Computer metaphors are nothing new in pop. In a lineage from Lothar and the Hand People, through Kraftwerk, past Ultravox, and up to Girls Against Boys, mortals have fantasized about thinking machines, even envied their design, knowledge, speed, imperturbability, divinity. Pop music is the antithesis of history; it studies the future. Most of us imagine only quietly desperate futures–these zits clear up, that check arrives, the Red Sox sweep the World Series. Untrammeled hopes–I’ll rule the world and be adored for it–sound like delusions unless they’re framed as art. Our longing for power and transcendence leads to machine envy; no wonder autonomy and automaton come from the same Greek root.
In naming their second album Version 2.0, Garbage redirect the computer metaphor, from hardware to software, and like most metaphors, it means more than it intends. Yes, programmers are the pop stars of digital culture, CD-ROM smashes like Myst and Doom offer the skyrocket thrills and enduring playability of a 45, and top designers are treated like R.E.M. in Wired. But unlike hardware, software is also eminently Pop, as Richard Hamilton described it–cheap, gimmicky, glamorous, disposable, with a deliberately short shelf life, like the million giveaway AOL discs that have ended up as, right, landfill Garbage.
It took them nearly a year to make Version 2.0, to pull on notes like taffy, stretch tone as though on a rack, and create a familiar but synthetic island, something like the one in Myst. Extrapolating from My Bloody Valentine’s fervor for electronic mutation, Garbage is the enthusiastic retort to Radiohead’s technophobiaphilic shiver; natural’s not in these tracks. Except for Shirley Manson, who’s a thoroughgoing natural, and I don’t mean her red hair.
A bit of history: All four members of Garbage had been in bands before, with little distinction. The biggest track to emerge from any of their efforts, the heroic Scottish pop of Goodbye Mr. Mackenzie’s “The Rattler,” used Manson only for backing vocals. If you were dreaming up a supergroup, you sure wouldn’t think to match the singer in Angelfish (faux U2), the guitarist in Fire Town (heartland strum), the drummer in Spooner (who noticed?), and the goddamn soundman in Spooner. But meet, respectively, Manson, 31, Duke Erikson, 47, Butch Vig, 40, and Steve Marker, 37. Yep, kids, one part of America’s top-selling electronic act is the same age as Noddy Holder, Janis Ian, and Ace Frehley.
According to a Garbage Web site, before the three guys invited Manson to Wisconsin for an audition, they christened themselves Rectal Drip and recorded 10 songs, each shorter than a minute, which is the kind of it-was-funny- at-2-a.m. idea even Ween would know to discard. Along the way, it’s now evident, all that trial and error taught them technique. But if craft alone was compelling, MTV would show needle-point seminars instead of Real World marathons. What elevates software is drama, emotion, conflict, the smell of flesh. Shirley Manson understood this.
As in rap, the pop field where lyrics are most clearly advertisements for a persona, she became desired by acting desirable, offering to “feed your obsessions” (in “Queer”) before anyone was so much as interested in her. “You will remember me,” she’d asserted in one forgettable Angelfish song, and in another had vowed to eliminate sorrow, “when I’m king of the world.” Not bashful about her delusions, this Manson. In Garbage, she discards imagery and metaphor for declarative sentences, so devoted to the I/you construct she may as well be Martin Buber. “I am…” repeats throughout Version 2.0, and in her cool chrome voice, Manson declares herself to be: a bonfire, a vampire, a demon, an addict, a lunatic, pregnant, angry, not like the other girls, complicated, and “mental.” She nearly distills songwriting to its exhibitionist essence.
Manson keeps declaring herself to be a danger muffin, enticing but menacing. “I won’t fake it like the other girls,” she pledges (threatens?) in “You Look So Fine,” the closing, dreamtime ballad. Authenticity seems as dear to her as black mascara–the theme also arose in “Stupid Girl”‘s sharp sneer (“I can’t be-LIEVE you fake it”) and in Angelfish’s “Tomorrow Forever” (“I can’t fake it”)–so maybe her posing feels as natural as it seems. In the gloriously dewy “Special,” she taunts, “Do you have an opinion?/A mind of your own?”–rhetorical questions on her way out the door. She models modern-femininity roles like so many photo-shoot shoes. With references to codependency, paranoia, abusive relationships, and self-esteem, it’s as though she’s drawing her themes right from the ether, or from Mademoiselle quizzes. On “Medication,” this album’s more nihilistic version of “Only Happy When It Rains,” she sings of taking pills to level her moods. All she is saying is give Paxil a chance.
When I chronicled the resumes of the Garbagemen, I left out Butch Vig’s production work for Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, and Nine Inch Nails. There, it’s now evident, Vig learned to keep the singer spotlit: the samples and loops on Version 2.0 are spectacular, but whether it’s a string section that’s like Natalie Imbruglia’s lips, or a drum-machine fill that’s like Usher’s abs, all the elements are structured as sensibly as Motown bass lines. Although there are eccentricities in this pitch-blend funhouse–silence is the only loud dynamic in electronic music, so themes and even beats constantly disappear like Mafia witnesses–the machines never stage an uprising.
Meanwhile, on top of her mastery of glamour and gimmickry, Manson’s ability to write shapely melodies has bloomed amazingly since Angelfish–the first five tracks could all be singles–and she bolsters the songs further by borrowing or paraphrasing other melodies as though she’s recycling garbage. (The American Breed in “I Think I’m Paranoid,” the Pretenders in “Special,” Romeo Void in “Sleep Together,” and the Beach Boys in “Push It,” the only appropriation listed as a sample in the publishing credits.) If Garbage were honest, they’d call this Version 1.1 instead of Version 2.0, because it’s a better rendition of the first record, a classic upgrade rather than a dramatic reinvention. But software companies routinely bait consumers with misleading nomenclatures, too.
Given the similarities between records one and two, you can either say that Manson has a limited worldview or a consistency of vision. She’s like a Brill Building lyricist, except instead of two genders, she has sadists and masochists. In her binary scheme, there’s only dominance or submission, so on Version 2.0, she’s usually either hurting someone or getting hurt. In the latter mode, she proffers sullen high school yearbook adages like “I say never trust anyone,” “Nobody gives a damn about me or anybody else,” and “No one’s ever what they seem.” When adults regress into unimpeded emotion, their moods are like those of adolescents aspiring to maturity–Manson is the crossing guard at this intersection, and she nearly makes her role explicit as she fantasizes about stability and revenge in “When I Grow Up.” But that intersection is also another possible definition of cyberspace, a spot where adults pose as randy kids, and kids surf for adult material. And it explains how Garbage, a band with a median age that’s probably twice that of Marcy Playground, can program youth culture so persuasively.