle throughout my career. I’m not crying, “Woe is me,” because I’ve obviously flourished in my career, and it obviously didn’t hold me back enough to hamper me in any way. But I feel for all the women who were unlike me, who didn’t have my forcefulness of personality, or my education, or my ability to articulate myself. I want that for all people, though; I want all people to stop trying to please, and accept that some people will like that, and some people won’t, and that’s OK. It’s OK that some people just don’t dig you.

On the topic of gender, I got a kick out of your song “Godhead,” where you ask if people would treat you differently “if I had a dick.”
I’m really proud of that song, because I think it’s talking about something really serious, and it’s really fun. It’s about addressing the patriarchy, and how omnipresent it is. When I was young, I was so busy trying to make it, I didn’t see that there was a patriarchy in place. And it’s only as an adult, I start looking back going, “Oh, wow — when that A&R man told me to my face that he wanked over pictures of me, that was really uncool.” But at the time, you kind of laugh it off and just press on.

I was oblivious to it. In this song, I’m talking about how patriarchy bleeds into absolutely everything, specifically under organized religion. The “Godhead” is the male, and we are all under the godhead forever, and that’s unquestioned, and how crazy is that? Because a dude holds a higher position in society, because he’s got a dick and a pair of balls. Often, these balls are smaller than my own [laughs].

It just gets silly after a while, when you watch other men protect other men just for the sake of protecting the patriarchy. So few men are willing to speak up about bro culture and call into question the behavior of the men they are associated with. There’s just a reluctance by men to address this absolutely shocking, terrifying, depressing, pathetic assault by men of other people’s bodies.

In 1996, your bandmate Butch Vig said about you, “So many singers screamed to convey intensity, and she does the opposite. It just blew us away.” How did you come up with that approach?
I don’t know. I’ve found that when people speak to me quietly, I feel the most threatened because I’m really comfortable with conflict. I thrive on conflict. It excites me in a funny way. When people are shouting, I don’t feel scared. I like to shout back; that’s just how my family were. We’d just start to shout at each other all the time. I’m not scared of elevated temper. For me, when people get really quiet, that’s when I know they’re really serious, because they’re in control of their rage, and that’s when they’re most deadly.

The last question I have is a shallow one.
I love being cheap and superficial.

What’s the most indulgent purchase you’ve ever made?
At the height of my success, I hired a person who would shop for me and then send everything in a big box to my hotel room. I would choose what I wanted and return anything else. One day, this beautiful pair of Italian leather boots arrived. I wore a pair very similar in the “Stupid Girl” video, and I thought, “Oh, yeah, these are really me. I’m going to keep these. These are amazing.” It was only when I got back from tour, I found out they cost $5,000. I can’t even laugh about it. It makes me so crazy. I still have these boots. I’d like to get rid of them just so that I never have to look at them again, but there they are every day, warning me of my own greed.

From Rolling Stone US