Shirley Manson: People who dismiss women have got rock 'n' roll wrong

Shirley Manson
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Garbage’s Shirley Manson has always been very vocal about her views and doesn’t give two shits if you disagree. Here, we talk to the enigmatic vocalist about her relationship with the music industry as a female performer, what has changed over time, and what still needs to be fixed.

Did you have any sexist experiences in your early days?

“I’ve had sexist experiences throughout my entire career – and it continues to this day, unfortunately. It’s just something I’ve accepted exists in my world, and I have armed myself as ably as I can to push against it. What disturbs me is that I know I’m a pretty confident, successful, articulate, aggressive woman who’s not afraid to stand up, toe-to-toe, against a man. But I am fully aware that there are millions of women the world over who are scared to do that, for a multitude of reasons, or are unable and/or are unwilling to or just don’t have… their own cultivated self-belief, for whatever reason that may be. And that’s what really disturbs me. Because I’m not sitting here bleating for myself, I bleat for those who are not as well-equipped as I am.”

Is there an experience that stands out?

“Truly, the list is endless, to the point where I’ve tried not to keep a tally, because I feel it’s not beneficial to me to keep reminding myself of obstacles that are in my way. It’s often so much easier for me to deal with them in the moment, but as a random example, there are two that spring to mind. One would be when I called up our lawyer, and asked him to pursue a certain tactic on behalf of the band, and he refused to take my directive without speaking to a male member of the band. And then there was another time, also with a lawyer, where I had to extricate myself from the band and hire a lawyer to represent my own interests out with the collective. And upon explaining this to a certain lawyer, that I was going to employ another lawyer on my own behalf, I enjoyed a phenomenal tirade out of his mouth that basically told me I was insignificant and a nobody without the weight of Butch Vig at my back. And I always remember thinking that was quite a stunning statement to make to any artist. But it smacked to me of gross sexism.”

How are things for at this point in your career?

“Well, it still rears its head, often, amongst business colleagues, but I am very able at this point to recognise it. I think half the problem is often as a young woman I didn’t recognise sexism all the time. I recognised blatant sexism, but I didn’t always recognise the more covert sexism. And now I am fully realised as a woman in the world, I’m very clear about how I move through the world as a woman, and as a businesswoman, and as an artist. And when I encounter sexism, or misogyny, I will call it out. And I’m not embarrassed, I’m not ashamed, I don’t worry that I’ll no longer be popular, I don’t concern myself with whether that person finds me attractive or not, which are all these funny little ideas you have when you’re younger; you’re scared to rock the boat in case you’re no longer popular. And I think women deep down fear if they’re not popular, their chances of survival are immediately threatened. I think it’s sort of that base.”

I think most women would understand what you’re getting at, but what are the covert aspects of sexism in the music industry?

“Well I think a lot of the ‘encouragement’ to delight the male gaze, and how women are pitted against one another, and how we seem to have been raised with the belief that there’s not room for more than one female artist, in order to thrive as a female artist you must dazzle, and if you’re not dazzling then you’re not interesting – those kind of things. And I feel that’s really inaccurate, actually, but it’s taken a long time to realise that.”

Is there a particular part of the industry where women have problems?

“There’s very few female writers; the percentages are astonishing and really depressing. And actually, I just recently did a panel in Hamburg with the PRS, with [chief executive] Vanessa Reed. The percentages of women involved in the actual power positions in the industry is stunning, it’s like below 20%. Women are not having the opportunity to write and/or they are wary of pushing themselves into that kind of position, and/or they just don’t get the opportunities to be producers, to be writers, to be the ones who actually really do sit in the power position. Most of the time it’s young women, who often go to stage school, want to dazzle, have a good voice, in some cases exceptional voices, and they wear pretty clothes and they’re super hot and people want to fuck them, and by the time they’re 25 they’re back on the dole, and their dreams have been dashed. And they don’t have a penny. It’s really alarming. And then you’ve got all these media outlets who slaver over these young girls because the appetite for women is younger and younger and younger.”

Why is there a lack of women in rock and metal?

“Because the whole game of ‘rock’ was designed and maintained by the patriarchy. So if the rules are written by men, it automatically makes it very difficult for women to infiltrate, because women then have to play a man’s game and not their own game, in order to get on the board. And as it is, it’s really very difficult still for women to be treated as equal thinkers and creators in the same way that men are. It’s not enough for a woman to be a great songwriter, she has to be fuckable in order for a record company to give a fuck. And that’s patriarchy at its most terrifying.”

Rock and metal is a world where people define themselves as being more free and against the mainstream, yet there’s still a problem with female representation.

“I think the terminology surrounding rock’n’roll at this point is obsolete. Rock to me has always been more about rebellion and freedom of speech and living off-centre, and when you start having old men impose silly old rules, then it becomes something that it never was supposed to be. Music surely is supposed to continue to evolve, and change and adapt and move with the times and the political currents, and so on and so forth. It’s an old stodgy thing that has never really developed past its initial birth. When I hear someone who claims to love rock music, rock’n’roll, any kind of rebellious musical movement, tell me that women aren’t welcome and/or are incapable of being rebellious and being provocateurs or stepping outside of conformity, then I feel like laughing. I feel like dismissing that person entirely, because they’ve got the whole idea wrong. They’ve got these very stringent, strange, tiny little myopic minds that have decreed that rock’n’roll music sits within these tiny, thin parallel lines.

“To me, rock’n’roll has always been expansive. It’s an expansive idea that embraces so many different types of rebellion and provocation and resistance and political pushback. It’s all these things to me, and freedom. To be whatever you want to be. Because all the other genres of music are, to my mind when I was growing up were so much more restrictive. But to me now, rock has become that, too – it’s also become restrictive. People just want to impose rules on everyone, and fuck that. I’m fucking sick of everyone imposing rules on anybody else – it’s so tiresome. And I think that what’s sort of exciting a lot of women, currently, is as sad and awful as the #metoo movement is to bear witness to, it’s also phenomenal and very unique and unusual to hear so many female voices on a daily basis in the media, talking about the female experience, talking about the female gaze, talking about the female perspective and what female rebellion means, and what ‘pushing against the pricks’ really was about. And although it probably won’t change that much, sadly, because I feel like we’ve got such a mountain to climb, I do believe it’s educating a whole generation of young women not to put up with the fucking shit we did.”

What advice would you give to women coming up in rock and metal now?

“I’m always saying the same thing to all my girls whoever I meet, and they say the same thing, which is: Don’t. Fucking. Back. Down. Ever. It sounds so cliched, and it’s cliched because cliches exist. And it’s very hard to hold your ground in any circumstance. Whether you’re going up against another woman or another man, another idea, another system. But I think if you really have something to say and you really need to say it, then you’ll find a way to hold your ground, and it’s difficult. But it isn’t impossible, and I think there are more and more women doing it. And what is beautiful that I have really noticed lately for myself is, when I was first emerging as an artist, making music and in bands, there weren’t that many women who had come before me. It was really just a handful of women certainly that culturally we all knew of. And now that has changed so much, there’s a whole wealth of my generation, the generation after us, and the generation after them. There’s a lot of encouragement out there that didn’t necessarily exist when I was emerging, and certainly the generation before that had nobody.

“I was on tour with Debbie Harry this summer, she didn’t have anyone to look back at. She was one of the first, her and Patti Smith and Chrissie Hynde and Marianne Faithfull – all these amazing creatures. Yoko Ono. They didn’t have anybody to look back at and say, ‘Well they did it. I can do it too.’ But I think that’s changing, and that’s exciting, and as a result we’re seeing a whole new wave of provocative women starting to push back. Because I think women are angry. I think women are full of rage. And you know, as a result of this #metoo movement really engulfing our cultures all over the world, we’re gonna see some repercussions to that that can only be a great thing. For not just women, but for men, too. I think men will benefit from a more egalitarian society. I love men and enjoy them and I certainly have never ever wanted a future that is fully female – that terrifies the living daylights out of me, too. I want an equal society where all genders are represented fairly. I think that’s to the benefit of everyone. My trans friends, my gay friends, they taught me things that my straight friends could never teach me, and as a result I think that speaks to how we must all move forward.”

What are your plans for the future?

“We are starting to plan for our record and we’ve got an anniversary coming up of our second record, and we’re going to be going out and playing shows in support of that. This will be our last anniversary celebration, I hasten to add. We did one for our first record and we don’t want to make a habit of it, but we really really feel strongly that we want to do that with Version 2.0 because it was such a huge record for us and changed our lives in such dramatic ways. And we’re going to be doing a few interesting collaborations, which is exciting, if we get out shit together, which is always a challenge. I think everyone thinks we’re super together, and we’re super not together, that’s the problem!

“This whole subject is really important to me and I’m somewhat despondent that more music-based publications are not up in arms about all this, and haven’t covered it all. I’m actually very grateful to Metal Hammer for giving a fuck, and actually spending some time on this, because it’s outrageous. It’s a small hate movement that’s being hidden. Covertly, to go back to that word. It’s a sort of covert movement, dressed up in some misguided idea that it’s to do with music. This is not to do with music, and it never was, it’s to do with hating women and wanting to keep women’s voices silenced, literally, and that has to come to an end. So thank you, for giving a fuck.”

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Eleanor Goodman
Editor, Metal Hammer

Eleanor was promoted to the role of Editor at Metal Hammer magazine after over seven years with the company, having previously served as Deputy Editor and Features Editor. Prior to joining Metal Hammer, El spent three years as Production Editor at Kerrang! and four years as Production Editor and Deputy Editor at Bizarre. She has also written for the likes of Classic Rock, Prog, Rock Sound and Visit London amongst others, and was a regular presenter on the Metal Hammer Podcast.