Shirley Manson Has A Lot To Say About Women In Music (And She's Not Afraid To Say Any Of It)

For starters, she's calling for the Recording Academy's "sexist, misogynist" president to step down.
Joseph Cultice

Shirley Manson’s Saturday night was totally badass.

While the rest of us were camped out on our couches plowing through our DVR queue, the Garbage frontwoman was dueting with Fiona Apple ― who wore a T-shirt calling out Recording Academy President Neil Portnow for his recent comments about women in music needing to “step up” ― on a cover of Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me.”

But that’s not really that surprising: Almost everything Manson does ― from selling millions of records to telling the world exactly how she feels about whatever she happens to be feeling at the moment ― is badass.

Manson recently phoned HuffPost to chat about how her already legendary performance with Apple came together, her thoughts on the music industry’s response to the #MeToo movement, bucking against our sexist and ageist culture and how the death of Dolores O’Riordan has her thinking about her own mortality.

How did you end up on stage with Fiona Apple on Saturday night, and how did you two decide to cover “You Don’t Own Me”?

Shirley Manson: It’s a good question. Anna Bulbrook, who is the organizer and brains behind Girlschool LA, had contacted me last year, and I did a Q&A and I just fell in love with her and her attitude and the initiative that she was working to push forward. She hit me up again this year and asked me if I wanted to sing with an all-female choir and an all-female string quartet and I just jumped at the chance. I thought it would be extraordinary. She wanted me to do a handful of Garbage songs and then she said, “I want you to do a cover.” Duke [Erikson], who’s in Garbage, his daughter, Roxy, had suggested to the band about six months ago that we cover “You Don’t Own Me,” and for one reason or another we just hadn’t taken her up on the suggestion. So when this event came around and Anna asked me what cover I wanted to do, I was like, “Oh! ‘You Don’t Own Me’ would be perfect!” I felt like it really was the song of the moment, and I was not wrong, as it turns out.

Anna had been keen to encourage each headliner of each night to have a surprise guest, and she asked how I’d feel about approaching Fiona Apple. I was like, “That would be amazing, but I don’t think in a million years that she’ll say yes.” She’s just very difficult to track down, and it’s not like she just comes out to do events at the drop of a hat. I just didn’t think she’d be that interested in doing it, and I was so surprised when around midnight the following day I got a text from Anna saying, “You’re not going to believe this but Fiona’s in!” I was screaming. It was a big deal. I’m a huge admirer of her as a person, but I also believe she’s the voice of her generation — at least the white voice of her generation. It was an extraordinary experience and one I will treasure forever.

What did you think about Fiona’s T-shirt, and what are your thoughts about the calls for Neil Portnow to step down from his position as president of the Recording Academy in the wake of his comments about women in the music industry needing to “step up”?

Much like everybody, I was delighted by her T-shirt. She’d actually sent me a photo of it earlier that day and asked, “What do you think of this? This is what I’m thinking of wearing,” and I was like, “Fucking yeah! I love it!” And I love her punk rock spirit, and I love that she’s courageous enough to follow through with her thoughts. I’ve always admired that kind of stance. I was totally behind it.

With regards to Neil Portnow, I think he should step down. I think he’s shown his true colors. I think he’s shown how he thinks. I think that he’s a sexist misogynist, and I think it’s time for him to go. I think it’s pretty simple. And I think any other female musician feels the same way — and if they don’t, they don’t understand what the fuck is going on.

I’ve been reaching out to a lot of different women in music recently and a lot of them ― or at least their publicists ― haven’t wanted to speak about the #MeToo or Time’s Up movements. One publicist literally told me her client didn’t want to “open that can of worms.” What do you think is at the heart of those kind of responses?

Women want to distance themselves [from these discussions] for the same reason women have always wanted to distance themselves from any kind of feminist statement or movement: They’re scared they’re going to get tarred as some kind of “hairy lesbian” and that it will ruin their careers. They’re scared of how they’re going to be perceived by telling the truth. And, unfortunately, women do continue to be punished for speaking out and being courageous. You just need to look at Azealia Banks or Rose McGowan, and they’re tarred as lunatics a lot of the time, and yet these are the women that are speaking some very forthright truths that nobody wants to hear, so they get dismissed and labeled as crazy. Then, as the months go by, we start to see the sense in what they’re saying when it gets presented in a prettier box.

A few weeks ago I overheard a commentator on CNN claim that the music industry hasn’t had the same kind of reckoning as the film industry because women in Hollywood over the age of 40 are now seen as less disposable ― and have more power ― than ever before and they’re using that power to speak out. On the flip side, she argued, the music industry is much more obsessed with youth and young female singers, and musicians are hesitant to make waves for fear of losing opportunities or even their careers.

I think the reasons are more complex than that. To start, women in Hollywood are way richer and they’re better represented by powerful agents, so they’re more powerful in general across the board. They have a union to take care of them. If you’re a music artist, you’re out there on your own, basically, and you’re swinging from the trees in the vague hope that someone will take you seriously, and you get very little backup. Women in the music industry are therefore fearful for their careers and they want to protect themselves, and they’ve all watched what happened a few years ago to poor Kesha.

Now, if Kesha came out today with the same story that she came out with a few years ago, I think she would be treated very differently and enjoy a better result. But she was left hanging and portrayed as an out-of-control lunatic. I think that has caused a lot of women to think twice about coming out. Alice Glass [of Crystal Castles] came out very bravely and didn’t really enjoy much support. And Jessicka Addams from Jack Off Jill came out and also didn’t receive much support. So it’s not that no one has spoken up — they have — it’s just that they haven’t gotten much traction.

Do you have your own stories about what you’ve been through as a woman in the music industry?

There is no woman who hasn’t walked through her life who hasn’t endured some form of harassment or sexism or touching or sexual assault. It’s so commonplace. I think unless it’s very serious, a lot of the time women have learned or have been taught — and I underline that ― to laugh it off and to think to themselves, Well, it’s not really that serious. I’m just being dramatic. That was unpleasant but, hey ho, it’s not such a big deal. And it’s only really when you get older and you really start to own your own agency that you think, When that fucking publishing king touched my breast when we were being photographed after being presented with gold discs, I should have fucking kicked his balls in instead of laughing it off. You get annoyed with yourself for not addressing certain circumstances at the time. It goes on all the time.

You once said, “I’ve followed Patti Smith from day one, Chrissie Hynde, Marianne Faithfull — all of these women who continue to be active in music and have managed to escape the cage of objectification.” But in some ways, I always felt one of the most powerful parts of your persona was that you were sexualized, but on your own terms. You were an object — and therefore objectified — but you were an object of your own making, meaning you had control over how that objectification was occurring or, at the very least, the mode and means by which your image was being created and transmitted.

I agree to a certain degree. I definitely played with my own sexuality, and the objectification would only go as far as I would let it. I always shied away from explicit sexualization of myself. I always interjected every sexualized moment with something that was either aggressive or that would be considered conventionally unattractive — like when I shot the fist inside my mouth during [the “I Think I’m Paranoid” video, below]. That was deliberate. I learned from my heroes that objectification and sexualization and being thought of as sexy and a beauty was dangerous. I shied away from it. I shaved my hair off for the third record, much to the entire record industry’s horror. But I knew what I was doing to a certain degree because, otherwise, if women don’t make these kind of statements at times, then they are stuck as something that people want to fuck and that will ultimately destroy your career because no one — no matter how much you inject your face or how many facelifts you get, no one can hold on to the vitality of youth. You can’t fake it, you can’t buy it, it doesn’t matter how much you put into your body, there’s something about youth that you can’t hold on to. It’s like water in your hands. It just leaves you. And then what do you have? So I’m always saying to young women, “You have to have a second act.” Because if you don’t have a second act, you don’t get a third act or a fourth act.

I spoke with Tori Amos about her use of the word “menopause” in an improv she did a few years back and how radical of an act it was to hear a woman ― a rock star, no less ― use that term so publicly and so proudly. She was especially pissed off about the unfair double standard that women in music face when they get to a certain age and are suddenly told they can’t be sexual, while men of the same age are still seen as virile and potent.

I’ve endured that same kind of moment in my life when I became older and I realized I was subjected to criticism because of my age, but I was lucky enough to understand that when I was young I was told who I was supposed to be and I bucked against that. And now that I’m older, I’m being told how I’m supposed to be as an older woman, and I’m bucking against that, too. I don’t feel shame about being old. I don’t feel shame about having wisdom, and I’m going to own my power. There’s a system of patriarchy in place to keep women who become more and more powerful as they age in their place. I know I’m using these really generalized and dramatic terms, and I’m not entirely sure it’s always conscious, but I do believe that’s what’s at play here. I think women have to stop listening to what other people are telling them. In the same way that men have designed their own passage into adulthood and are not diminished by their age — quite the opposite — women have to learn that, too. And that’s up to us.

When you say people are telling you how you’re supposed to act at your age, what do hear? What is expected of you now?

People say things to me like, “You shouldn’t stick your tongue out anymore! You’re a grown woman!” Oh, fuck off. “You shouldn’t shave your head, it doesn’t make you look very pretty.” Fuck off. “You can’t dye your hair pink, you’re over 50!” Fuck off! [laughs] The list is endless! “You can’t wear a short skirt, you’re over 50!” Yes, I can. Watch me. Women have to learn that they have agency beyond being fuckable. The problem is we educate our girls from a very early age to take pride in being told they’re pretty, to take joy from being told how beautiful they are and how sexy they are and how many men are attracted to them. Women have to release themselves from that — and that’s up to us.

I recently wrote a piece about Cardi B after she got in some hot water for not knowing that “queer” could be used as a slur against LGBTQ people and for essentially saying that it was up to queer people to educate her on what is and isn’t OK to say. As a queer man, I argued that the burden shouldn’t always have to be on us to educate. But where do you stand? Is educating people on these issues a burden for you or do you accept this as your lot in life and you’ll just keep doing the best you can do?

I always feel this is my lot and I’m going to do the best I can because people don’t know what they don’t know. If you don’t know, how are you going to educate yourself about racism in America, about homophobia, about sexism? I can totally imagine not wanting to have to bear the burden of educating someone about my sexuality — that would bore the living shit out of me! — but at the same time, someone like Cardi B feels like she has a good spirit.

Definitely. I don’t think she’s malicious or a bigot. Just uninformed.

Right. She’s a cool girl who wants to be educated, and I hope there will be generous teachers out there who will broaden her mind and broaden her experiences. She’s so young — we’ve revered youth for so long, we’ve forgotten what it means to be young. To be young is to not know [laughs]. And that’s the power of youth! That’s what makes them so powerful, but at the same time that’s also what makes them so vulnerable. I think we’ve forgotten our role and our duty as adults. We’ve got an entire generation of young people who don’t want to get old. Are you kidding me? What’s the fucking alternative? Are you going to die young? Where’s the greatness in that? So I’m happy to teach but I’m also so hungry to learn. I continue to learn new things every day. I’ve become so terribly aware of so much of my own naivety in the last couple of years that it’s shocking. I’m shocked that I didn’t recognize, for example, the extreme racism that’s going on all around me. I didn’t recognize it! And it took some amazing women who could have eviscerated me and instead educated me, and I’m very grateful to them for that.

Do you have conversations about these issues with the guys in the band?

We haven’t talked much about this, but then again I haven’t seen them much lately. I talk about this kind of thing with everyone. I think it’s on everybody’s lips, to be honest. Everyone with a brain is pretty shocked at the absolute tidal wave of testimonies about sexual assault we’re hearing. When you hear that one in three women and one in seven men are experiencing some kind of sexual assault during their life — that is outrageous, and it has to come to an end. It has to fucking stop.

I was sexually assaulted last year, and it took me nine months before I told anyone about it ― and finally wrote a piece about my experience ― but I wouldn’t have done that without having been inspired by the women of the #MeToo movement.

I read your piece about your assault, and I want to offer my condolences and applaud you for speaking out. And I think it’s wonderful that so many people are speaking out — the #MeToo movement in particular has really resonated with me, and I have found it really powerful watching people find their voice because of it, and I think that helps them heal ― but I can’t help but wonder where do we go now? There has to be action behind this movement because the statistics are shocking and unacceptable. But I don’t know exactly what that action is. I think it goes back to how we educate our children. How do we educate our girls to take up more space and to find their voices? And how do we teach little boys that they don’t get to touch whatever they want?

You’re right. We have to deal with the underlying fundamental problem with how we understand what it means to be a man or a woman — and the consequences of that understanding. Until we can address that, it’s just going to keep replicating itself in one generation after the next.

I will say that taking the stigma out of speaking up is a massive step in the right direction. With an entire generation that has watched what’s going on, they hopefully won’t make the same mistakes as my generation, which was very ashamed to speak up and say what happened to them. And that brings us back to someone like Fiona Apple, who, along with Tori [Amos], were some of the first major artists I can think of who spoke up with great courage at a time when they didn’t enjoy any sort of sisterhood from anybody.

It was a different world 20 years ago. It was a different world one year ago. It was also just a year ago that Donald Trump became president of the United States. You haven’t been shy with your feelings about him in the past. How do you feel about him today?

I’ve actually made a decision that I’m not even going to talk about him anymore. I’m not going to give my power away to that person, someone who fuels such intolerance and hatred and is only obsessed with putting money into the pockets of people who are already rich. I can’t spend another minute of my life giving any energy to him.

I think that’s actually admirable — and really healthy. Speaking of healthy, I’m obsessed with the fact that if your fans do something that pisses you off, you tell them exactly what you’re thinking. I can’t think of any other artists who would say “blow me” or “fuck off” to their fans ― I love it. Is that something that just happens in the heat of the moment? Do you ever think, “Maybe I shouldn’t have reacted that way?” Or are you just like, “Fuck it! This is how I feel!”

I’m not going to be policed by anybody just because they spent some money on a CD. I didn’t force them to buy that CD. They bought it of their own free will. And just because you buy our music or stream us on fucking Spotify doesn’t mean you own even one iota of me and my thoughts. I didn’t let my parents boss me around, I’m certainly not going to let a stranger boss me around [laughs].

Talk to me a bit about your thoughts on the passing of Dolores O’Riordan. I saw that when she died last month, you offered your condolences on your social media channels. Did you know her? Were you friends?

I didn’t know her, and I never had the pleasure of meeting her, but we were always like ships passing in the night: We were often on the same bills or at the same festival but on different nights. I know we shared a lot of our fans who loved both bands. When “Linger” was at the height of its popularity, we were making our first record, so I have very strong memories of her, and I loved her voice. I think what hit me the most when I heard the news about her passing was that it really shook me because I thought, Oh, they’re coming for my generation now. This is it. When Bowie died, I was really shaken by that too, because he was the first male rock star that I fell in love with or that I was ever really obsessed with and who had a big influence on my music and my style. So it was a big loss for me when he left, and I remember when he died I thought, Our generation is next. But when Dolores died, I thought, I was right. Here we go. It’s frightening, you know?

So it has you thinking about your own mortality?

Of course! Of course it does! I’m like, I can’t believe I’ve come to this point so quickly. One minute you’re young and you’re the hot new thing and everybody is talking about you, and then all of sudden our generation is dying off. Holy fuck!

Garbage recently contributed a cover of “Starman” to Howard Stern’s forthcoming tribute to David Bowie, which will premiere Friday. For more from Shirley Manson and Garbage, visit the band’s official website, follow them on Twitter and check out their Facebook page.