Shirley Manson
Photo by Autumn de Wilde

Shirley Manson: “I’m enough for me”

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Short Profile

Name: Shirley Ann Manson
DOB: 26 August 1966
Place of Birth: Edinburgh, Scotland, UK
Occupation: Musician

Ms. Manson, do you think the ’90s were the least rebellious decade of the last 50 years?

In Britain it was definitely a period of time where we’ve never really had it so good. There was the odd blip here and there, but in general I think people felt fat and happy. I think it was a decade of anesthesia in a way. And yet if you look at the music of the ’90s, it was the first time that alternative music really dominated mainstream radio and mainstream media. That was exciting to me.

Are you talking about rap music?

Yeah, in the ’90s there was at least hip hop and rap. That was rebellious to our parents. They were all kind of freaked out and wondered what this music was. An alternative standpoint had finally taken over for a very brief period of time, maybe 6 or 7 years of the ’90s. I actually feel like the 2000s were the least rebellious decade.

How come?

Now, my friends, people my age are the parents and the kids are all hipsters. I keep saying to my friends, “Where are the fucking agitators? Where are the young people in complete dissent with the mainstream?” I don’t see it. I feel like they have been anesthetized by Twitter and Facebook and what I call the “Like” culture. Young people measure how popular they are by how many likes they have on Facebook and how many people are following them on Twitter. There’s this whole culture obsessed with being liked! Of course there can’t be any dissent when you’re obsessed with being liked and loved and worshipped.

Was this different in the ’70s and ’80s when you were growing up?

When I was growing up there was always a group of young kids who would be provocative, deliberately disassociating themselves from society. You’d have mods, you’d have big packs of bikers, you’d have punks, you’d have all these sorts of youth groups marauding the streets and distinguishing themselves with amazing physical adornments. And you don’t see that anymore. Everyone pretty much dresses the same. You might see the one odd goth kid looking miserable, but I don’t feel it in any way. I don’t feel any real cultural rebellion.

Shirley Manson performing with Garbage - Stupid Girl, Live (1999)

People have always labeled you as “rebellious.” Is this a term that you identify with or was that just because of the color of your hair?

I could never really relate to my public image as rebellious. I just want to be straightforward. I’m not smart enough to present a fake, false façade that anybody’s going to buy. I think I’ve always been like that. I can even remember when I was a child at the dinner table with my parents and my siblings I’d be calling people out all the time for not telling the truth. I never wanted to be that kind of person.

Have people gotten more fake in the last 20 years?

Because of the omnipresence of the Internet I think there are fewer and fewer people who are willing to go on record about what they feel and what their beliefs are. I feel like we’re living in a culture right now that’s incredibly timid and I find that really alarming. People fear that they will be criticized or they will be judged.

You don’t?

I used to, but one day I realized that it didn’t matter whether people loved me or not. I was released of all that insecurity when I released myself from that hope or that fantasy or whatever that yearning is and came to the conclusion that I could be happy making music regardless of whether I was successful or not. It was just a release of concern about whether I was popular or not or whether people liked me or not. It was just irrelevant to me all of a sudden.

“Everything has become all about the surface and not about substance.”

Are there situations that can still make you feel insecure?

When you go and do photo sessions, particularly for magazines, you’re dealing with other people’s expectations and that is what shuts me down. That is when I start feeling insecure about myself. I’m enough for me. If somebody took a picture of me, I could deal with it being unflattering because I know, yeah, there are times when I don’t look good. That’s okay. But when you’re dealing with the media’s expectation of how you should look because they need you to look a certain way to sell, that’s where I get crazy. They’re asking you to conform, they’re asking you to play a role, to be dishonest, to be something that you’re not.

And at the same time they want you to pretend that this is who you really are.

That’s the worst part about it. I did a photo session last year that was honestly so mind-boggling to me. They wanted me to be in the magazine because, “We love her, we love what she’s about.” Cool. So we go to do the photo shoot and I get ready and I present myself to the photographer. He loves the way I look. But then a woman from the magazine said to me, “Oh, we can’t have you looking like that in the magazine. We won’t run those pictures.” I thought to myself, “Okay, I really need to stay calm here otherwise I’m going to walk out.”

What kept you from leaving?

I didn’t want to create a scene. I’m representing my band’s interests, not just my own so I have to be cool. So I said to her, “How do you envisage seeing me today?” (Laughs) You know, trying to engage her and also being curious and she said to me, this is a quote, “You know, just that sort of tousled hair, that just-got-fucked look. That straight-off-the-beach look.” (Laughs) And I’m wondering, “Are you fucking high?” I couldn’t believe she said that to me! I told her, “I’m a 46 year old who’s had a career of 20 years and you’re trying to suggest that I go on a magazine cover looking as though I just got fucked?” And also, “just got off the beach” look? I’m Scottish, I’ve never stood on a beach in my life.

So how did the photos turn out in the end?

I didn’t change or anything and they were fine in the end. They loved the photos and me just being me. You don’t want to be an asshole, but at the same time this is the kind of pressure that, every artist right now in this climate, but women in particular, are being molded and just completely homogenized so that everyone looks the same and talks the same. Everything has become all about the surface and not about substance. It’s an exciting time though because everything has gotten so beige and uniform that something is going to come along and rock our foundations. It has to.