Rocker Shirley Manson On Celebrity Culture, Feminism, & How Punk Rock Gets Better With Age


For many of us 90’s kids, hers was the voice that defined a generation of alternative/grunge music fans in a feminist way. Garbage singer Shirley Manson never played by the rules: she didn’t smile in photos, she died her hair obscenely bright colors (and still does!) and could hold her own against any of the men in the business. Fame didn’t change her, and in fact it was the music industry itself that evolved, dissolved and eventually faded into the background, while she and her bandmates regrouped and have released their new album on their own label. It doesn’t get more punk rock than that!

They have released a new album called ‘Strange Little Birds’, and the first single off that is ‘Empty’. And if you are expecting to be disappointed with the new tracks, don’t be, because the sound is not too far of a departure from the Garbage heyday with hits like ‘Only Happy When It Rains’, ‘When I Grow Up’ and ‘Paranoid’.

While the male members of the band are ridiculously talented musicians in their own right (most people are familiar with Butch Vig who is legendary for producing some of Nirvana’s most iconic hits), Shirley’s striking stare and forceful presence was always the draw card for Garbage. She has been speaking to the media to promote the new music and their tour, but also took the time to reflect on her own personal evolution as an artist and a woman.

She told the Herald Sun in Australia that her own rebellion was not just an act for the stage, it was a long-cultivated survival tool that dates back to her childhood growing up in Scotland. She was the middle child of three girls, she felt pressure in ways her siblings did not, and that was the start of the demons she would battle as a young woman. This struggle would become one of the signature themes of many of Garbage’s tracks in the future.


“I have always felt thwarted by the conventional expectations that are put upon women, so I’ve always wanted to rebel against that naturally. I have struggled with my self-worth, ironically, my entire life. Even though I was raised by a very powerful woman who taught me that I was of value. She tried to imbue all her children with self-worth, always pushing us to demand equality, and to believe that I was equal to my male counterparts,” she said

Her mother, a big band singer and geneticist, would become a silent driving force propelling Shirley forward in life, proving that the messages you give your children with from a young age can have a major influence on the rest of their lives.

“I’ve experienced all these negative feelings, but because of my mother, I would push back. I had a voice in my head that said, ‘What you’re feeling about yourself, you must go to war with. You must fight’,” she recalls.

At the age of 49, her perspective on being a woman in the music industry may be bleak somewhat (we’ll get to that in a minute), but as for being a middle-aged woman in the world, she says it has given her a whole new appreciation punk rock.

“The weird thing about getting older is that you look back at your life and it’s a marvel how you move from a baby in the womb to a fully empowered woman…you wake up one day and feel in possession of yourself. I think that’s why, when you meet geriatrics, they’re so bad-ass and punk rock — because they get to the point where they stop giving a s***. That is true rebellion. You stop thinking about what other people are thinking. You can just be your own messy, flawed self,” she said.


It’s something we hear a lot from celebrities who have been in the public eye for the majority of their adult years – it only gets better with age. Sadly, it seems we have not really progressed as a society in this area.

“A particularly worrisome trend is this obsession with appearing young. I’m realistic enough to understand that it’s impossible to fake youth. Youth belongs to the young. That’s their power. That’s for them and them alone. I think whenever adults try to steal youthful power, it always ends up feeling a little strange,” she said, before admitting she does bleach her teeth and dye her hair, so she is not judging those who feel the pressure to alter their appearance. But she does have a limit.

“I just know that I am a hypersensitive person and if I indulge in something that would require constant maintenance to cheat the clock, it would have psychological repercussions that may end up being more detrimental to my well-being and my happiness than a wrinkle or two,” she added.

When it comes to the current state of women in music, she is equally impressed with the incredible level of talent as she is frustrated with the continued sexism that prevails behind the scenes.

“We have seen the rise of these enormous stars such as Beyoncé and Rihanna, and they’re all wonderful, incredibly talented and empowered, no doubt about it. But there is still such a minority of female writers and producers and engineers,” she said.


In an interview with the Standard in the UK in 2015, she expressed similar disappointment in this regard.

“The pop world is dominated by women but when a woman has the ‘audacity’ to presume that she’s a musician and a writer and a producer, then people start to want to squash that ambition. Deep down there’s a feeling of, ‘How dare you think you can play this game with us’. I really believe that. There’s resentment, fear and disdain. As females we are still encouraged to believe that we aren’t as good as our male counterparts from a very young age,” she said, sounding a lot like the girl who was brought up to challenge these sexist norms from her mother.

“I think women find it more challenging to really believe that they’re artists and I think they struggle to believe that they have something to offer the music community that isn’t as valuable, legitimate, or already achieved by men. I would have loved to have had someone reach out and say, ‘Listen, I can help you out here,’ so I like to provide that,” she told the Herald Sun about mentoring artists like Sky Ferreira, an act which she says fills any maternal void she may have had from choosing not to have any children of her own.

The other problem she has is the way the music industry continues to use female superstars to “sell” an idea of fame and fortune to young girls in a way that is less empowering, and more commodified.

“What worries me is, these stars create illusions that are impossible to achieve in normal life. They look like supermodels; they’re incredibly young, wealthy, successful. I feel like a lot of young women try to emulate them to their detriment, because they’re really focusing on the surface of that reality,” she said.


Her idea of what a truly empowered image of female stars in the public eye would look like is vastly different to what we see today, but we’d happily trade it for the Shirley Manson version:

“We’re taught prettiness is the highest currency. Look at Vogue magazine; they put Kim Kardashian on the cover. That is a ­devastating message to send to 99.9% of women around the world. I don’t mean to be disrespectful to her, but why aren’t scientists on the cover? Or a novelist? Or other women who are achieving great things in the world?” she said in an interview with

Clearly her feminism has not been diminished in any way by the fast-changing pop culture and music scene, if anything it has become more acutely aware of how much we still have to fight for in terms of equal rights.

“Unfortunately, I also see a real step back in global human and women’s rights. I really feel that the rights my generation thought we had secured have reverted back to a pre-war, anti-feminist climate, and that really worries me,” she said. While much progress has certainly been made, the state of women’s reproductive rights in the US alone should be cause for anyone who wants to see the next generation of women and girls grow up in a world where the idea of being a “rebel without a cause” can be a reality, because equality has finally been achieved.

Thankfully we have badass women like Shirley Manson who can use their artistry as a vehicle for their passion to empower women in the world. Take a look at the music video for ‘Empty’ below:

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  1. Pingback: Artist Shirley Manson On The Erosion Of Women's Rights & The Irrelevance Of Aspiring To Be Pretty - GirlTalkHQ

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